&: Reading Cao Zhenglu / What is New Left literature? / An excerpt from There

(a translation of Cao Zhenglu, some notes on working class and leftist literature)

I'm going to try to get to a larger point about political novels and leftist literature in China, but it's going to take a minute.

I always talk about the experience of arriving in China in the mid-2000s, when times were good and there was nowhere else to go because Europe was culturally moribund, Japan definitely wasn't interesting, and most of the rest of the world was closed to Westerners. For most of the people that went, if they weren't on an exchange with a prestigious school or working for a multinational corporation, they likely ended up living somewhere that reminded them of home: a deindustrialized shithole where close to everyone their own age would have jumped at the chance to relocate to some nearby metropolis, even though they had no fantasies about really settling down there but figured they might be able to make something of themselves and return home... You had flyover state Americans parlaying degrees they’d be paying off for decades into six thousand renminbi with a free apartment in Jinzhou.

That’s the situation I was in when I arrived in China. I was living in a suburb of a city in Jiangsu and my friends there were going to shitty colleges, like the Whateverzhou College of Aeronautics and Animal Husbandry, without much hope of doing anything but going to work in Nanjing. One of the neighborhood success stories was a young woman that had gone to Dubai and ended up marrying a guy that had made some money in a restaurant over there... So, you start looking around—or, I did at least—trying to figure out why things are the way they are. The story I had been told was that most young people were so much better off than their parents that the gulf between them and the truly wealthy was unimportant, and that development was still rolling out, and I was just too far from the center to be seeing much of it.

Chinese literature was often my window into Chinese history and culture, but when I read what had been written after the 1970s, there wasn’t much in it to explain what I was seeing. This is a generalization, but the two main flows of literary fiction in China, for most of the past few decades were: first, rural literature with a focus on either the native place as an alternative to the nationalistic narrative or with a focus on native place to metonymize the nation, and then neorealist fiction written by urban elites. I have some problems with C. T. Hsia but there is something to the idea of an “obsession with China” (he was talking about how Chinese writers are unwilling or unable to penetrate into the depths of the soul and dig up some universal human suffering, and instead get mired in recounting Chinese impotence, etc. etc.), even if I’m about to apply it incorrectly. Hsia wrote off all leftist literature or decided that the books he liked weren’t leftist, but there is something universal and human in a lot of what was written in China under the influence of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, I think, and when that lens was taken away, work that was critical of the prevailing social order or whatever had to be written as a particularly Chinese story. Like, so, if you write a book about, say, migrant workers in Shenzhen, you’re stuck, without any theoretical framework, writing it as a particularly Chinese story, or at least a story disconnected from history and the rest of the world.

That’s probably something I need to develop further to have anyone understand what I’m talking about. I can't say Chinese fiction written after 1979 is apolitical because nothing is apolitical or stripped of ideology, but often, I think, an attempt at being apolitical or unideological. The social novel doesn't really exist in contemporary Chinese literature. That's ironic, since one of the reasons people outside of China read or recommended Chinese fiction in translation is for its supposed ability to explain China! Talking about Yan Lianke 阎连科 or Yu Hua 余华, pulling two examples at random, the reviews often stress what their books say about contemporary China. I could spend a while picking through reviews of Yu and Yan (or whoever else) to make the point, but let me be brief, because you know what I mean: Yu Hua gives us a "portrait of the country's transformation from political thuggery to money worship" in Brothers, according to a review in the Guardian by Julia Lovell, who, in fact, faults Yu Hua for not offering a better explanation of the history he's recounting, and a review in the , that says Brothers is "capturing the strangeness of modern China."

In a review of Yan Lianke's The Day the Sun Died by Isabel Hilton: "[Yan] insists that he writes about life rather than politics, but his work is deeply entwined with China’s tortuous politics – its absurdity, hypocrisy, corruption and the suffering it causes." Why do you have to argue with the man? If you want to read Yan Lianke's work as simply records of the horrors of communism and, as Hilton puts it, the country's "moral degradation," go right ahead, but you're missing out on what makes them special. As C.T. Hsia would have preferred, Yan and Yu are going for something more universal.

The Cultural Revolution novel, or scenes of the Cultural Revolution that pop up in all these books—what do they really say about the Cultural Revolution? I'm not saying they need a "take" on it, but for all the talk of these major historical events in Chinese literature, I think the reader could be left wonder: Wait, why did this happen? You can take a hundred novels at random, written in Chinese since 1980 or so, and most of them will contain a scene of suffering or hardship during the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward or the civil war, and often, close to the end, there will be a scene of the protagonist—or their friends and family—suddenly getting rich, which means Reform and Opening has come. I’m thinking of Dong Xi’s Record of Regret because I translated it and I have a copy right beside me:
You know, nowadays there are a million things to do to kill time. We didn’t have TV, and of course we didn’t have the internet. The streets were pretty empty because there was nowhere to go: the tea houses had all been shut down, and there weren’t any coffee shops like there are now. You can forget about dance halls. And don’t even think about asking about saunas or massage joints. Basically, we went to school and we went to the struggle sessions, where they’d criticize class enemies or just common criminals. Sometimes our teachers would organize us to sing the Communist Party anthems that were popular back then. There wasn’t a lot going on. Even our school was a lot different from the schools kids go to now. We didn’t learn much, I’m saying.
Eventually, our protagonist gets wealthy. “Things had changed,” he recounts. “It was the 1980s. Even old Wang Zhiqi at the factory had started buying his girls popsicles and lipstick.”

There was a Cultural Revolution and then everyone got wealthy and there is no need to explain further. And some of that is down to restrictions on political content, and maybe also a lack of understanding of what went on, even if you lived through it… Even Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong, a deadly serious book about the excesses of ultra-leftism and the importance and rightness of market reforms comes down to basically the power of the individual's profit motive. When Chinese writers talk about social problems, the problem is always one of human nature.

I think there are various reasons for the ideologically disconnected vibe of contemporary Chinese fiction, but perhaps I could throw out: an allergy to the idea that literature serve politics, a reaction against years of socialist realism, self-censorship, a general individualistic and elitist bent with writers born after the '70s and '80s...

Cao Zhenglu’s 曹征路 2011 novel, Democracy Classes《民主课》is an interesting aberration. (A Lesson on Democracy as the official translation has it—this is not an English edition, but the publisher must have liked the idea of putting a great big English title on it, but title translations on Chinese books are never something to stand by.) It's a reappraisal of the Cultural Revolution that focuses on the decadence, corruption, and ideological failures of the leadership, rather than the Red Guard and other grassroots activists, who are presented as fairly chill and bookish, or at least justified. It's no mystery why Cao was unable to find a Mainland publisher, and had to go to Taiwan to find anyone willing to talk to him! But, more importantly, the book is about a potential solution to political change in contemporary China, where the Party and new economy millionaires and billionaires are either colluding or locked in a struggle for power or both, and the vast majority of people are completely shut out of the political process. The protagonist of Democracy Classes is a young Red Guard named Xiao Ming:
Like all other practitioners of the Mao cult, Xiao Ming cites the quotations, shouts slogans, attacks the administration, and writes a diary. Yet in addition to reading Mao's texts, she also reads Marxist volumes, such as Engels' Gotha Program. Aspiring to emulate the Paris Commune, an exemplar of spontaneous mass social movements, she thinks deeply about issues of popular democracy and has constant discussions with her associates and friends, raising and trying to deal with questions of capitalism and socialism and the plight of the ordinary people.
It recalls the mass campaign that exhorted people to exercise their democratic rights to speak out and rebel, to critique and to protest, and to publicize their views... The class on democracy also reveals a thoughtful, educational process based on reading, studying, and discussing. A telling episode toward the end of the novel sums up this lesson. Reflecting on her experience in the Cultural Revolution as minzhu, Xiao Ming realized that minzhu literally means that people are masters of their own fate and should participate in the business of shaping their own affairs. Rather than being passively guided by the Little Red Book, political participation is one of the discursive practice: active study, discussion, and argument in seeking the truth. ... In a dialogue with a friend with rigid belief in Mao's words, Xiao Ming says that she had a revelation: any one of Mao's statements about the revolution can be contradicted by another. (This is from Ban Wang's chapter in Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History, "In the beginning is the word: popular democracy and Mao's Little Red Book.")
Cao Zhenglu has much to say about what the Cultural Revolution really meant, saying explicitly that “those who castigate the Cultural Revolution have muddled reality, hidden the historical process, and misled the youth of today.” But it is a way to talk about modern problems:
After I experienced capitalism, and understood the political, economic, and cultural logic of capitalism, my feelings on this issue began to change. I began to reconsider mass struggle, a tactic that we had abandoned as something worthless. But this is the very thing that ordinary people often talk about: What would happen if another Cultural Revolution occurred? Democracy is something that the intellectual elite hunger for, but democracy is also something that the workers and peasants desire, however the content of the concept varies among the two groups. The elite want constitutionalism, in other words the rights of the minority to be heard. Workers and peasants desire equality, the right for the majority to be heard. In this way it is correct to understand the Cultural Revolution as “lessons in democracy.” There was no teacher in this class, we learned from each other, we liberated each other, and then chose which path we took. As to people that explain the Cultural Revolution as a power struggle and demonize China’s leaders ... their arguments are so weak they do not require a rebuttal. (This is from an interview of Cao Zhenglu conducted by Yan Hairong: Rethinking Is Not Demonizing: A Conversation with Cao Zhenglu About His Novel Lessons in Democracy.)

Cao Zhenglu had a career as a writer and academic, and he has published work in any outlet worth publishing in, starting in the 1980s after leaving a post as the head of a municipal writers' association in Anhui, but he got a creative second wind after falling in with a loose community of leftist writers that formed around Left Bank Culture Net 左岸文化网 in the early-2000s. Left Bank was a product of its times, formed in the wake of other online left spaces like like Huayue Forum 华岳论坛, Maoflag 毛泽东旗帜, and even Utopia 乌有之乡 (Jude Blanchette's China's New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong is a good guide to how the online New Left and neo-Maoists got started, and I can't recommend enough the deep and informative and sometimes quite moving "Swimming Against the Tide: Tracing and Locating Chinese Leftism Online" by Andy Yinan Hu, who apparently took his MA from SFU and joined the China Daily). Like many of the contributors there (the average age of the online New Left agitators tended to be older, generally, I think, and it even included a fair number of retired cadres), Cao had gotten his start as a culture worker long before Reform and Opening got rolling. Left Bank was home to explicitly political work, often harsh ethnographic realism with a leftist message.

I like the label “New Left literature” 新左派文学 for what Cao Zhenglu was attempting.

Here, I have to insert some explanation of what the New Left was. And I'm going to loop back to the start of this essay—trying to figure out what the hell I was seeing, arriving in some godforsaken corner of China, a quarter century or so on from Reform and Opening, making friends with kids that grew up in workers' dormitories and now know that they won't amount to shit unless their parents can buy them an apartment. I had not received any heterodox opinions of Chinese economics and politics apart from the from Trotskyite pamphlets I read that called China a "deformed workers' state." I was hesitant to apply a Marxist lens to the situation, even though I was red enough to be reading Trotskyite pamphlets. My politics at the time were colored by an juvenile passion for critical theory, post-structuralism, Trotskyite shit, Žižek, etc. etc.

I was not yet aware of a Chinese New Left, which represents various tendencies but is said to be a "new" left because it rejects some or most aspects of existing leftist thought in China but is critical of liberal democracy, and it is influenced by global Marxists and critical theorists that didn’t fit neatly into Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. The New Left is mostly dead, but it's often now associated with neo-Maoists like, say, Fan Jinggang 范景刚 (I think talking about other online leftists spaces like Huayue and Maoflag was misleading, since neo-Maoists and the New Left should probably be seen as two different things), and perhaps Wang Hui's 汪晖 name still has some recognition, as does Ban Wang, who I have already referenced in this essay. Most New Left academics have jumped ship for foreign universities, retired, or keep their mouths shut.

But, more importantly, and returning to Cao Zhenglu, what what is—or what was—New Left literature? (And is it any more dead or alive than the New Left? No, it's dead, too.)

Here's Jie Lu, in the essay—"Constructing Agency: Challenges and Possibilities in Chinese New Left Literature"—that follows Xueping Zhong's in China and New Left Visions (I will make reference to this later):
He Yanhong, one of the leading advocates for New Left literature, believes that it already constitutes the Chinese literary mainstream of the twenty-first century, that it embodies New Left spirit and thinking. According to He, this spirit is a "fighting spirit" that Chinese intellectuals conjure to confront reality and their times. Most critics, including He Yanhong, find that New Left literature has returned to the realistic tradition of social engagement and social criticism. Others find a more radical tendency and link these writings with proletarian revolutionary literature. According to Liu Jiming, this tradition includes "left literature," "socialist literature," and "people’s literature" and focuses on social equality, as well as fighting against class exploitation and oppression. In linking New Left and proletarian revolutionary literature, such critics strategically place the New Left in binary opposition to other "nonrevolutionary" literary and intellectual trends. Thus New Left literature is critical not only of social ills but also of previous Chinese intellectual and literary developments.
Zhu Dongli asserts, "Our generation has been under the shadow of previous generations throughout the 1980s: criticizing Chinese history, rejecting modern Chinese revolution including the leftist tradition of anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism, questioning state, nation, collective identity, aspiring to western politics, economic mode, science, language, culture and academic thinking. The intellectual paradigm, values and aesthetics of the 1980s, to be frank, are, to quite some extent, shamelessly anti-people and colonized by the west." In commenting on Mo Yan’s, Yu Hua’s, and Yan Geling’s recent works ... Liu Jiming criticizes them as following the patterns of "scar literature" and defining the Chinese socialist practices achieved by several generations as "preposterously good-and-evil sentimental tragedy." These authors hope to demonstrate the surprising intellectual and imaginative poverty of Chinese writers and lack of independence of Chinese intellectuals. Kuang Xinnian sees a "philosophy of ignoble existence" promoted by the neorealist fiction of the 1990s as represented by Yu Hua, Liu Zhengyun, Chi Li, and Liu Heng. In their militant discourse, their total denial of all previous literary achievements, and their lack of dialogic thinking, they fail to contextualize past literary trends and to see important continuities and discontinuities between New Left literature and revolutionary literature of socialist and critical realisms, neorealism, and modernism. (My emphasis here.)
Cao Zhenglu's work doesn't only report from the trenches but contains a theoretical statement on the "political, economic, and social problems created by privatization, marketization, developmentalism, and globalization" or a focus on social injustice, inequality, social stratification, exploitation, agricultural problems, the loss of state assets, the lack of political participation, the widening divide between the city and countryside, and environmental issues."

Cao is associated with diceng wenxue 低层文学 ("subaltern literature" is a popular translation, which I'm not satisfied with, but I can't think of a solid alternative) and his work is often lumped in together with works I Am a Floating Flower《我是一朵飘零的花》by Fang Yiluo 房忆萝, Northern Girls《北妹 》by Sheng Keyi 盛可以, and Mudfish《泥鳅》by You Fengwei 尤凤伟, but that theoretical statement is what separates him from those authors (my love for the books listed in the sentence is well known, though). (But how can I say that there are no social novels in China? Well, okay, they are few and far between! And I'm not sure all of these even count. Take Northern Girls for example. Is that a social novel? Perhaps. Probably. But it seems like all of its conclusions are about human nature—everyone is essentially selfish and you better look out for yourself. That's simplifying things to make my point, and I like the book.)

His Asking Heaven《问苍茫》(and this is also sometimes translated as Asking the Boundless, which perhaps comes closest, since it follows the translation of the Mao Zedong poem that the title is borrowed from: "Brooding over this immensity, / I ask, on this boundless land / Who rules over man's destiny?" "怅寥廓,问苍茫大地,谁主沉浮?" ) is a good example of what sets Cao apart. It’s a book that opens with rural girls offering their virginity to visiting labor recruiters to land a job in distant Shenzhen, where they are put to work in a Taiwanese-owned factory, but goes on to use the girls’ experiences in the PRD to dissect Chinese postsocialism. As Wanning Sun puts it (comparing it to I Am a Floating Flower):
[Asking Heaven] gives the reader a much larger, more complex, and multidimensional narrative of the political, social, and moral landscape, against the background of south China's industrialization and the attendant process of capital accumulation. The novel aims for more historical depth and engages with a wide range of questions including capital-labor relations in the postsocialist Chinese factory regime, the social and environmental costs of industrialization, the process of accumulation by dispossession, and the political-moral status of the Chinese workers, who in socialist times were hailed as the most progressive forces in society. (This is from Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media, and Cultural Practices, and, again, my emphasis.)
I understand that the idea of New Left literature is revolting to most people, who are imagining something like an update of Great Changes in a Mountain Village《山乡巨变》but I want you to know Cao Zhenglu is better than that.

Cao Zhenglu's novella There《那儿》might be the most accessible—not too long, not too didactic—work. I was led to it by Xueping Zhong's "Internationale as Specter: Na’er, 'Subaltern Literature,' and Contemporary China’s 'Left Bank'" in China and New Left Visions: Political and Cultural Interventions (edited by Ban Wang and Jie Lu, 2012), and tracked down a copy on the website of a defunct neo-Maoist group. (Another definitely defunct Western leftist group once solicited translators to work on a crowdsourced rendering of it in English, but it seems like this effort came to nothing.)

There is the story of a disgraced union boss that fights to the end to save a state-owned factory. It sounds grim and it is, but it’s also funny and moving—and I’m always surprised when I remember Cao Zhenglu was already in his mid-fifties when it appeared in Dangdai《当代》in 2004, since Cao so perfectly captures the ironic, slacker tone of the narrator, which plays perfectly against a story of the collapse of an entire way of life.

There is no translation, unfortunately. So, that is what I'm going to do.

I want to say something about translating without permission from the author. I have asked authors and translators about this before. My conclusion was: it's probably not a big deal. Most of this stuff is circulating online in the original, already. Nobody is going to read this, anyways! But if pressed to justify it, I would say I try to follow these rules: make a sincere effort to secure permission, do an excerpt rather than the whole thing, translate work that is already more than a decade old, and try to focus on something that has a very, very slim chance of ever making it into translation in a more formal way, and offer some kind of explanation and apology. With Cao Zhenglu, I can say intellectual property is a bourgeois concept and I'm doing this for the people. But this translation is imperfect and never saw an editor (but a special thank you to Angus Stewart for rooting out typos), and is presented here to hopefully stoke the reader's interest in Cao Zhenglu and push them to hunt down some of his work in the original... I've taken a free hand with it and snipped out lengthy descriptions of industrial processes and made a few other cuts.

There (excerpt)

It started out simply enough.

It was around two in the morning. Du Yuemei, one of the sentries that patrolled under the neon lights of New Workers' Village was walking over to a public faucet, when a dog jumped at her out of nowhere. "Good Lord!" she yelped. The dog turned and looked at her, barked a couple times, then trotted off toward East Workers' Village. It didn't seem like much, but those two barks left Du Yuemei petrified with fear. She tried to stand up, then gave up and started crawling home. She didn't want anyone to see her. But the ground around the faucet was slick with ice and she couldn't manage to get her feet under her. She was forced to call for help. Lights went on in the rooms that overlooked the narrow road. A small crowd quickly formed around Du Yuemei. They helped her to her feet, a few of them grumbling that she'd pissed herself. "What are you doing out here in a skirt, anyways?" one of them asked. "You're gonna freeze to death."

Du Yuemei was one of the women in the neighborhood that appeared every morning at six or seven, pushing a cart with bags of bread and cakes and bottles of yogurt and tea. She wore a crisp white jacket and covered her face with a surgical mask. She'd go up and down the street, yelling, "I got hot milk tea! Hot milk tea here!" But when the sun went down, she changed into skimpy clothes, slapped on a layer of makeup, and reported for duty under the neon lights. When she saw a mark approaching, she'd call to them, "You want your hair washed? How about a massage?" It wasn't something she did everyday, just when she needed money. She had no choice. She couldn't afford not to.

A few of the neighbors carried Du Yuemei home and when they switched on the light in her room, they saw the mascara running down her heavily-rouged cheeks. They knew exactly what she had been doing out there under those neon lights. The men sighed and left but a few older women stayed behind. They wiped away her tears. She turned away from them and pounded on the bed, sobbing, "My little Gaigai is getting surgery the day after tomorrow. I've got to figure out how to pay for it. I don't have anybody else. I've got to..."

So, that's how it started. One small problem that grew into something bigger. But nobody realized that then.

Everyone called the New Workers' Village the New Workers' Village but it wasn't actually new. There was a strip of workers' dormitories that ran along the bottom of a hill, and the dormitories on the east side were called East Workers' Village and the dormitories on the west side were called West Workers' Village, so nobody was sure what to call the dormitories in the middle—they settled on New Workers' Village, though, for no particular reason. Most of the people that lived in the dormitories worked in a mining machinery factory. They all knew each other, pretty much, and the morning after Du Yuemei was found by the faucet, everyone was going around talking about what had happened and cursing the "goddamn vicious dog."

A place like that is bound to have its share of arguments and petty disputes. Nobody made much of them. Life doesn't get any better, right? At the end of the day, the only ones to blame were the bosses running the factory. By the late afternoon, everyone knew what had happened with the dog and Du Yuemei. One man in particular wanted to solve the problem for good. That was my uncle, who lived over in East Workers' Village. He was the chairman of the union, which wasn't doing much then, but he still counted as one of the bosses (all the other bosses had moved out of the dormitories long before, but he'd stuck around), and he knew that the guilty party lived in his own house—it was his daughter's dog, Rotti. He knew he had to act, before things got out of hand.

We'll never know what he was really thinking, but that night, while Yueyue was distracted by a Korean soap opera, he made his move. He waited until Yueyue was caught up in a particularly heartbreaking scene, then looped a rope around the dog's neck and stuffed him into a big plastic sack. He took the dog over to West Workers' Village and dropped him at the home of a guy named Ding, who had his own rig. He gave Ding orders to drive Rotti a hundred miles west and drop him off.

He spent the next few days after that night in a daze. He could stand in the doorway for hours at a time, staring glassy-eyed at the factory. If someone called him to come and eat, he'd go and eat a few mouthfuls, but if nobody called him, he'd just stay there, staring silently out the door. What was there to look at, anyways? Weeds and hunks of iron? Was he watching the sun go down? It pissed his wife off, that's for sure. She was sick of dealing with him.

Rotti was actually a really good dog. It wasn't fair to make him the scapegoat.

Yueyue came crying to me a couple times. "Why did he have to do that to our Rotti?" she sobbed.

She was my cousin. If she'd been born in a different time and place, she'd probably have wound up as a CEO, but she had grown up in a workers' dormitory and was lucky to run a shoestore on Jixian Road. She'd never done well at school, but when it came to business, she was sharp as hell. The Party liked to talk about developing advanced productive forces, and that's exactly what she was, for our family. But it didn't really matter how sharp she was or how many shoes she sold—she was just a girl and she had to defer to her father. All she could do was cry.

She'd had that dog since he was just a puppy. There were plenty of things that would forever be out of the reach of a girl like her, but maybe the dog was like a thumb placed on side of the karmic scale. He showed up out of nowhere one day, out in the road. As soon as he saw her, the dog wouldn't let her go. He chased after her, biting at her ankles. When she went inside, Rotti waited for her outside. He laid down right outside the front door and stared up at her. Yueyue gave him some water and some mantou. He went and bedded down in a shoe box. The dog grew bigger and more beautiful and her business flourished. How'd he get the name Rotti? Well, I suggested she call him Pavarotti. He was louder than any dogs in the neighborhood. He had pipes on him, just like the tenor. But she said she didn't want him to turn out looking like Pavarotti, so she shortened it to Rotti. Around the time he earned that name, some guy from a pet shop came around and tried to buy him. He offered a few thousand yuan, but Yueyue turned him down. He showed up back again a few days later and she told him to fuck off. The guy from the pet shop said: "This is a purebred German shepherd. It's a goddamn shame he's with people like you." Rotti started growling and barking at the pet shop owner. He chased him up the road and the guy ended up slipping as he rounded a corner. Rotti grew into canine adulthood and got a reputation around the neighborhood. He always looked like he was considering something profound. He had two light spots over his eyes, and they made him look even more serious. He was dignified. He was gentle as a lamb, too. He didn't go around barking at the other dogs in the neighborhood, but they all seemed to treat him with respect. He poured all his love into his master, young Yueyue. He didn't do anything without getting an order from her. If he spotted a morsel of food, he could ignore it until she said it was okay for him to eat, then he would stroll over slowly, take a few sniffs, eat what he wanted, then stroll back to her side. Jixian Road wasn't the nicest place in town, and even though Yueyue wasn't the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, she was tall and pale and dressed in the sort of way that made men think they could take liberties with her—until they saw the big dog crouched behind her. But what Rotti never expected was that he'd be tricked by Yueyue's father and tossed into a sack. As smart as Rotti was, he lacked the type of cunning which only men have.

It was also Rotti's bad luck that on the day of the incident at the public faucet, he had followed Yueyue to visit an old classmate. They went down by the lake, where there were a bunch of big houses. Rich people like dogs and Rotti had been spotted by a pretty little bitch with a nice coat. She stuck her ass in the air and waited, but Rotti stayed where he'd been told to stay. When Yueyue got back, they started walking back home, and Rotti followed her dutifully, but he couldn't help himself from glancing back at the female. He whimpered to his master a few times and finally she laughed and said: "I know what you're up to. Go ahead. Don't stay out too late." Rotti ran over to the female and they started going at it. He hadn't planned on spending as long as he did with the female, though. By the time he was done, it was already late. That's how he wound up coming upon Du Yuemei and scaring the piss out of her.

Really, though, it was my uncle that had gotten the scare of his life.

A few days after the dog went missing, the wind picked up and there was a bit of sleet. When the sun went down, a real storm rolled it, with heavy snow, the wind over the power lines roaring like a jet engine. The next morning, everything was calm and the snow had already melted. My uncle said: "Well, that's it." What the hell did he mean? I couldn't tell you. He could've been talking about the weather but maybe he wasn't talking about anything at all. He stood at the door for a while, and then he left.

Before leaving, he had spoken to my grandmother—his mother. "It's all melted," he said.

"Melted is good."

"It warmed up."

"Warmed up is good."

"Better for poor people when it's warm."

"Poor people is good."

"I want you to stay in bed, ma."

"Good, good."

Now, what did he mean by that? It was hard to agree with him that the snow melting was a good thing. With snow on the ground, everything was clean and smooth and it always made me feel clean and pure. But once the snow was melted, the streets were back to normal: wrecked with potholes and pits, garbage everywhere, busted shoes and scattered newspaper, impossible to take a single step without getting covered in mud... And what was the relationship between wealth and weather? Even poor people can curl up with a quilt. If you don't even have a quilt, I don't even know if that counts as simply being poor.

My mother called a little while later to let me know that my uncle had run off, but I was right in the middle of something. I was over at the newspaper and we'd just gotten a fax about how to deal with reporting on emergency situations, when suddenly someone rushed in to tell us that a migrant worker had climbed up on a roof and was threatening to jump. The police had sealed off the area.

My attention was focused on the show up on the roof, so I wasn't really listening to my mother. A couple people had gathered down below and we're yelling up at the poor bastard: "Jump! Get it over with! Asakura jumped, why the fuck can't you?" The police showed up and started deploying an air cushion. A news van from the local TV channel raced up, a reporter jumped out, shrugged off her jacket, and started delivering a report into the camera. The wind suddenly picked up and flipped up the reporter's skirt, revealing a pair of bright red wool leggings. The guy up on the ledge lost his nerve and backed down. I figured he hadn't really wanted to die in the first place. If you want to die, you jump long before the cops show up. I found out later the guy was trying to get three months' worth of wages that his boss had held out on him. It was only seven hundred yuan—that's not exactly worth dying over, and I guess he ended up coming to the same conclusion. The whole thing kind of pissed me off, though. What a tease. That's what we called a "suicide show." We knew the guy was never going to jump in the first place, he was just teasing.

My mother was still yelling into phone. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. She was angry at me, too. "We're in the middle of a crisis and you're sitting there like a mute. Your uncle's always been good to you. What the hell is wrong with you? There wasn't anything going on with him. Why would he just run off? Why wouldn't he call?" She was going off like a Kalashnikov. It wasn't meant to be a give-and-take. I don't know why she was pissed off at me for going silent while the guy was about to jump. I couldn't have gotten a word in, anyways. The way I saw it, if my uncle was going to leave home, he didn't want anybody going after him, so of course he didn't let anyone know or get in touch with them. My uncle wasn't anything like that guy up on the ledge. He wasn't a performer.

I heard my aunt wailing in the background: "Now do you believe me? Now you can see it—the corruption in his soul." My aunt was completely illiterate but she had learned stuff like that from TV dramas. It was like one of those scenes where the wife discovers that her husband is cheating on her. Now, whether or not my uncle and Du Yuemei had some kind of relationship, it was hard to say. Back when my uncle and Du Yuemei were still young, things like that went on. That was a strange time, after all. But, anyways, if there was still something between them, Du Yuemei wouldn't have been out working under the neon lights. Nowadays, plenty of laid off women make a living turning tricks. There's nothing strange about that. What was strange was my uncle running away from home.

Several days went by with no sign of my uncle.

My mother spent every night on the phone with my aunt. She wanted to get to the bottom of what had been going on with him. But my aunt couldn't be shaken from her conviction. She thought she knew exactly what had happened: "It's because of Rotti! Rotti bit that fuckin' whore. He's in love with her!"

My mother lost it on her. "What the hell are you talking about? Don't go shooting your mouth off now."

Times had changed. Plenty of people had been laid off. Even if they hadn't been laid off themselves, they knew people that had been laid off, and they probably knew women that had to make a living under the neon lights. Calling someone a "whore"—it wasn't that it was taboo, but it seemed too cruel. You could hint at what someone did, call them a "lady," but just saying "whore" was way over the line. A "lady" was what they called the women that came from the countryside to work in the city, the actual professionals, who worked out of salons or bars. The women that worked under the neon weren't in the same league as those ladies. They had to pace back and forth until they got a customer, do the job, then change spots. Everyone could sympathize with them. If anyone called them "whores," people would just say: "You don't have a family to feed? You wouldn't do whatever it takes to put food on the table? You're telling me you'll never be down on your luck?"

So, nobody considered the women that worked under the neon lights bad people. They had no choice. Now, as for my uncle saying that he'd run away from home because he was secretly in love with Du Yuemei, that was completely unacceptable. My mother lost it everytime my aunt repeated it. My mother said: "You're out of line. After all Zhu Weiguo's done for you, for you to treat him like this—after all those years you've been together? What the hell is wrong with you? Instead of going out to look for him, you're sitting there talking this shit about him?" After that, my aunt didn't bring it up again. My aunt wasn't a bad person, after all. She was worried about her husband. She wasn't in her right mind.

As soon as my mother put down the phone, she burst into tears. "Something went wrong up in your uncle's head," she said. "There's something wrong and he didn't want to tell anyone. It must've gotten too heavy for him."

My father tried to calm her down. "Everyone's going through something these days. He'll figure it out." He suggested we bring my grandmother over to live with us, so my aunt would have one less thing to worry about. My mother calmed down a bit and said she'd go over there in the morning to get my grandmother. I was still trying to figure out what was going on with my uncle. Was it really because of that dog?

What I mean is, I felt like Rotti was getting the short end of the stick. But I guess that was a bit naive. I mean, if you asked my parents, if you asked my aunt, if you asked all the thousands of workers laid off from the mining machinery factory, they'd say, "What kind of people keep a dog in a place like this? Good people are going hungry and they're paying to feed a dog. And then they let it out so it can bite people?" That's how they'd see it. I knew my uncle had gotten Ding to drive Rotti out of the city to protect him. That dog would have ended up getting beaten to death, sooner or later. My aunt was angry at her husband, but she couldn't run her mouth outside of the family. Even Yueyue calmed down after a couple days. When everyone realized that my uncle had disappeared, they eventually forgot that they were angry at him. They knew that the only important thing was to get him home.

But where was he? We went and reported him missing, but nobody had any idea where he might've gone. One of the factory bosses came down to tell us: "Just wait, just wait..."

We never did end up bringing my grandmother home with us that day. She refused to leave her bed. She said: "The bed is good. Big Head told me, the bed is good." Big Head was what everyone had called my uncle as a kid. What Big Head said went. She would only listen to Big Head. My mother wore her tongue down to the root trying to convince her to go home with her. Her eyes were spraying water by the end of it. But it was all for nothing.

My grandmother said: "Good, good." She wouldn't leave her bed. When he tried to drag her out, she started wailing. She sounded like a hog being butchered.

My grandmother had dementia but it wasn't that serious. When you talked to her, she could follow what you were saying, but all she'd say back to you was: "Good, good." If you told her it was raining, she'd said: "Rain is good." If you told her it was time for dinner, she'd say: "Dinner's good." If you told her that your buddy was dead, she'd say, "Dead is good." Always the optimist. Sometimes she had moments of lucidity and she'd start singing: "In—ter—natio—no—le will be the..."

We tried correcting her. "It's na, not no."

She said: "No, it's good."

When she heard her son had disappeared, she said: "Good, good." When we asked her where he went, she said: "Where, it's good. Where he went, it's good."

My mother started crying. "Don't talk like that, ma. It's bad luck."

"Bad luck is good."


My mother went home heartbroken. My father tried to console her: "The old woman has telepathy. She's just going to sit on that bed and wait for her son to get back." He went through a couple examples of her past feats of extrasensory perception. My father believed in the scientific and the rational, but he knew it would help her get to sleep.

My mother wasn't really angry at my uncle, though—it was my grandmother. My grandmother spoiled her son. My grandfather died young and my mother's two elder sisters had gotten married soon after, so my mother had been forced to shoulder a heavy burden early. She had sacrificed herself for her family. When my uncle came back from working on a production brigade in the countryside and got married, she breathed a sigh of relief. Even after all my mother had done for the family, my grandmother was never very close to her. She liked my uncle. My mother still resented their relationship. Whatever my uncle said, my grandmother would say it was fine. My grandmother lived with my uncle in that house all these years, without even a toilet, but all she would say when my mother pointed it out was, "It's fine. It's good." My mother had cared for my grandmother for so long, but she knew that the love would never be returned. That was what made her angry. My uncle, though, she'd basically written him off. I knew all of this was deadly serious to my mother but to me it seemed so trivial.

I asked her once about her brother: "Was he a really cute kid or something? Does it all go back to that? Even if he turned out like this, maybe she still remembers him like that..."

"Not at all. Even when he was a kid, he was useless. He was always in trouble at home and it was even worse at school—when he actually went to school, since he was cutting class half the time. She's only treated him like this since she got sick!"

The strange thing to me was that even though my uncle had been a bad student, he had turned out be something of a mechanical genius. He had mastered every aspect of the production line at the factory and he could fix anything. He blamed it on the teachers. He told me: "They figured they were slacking off, if they weren't knocking me over the head with something. My ears would always be red from your grandma dragging me around by them. Your mother looked after me, though. She'd rub them for me."

When he was a kid, my uncle liked to watch the men working forges. When the bellows started going and the flames started shooting out of the mouth of the furnace, he'd get chills, and it'd be like his soul had shot out of his mouth. By the time he got sent down to the countryside to work, he'd learned how to temper a blade and gotten pretty good at the basics of working metal. That was one reason his time on the production brigade had gone so smoothly. Everyone was looking for him to fix the blades on their tools.

He was fifteen when he got sent down and nineteen when he got back to the city. He'd been brought back by his father's work unit. He figured he would end up like his father, working his whole life at the mining machinery factory, but nobody had expected him to make a name for himself. It all started with a foreign cruise ship that had moored somewhere south of Shanghai. There was a gigantic mortis and tenon joint that needed to be jammed together, but there was no room to swing a sledgehammer. Even if someone could have gotten in there to work, the joint had to be driven into place in one go.

My uncle managed to get the joint together. The engineer on the ship, a German with a great big beard, started hugging and kissing him, dragging him to get his picture taken. He was saying stuff, like, how my uncle could make a name for himself if he went back to Germany with him. The engineer admitted he had written off all of the suggestions from the Chinese side, since he couldn't imagine there was anyone in the entire country that could solve the problem with the joint. A bunch of reporters showed up after that and blasted out headlines about how my uncle was "thinking of the Motherland while looking out across the globe."

It just so happened that right at the time he was down there to fix the joint, some students from an art school were also there painting the scenery. When they heard about the heroics of my uncle, they immediately got him to pose. He was posed shirtless in front of a furnace. The students all marveled at his physique. A few of the girls in the class went up, rubbed his back, and got so worked up they just about slid off their chairs. The students produced a portrait in oil, which they called Backbone. It's still hanging in the provincial museum.

That was back in the eighties, though. I don't know, strictly speaking, what the taste of the time was, but I've seen a copy, and I bet you couldn't even give the original away, now. But I've seen him at the furnace in a similar pose and I can see what they had in mind. He's tall, pale from all his years in the factory, with the body of a much younger man, covered in angular clumps of muscle. When he was swinging his hammer, it was like all the muscles in his upper body were dancing together. It reminded me of a bunch of mice, all dancing in rows. That was when he was still happy, though. Nothing like these days.

That year, he received an award as one of the province's model workers.

From what I've heard, my uncle had a couple options at that time. But he was never a particularly sharp guy—he could master anything technical but wheeling and dealing was beyond him. He didn't have much of a way with words, and he didn't like talking, anyways. He could never manage to master the art of sucking up. Despite all that, nobody could make much of an argument against promoting him to a leadership position. Everyone that had joined the work unit at the same time as him had already been promoted, and he was a model worker, too.

My uncle told me a couple times: "If I hadn't become a cocksucking cadre, everything'd be fine. I had the skill to make a living. I could've done it anywhere. I'd never have to beg for a meal, no matter what happened." His promotion seems to have haunted him.  

I asked him: "Why don't you just leave, then? I heard Shanghai is dying for people like you. You could be making a few thousand a month, easy. What are you sticking around here for?"

He stared back at me for a long time, blinking, then said: "If I leave, I'm leaving everyone here behind. What'll they do without me?" He seemed to fall into a daze, as if he was running through all of the options in his head. I knew he wasn't. There was nothing going on inside his head. For him, the problem wasn't really that he'd become a cadre or that he didn't think he had the skills to make it outside the factory, but that there was something unresolved, deep down inside of him. He was too stubborn to let it go.

My uncle was twenty-eight before he started seriously looking for a wife. That should give you a good idea of how things turned out. At the time, he should've had his pick of any woman in the factory, and my mother had set him up with four or five, but he could never make it happen. It's easy enough to see why: he didn't like to talk. Not only that, but instead of just keeping his mouth shut, he had a bad habit of grunting and humphing at things people said. None of the women he was set up with could stand it.

Even when he was already in his late-twenties, my uncle preferred to hang out with me. He'd come over every Sunday to play. My mother used to hate it. She'd say to him: "Why don't you find yourself a nice girl to spend your time with? What are you doing, wasting your time playing with a little kid?" But that was exatly what he wanted to do. We went fishing, climbed up in trees to steal eggs... Whatever we felt like doing, we'd do.

I was a scared little kid, and my uncle used to tease me by sneaking out and jerking my pants down. I'd hide my little dick and start yelling at him, just like my mother did: "I'll tell grandma what you did, you fucking prick!" He'd give me a thumbs up and tell me to go ahead and tell her. It was only when he got married that we stopped spending so much time together. The only woman he ever felt comfortable enough with to get some chit-chat going was his seventeen-year-old apprentice, Du Yuemei. The reason was simple: he never saw her as a woman. He'd say whatever he wanted around her, even slap her on the ass, just like one of the boys. He used to have a habit when he didn't know what to say of giving you a slap on the cheek. Du Yuemei was more than willing to take those slaps. He might not have seen her as a woman, but she definitely saw him as a man. He used to hate eating vegetables, but that was about all you could get with the meal tickets the workers were given. He'd sort through with his chopsticks, saying, "Fuck vegetables. It's all fucking vegetables." But he used to love her pickles, so she'd always bring them, so he could have them with his meals. She'd sometimes bring him braised pork, too. And once they were done eating, she'd take his bowl for him and everything. If that wasn't proof enough, there was also another incident with a transfer. Since my uncle was a cadre, he wasn't expected to train apprentices, but he didn't want to sit around the office. That was how he got Du Yuemei as an apprentice in the first place. But then one day, the director of the factory went looking for my uncle and found him with Du Yuemei, grinding a crochet hook (there was a fad for crocheting around then, and it was a big deal to have a good hook). The director insisted that Du Yuemei find another master to apprentice under. My uncle was unexpectedly compliant. He thought he was in the wrong. Du Yuemei didn't say anything, but for the next couple days, she came into work with her eyes swollen from crying.

Before all that, there wasn't anybody happier than Du Yuemei in the whole factory. She'd go around singing, smiling... She was even secretary of her workshop's Youth League branch.

That didn't last long, though. If it had, maybe things would have gone different. When my mother started hinting that she suspected my uncle might have a thing for his young apprentice, he responded: "Bull-fucking-shit!" My mother and the rest of the family decided it wasn't meant to be. She was too young to get married, anyways. By the time she was of age, my uncle would already be thirty. It was impossible, everyone decided. It always sounded to me as if it was far from impossible. It seemed like the only issue was my uncle's inability to make things clear with Du Yuemei. There was something between them, there was no doubt about that, even if he couldn't admit it. He probably should have taken the risk, since he was already twenty-eight.

That year, though, there was a dramatic turn of events. It all started with a joke.

When men and women work together, there is bound to be something between them that goes beyond simple workplace camaraderie. It doesn't matter what position they are, either. It's even easier with people that work in factories, since they tend to be more direct—and they're more creative, too. It wasn't unusual for that kind of thing to happen at the mining machinery factory. I heard a story once about a guy that was known for taking liberties with the women there. He fell asleep after lunch one day and one of the women undid his belt and put a bunch of grease down the front of his pants. It was no big deal. Most people there were already married, anyways. A similar thing happened to my uncle. Workers in the factory could sleep wherever there was room to sleep, with just an old newspaper for a pillow. He'd fallen asleep after lunch and a worker from the warehouse had gone looking for him, since she needed him to sign off on something. "You're looking for Mr. Zhu?" someone said. "He's having a little nap. Give Sleeping Beauty a little kiss and wake him up!"

"Mr. Zhu is going to sleep forever unless you give him a kiss!" another worker said and everyone laughed.

The woman from the warehouse went up to my uncle, and was about to wake him up, but then she froze. My uncle had stripped down to an undershirt. When she got a look at his muscular arms and thick chest, she forgot all about getting him to sign off on the acquisition form.

She had a strange expression on her face, but a few of the women caught what was going on, whispered between themselves, and gave her a shove toward my uncle, then took her hand and put it on his thigh. He woke up to a whole crowd of people clustered around him. "He's fuckin' rock hard," someone shouted.

"Goddamn, I didn't think he could even get a boner." A few workers high-fived each other. Everyone was laughing so hard they were about to get sick. They thought this was the best prank they'd pulled so far.

But the woman from the warehouse didn't think it was very funny. She started crying. "You're all perverts," she shouted. My uncle was stunned. He didn't even want to raise his head to look at her. Not long after that, though, he decided to ask her out, and not long after that, he asked her to marry him. That's how she became my aunt.

My mother was against it (she thought the woman was a bit ugly). She kept telling my uncle that it wasn't too late to change his mind. My uncle said: "You know what happened. I can't change my mind now."

"What are you talking about?" my mother said. "They were just playing a joke on you."

"You know what happened," my uncle repeated.

It was a strange time. The way my uncle thought, his erection was tantamount to a solemn commitment. He had a responsibility to the woman from the warehouse. If he hadn't asked her out, he'd be just as much a pervert as his co-workers who had thought up the prank.

I've talked about this with Yueyue before. Life is unpredictable. Things happen almost randomly. If it wasn't for that prank, Yueyue wouldn't even have been born—or maybe she would have been born to Du Yuemei, if those two had gotten together, and she'd be a great beauty, and the whole story would have to be rewritten.

But Yueyue didn't see it that way. "Give your head a shake," she told me. "If I didn't look like this, I wouldn't have opened that shoe store. I could have gone to work in a sauna or something. I'd be making real money."

Late one night, my uncle called me. He said: "I'm back."

My mother ripped the phone out of my hand. She held back for a minute but then swore into the phone: "Where the fuck were you?"

"I went to the city," my uncle said.

"You couldn't call? You had us worried to death."

He tried to explain. It had something to do with a fight with Yueyue's mother, but the real reason was that he'd gone to see a former cadre to make a complaint.


My uncle put a carton of cigarettes on the table in front of me and called for Yueyue to make tea. When she'd served the cups of tea, he waved her out. "Listen," he said to me, very seriously, "I need you to help me prepare some materials."

I looked down at the tea and cigarettes and said: "Is all this for me? It's really not necessary..."

"Of course it is!"

Behind my uncle, Yueyue made a face. I pretended not to notice.

By "prepare some materials," my uncle meant that he wanted me to help him write something. In the factory, all the documents are called "materials." He knew I liked to write stories but he must have also known I didn't have much experience with technical documents. I guess the way he figured it, if you could write a short story, you could figure out how to write something else, too. I liked to think of myself as a decent writer, and I'd started going to some literary salons. I knew I'd have some success eventually, even if I hadn't done much yet. I knew a guy at the newspaper who'd made a name for himself writing fiction. He went by the pen name Ximen Qing's Big Brother. He was a master at writing dreary shit. I'd heard a story about him, that he'd gone to the bank to cash a check from a publisher and he'd wiped out the teller's hold drawer of cash. That story got passed around for a long time, between the rest of us who only dreamed about becoming writers. I knew I could do it, too. There was no doubt in my mind that I'd make some real money writing stories someday, too. I knew from my uncle's tone how important these materials were, and I knew that the fact that he was entrusting me with them should mean something.

"Now, I want you to know," he said, "if there's any trouble that comes out of this, it's all on me. I'll keep you out of it. You're the family intellectual."

It turned out to be something pretty simple. He wanted to report to whoever was in charge of these things that the state of the factory had gone downhill, explain to them the current situation for the workers, and offer his own analysis of the situation. The way I saw it, it was a waste of time. The leaders, I was sure, were already completely aware of what was going on at the factory. Were any of the state-owned companies around there in a better state than the mine machinery factory? Were any workers doing anything but scraping by? They must already know that the men had gone to pedal rickshaws and the women had gone to sell their bodies. They definitely already knew about all the people that had jumped ship early and gone to get jobs in the private sector. Those people were doing great. They'd gotten a nice headstart and had made the best of it. Pity the people that had decided to stick around. There wasn't enough work for all of them. Even if they did decide to make the leap, they'd be at the end of a long, long line. You could come up with a million dollar idea tomorrow and you'd still be too damn late. Did my uncle think the leaders didn't realize that?

I suppose my uncle thought they didn't yet realize because he insisted on writing a report for them. He said: "It's not that like that at all. I don't know what's going on at other factories, but I know exactly what happened here. I watched them, every step of the way, while they destroyed it. We're in the fight of our lives and I'm going to see this through to the very end!" His eyes glowed with righteous rage.

I knew there was no talking out him out of it. I decided I might as well play along.

My uncle told me that on his trip to the city he had been looking for the first director of the factory. Before taking over the factory, the old man had been at Yan'an, making munitions. After leaving the mining equipment factory, he'd been sent to a home for retired cadres. "It was a pain in the ass to find him," my uncle said. The old man had taken my uncle to talk to the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Office and the Federation of Trade Unions. They had both agreed to help out. But if things didn't work out with the province, he vowed to take it all the way to the top.

After he explained what he was doing, he took me with him to the factory. He said: "I want you to see our factory. That's the only way I can get the story straight."

I was very familiar with the factory. I knew all the equipment, every little corner. I had spent half of my childhood there. It had once been a happy place for me, but it had become empty and desolate. It was in the middle of that industrial wreck that my uncle began to tell me the story of the factory and why things had turned out the way they had. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing, but my uncle was sweating. He unbuttoned his sweater and steam rose from his bare chest. It felt like a hallucination. The few lights in the factory projected his monstrous shadow onto the bare walls.

I'll try to summarize what he told me: The factory had started life as a munitions plant in the Northeast, but had been moved to Southern Jiangsu in the fifties to make equipment for mines in the area. It was considered a key state enterprise. By the end of the seventies, the amount of machinery it was producing put it at the top of the heap of factories in the province. It employed three thousand workers and five hundred engineerings and technical cadres. As my uncle had it, the factory could turn out pretty much any piece of machinery except jets. When the dual-track price system was introduced in the early eighties, there was a request put in by the director to spin off a separate operation from the factory, which would manufacture fridges (back then, we didn't have Haier or Meiling or any of those brands), but the provincial authorities declined. So, fine, the factory would keep serving the mines... Now, through that time, there were various schemes to bring in some extra revenue, but the leaders wanted the factory to maintain its mission. By the nineties, the market had already been carved up. The years of primitive accumulation had ended. That's when the workers were told it might be a good idea to jump ship. "Go out to sea" was the euphemism of the time, which meant leave your steady job at a state-owned company try to make a living in the free market. Now, what if you couldn't swim? Well, the leaders said, you'll learn fast enough once you get dumped into the drink. Now, by the end of the nineties, the factory was still chugging along. They were turning out all kinds of heavy equipment, like combines and tractors, and the quality was still decent. There were too many workers for the amount the factory was bringing in but there was still a decent market for agricultural implements, which should have held out for a while. Now, that wasn't an ideal situation for the provincial leadership, who were just waiting for the factory to fail. They wanted to speed up the process, so they switched out the director and the top cadres. When the factory still managed to make do, the government sent them a gang of cadres known for corruption. They figured that would be the end of it.

I started laughing. "There's no way that's what they did," I said. "You think they'd do let it go to shit on purpose?"

"I saw it with my own two eyes. I couldn't figure out what they were doing, at first. I thought it was just some kind of 'industrial restructing' or 'growing pains,' like they were saying. But now I know that all of it was intentional."

"But why? If you want to accuse someone of a crime, you've got to figure out a motive."

My uncle went silent for a long time, then said: "They wanted to make some money. Just think, if the factory is dead, if all this equipment is dormant, how do they turn it into cash? Now, it's not that easy. But I've got the materials to prove it. When you see the numbers, you'll understand. I know what happened."

My uncle was willing to admit that he had helped the process along. He told me about an incident that had happened a few years back, where the workers at the factory had been forced to buy jobs. Basically, you had to come up with three thousand yuan or you'd be laid off. That had been the last batch of corrupt cadres who had come up with that scheme. The workers had gone to him, since he was the head of the union and had been there a long time. He had the people's trust. They wanted my uncle to help them organize against management. The money had been skimmed off the top by the corrupt cadres. Some of them ended up in jail but most of them got transferred somewhere else. My uncle was left to face his co-workers.

When another band of corrupt cadres showed up, the provincial government had introduced to managment a Hong Kong businessman and pressed them to sign a contract with him. The investor from Hong Kong would buy out the factory, turn it into a private firm, and he would've had an obligation to compensate the workers he didn't re-hire. In order to do this, though, the factory needed the workers to hold a congress and vote for the proposal. The leadership went to my uncle and told him to deal with the workers and make sure they approved the sale. The way my uncle saw it, the man from Hong Kong was going to look after them. The workers had been through enough already, so if he was willing to put up the money, why not take it? The sale was approved by the workers, but shortly after the deal went through, the local government found out that the company they thought they had been dealing with—a Hong Kong firm valued at a few hundred million U.S. dollars—was in fact simply the Hong Kong-based front for a company operating out of our own province, which was worth about thirty million yuan. Even more shocking, the company was being run by a former financial director of the mine machinery factory. The capital they had claimed they were going to put up for the purchase was what they estimated the factory itself was worth—meaning, they had put up nothing. It was a robbery.

My uncle said: "But I'm worried about what we can do right now to hold on to the factory. That's why I need your help to write these materials. I need to convince someone... I need you to write something that goes right to the heart of what happened. I don't want to bore someone with numbers. Can't too long, either." My uncle didn't have any problem explaining the situation, but he when he put pen to paper, it just wouldn't come out. "I can't write it," he said. "I never bothered to learn any of that stuff."

"I promise to do what I can," I told him, "but I don't think you're seeing the situation clearly. What do you think writing a report is going to do? Do you think anybody cares? Do the factory workers even care anymore?"

The kind of person my uncle was, once he set his mind on something, there was no shaking him off it. But the way I saw it, passionate as he was, it was all a bit ridiculous. The workers at the factory had always been taught to take it as their own. It was their house, their co-workers were their family. But my uncle had to be the last person that believed in all that. Who was going to thank him for saving the factory? I didn't tell him what I was thinking. He probably would've beat me to death for saying it.

I asked him: "What exactly is the current situation?"

"They're deadlocked. I didn't sign off on it. They need my signature to go ahead with it, since I represent the workers."

"So, what are they gonna do? If you don't sign it, what're they gonna do? They can't go ahead with anything, legally."

My uncle shook his head and said: "You're too young. Who gives a fuck what's legal? They'll take it to the courts—they've got all the judges in their pocket, anyways. For now, though, they don't want to take it that far. Might make them look bad. They'd be happier if I just signed. You know how they are, sending over women, promising me a villa..."

I couldn't help but smile at the idea of my uncle being bribed. "Did they really send over women?" I asked.

He nodded. "They sure did."

"And you didn't partake?"


"You could get something for yourself out of all this..."

He stared back at me.

"I just mean, since it's all in your hands now... I can see what it means to you, but aren't there any kind of selfish motives here?"

My uncle thought for a moment and then said: "I still don't get it."

"All this high and mighty shit about the worker, I just don't believe it!"

"So, you think I want to become the director of the factory?"

"It's too late for that. The factory is bankrupt. That wouldn't be enough for you to go to war. But, let me ask you, why did you send Rotti away? There must be something there, right?"

"You little bastard. What do you want? You want me to say it was all for Du Yuemei? Is that it? Even if I told you I was in love with her, what the fuck would it mean?"

He had confirmed my suspicion: this was all for Du Yuemei. He must have gone to see her. He must have known what had become of her, how she was selling herself under the neon lights. He was doing all of this for her. My aunt had figured it out before anyone else.


&: Diary (13)

(November 24th, 2019) I once almost starved to death in Dalian. I was living in an apartment in Pao'ai in Ganjingzi, just north of the airport. It was scrubland that had been home to a village and a few subsistence farms a long time before, then a landfill, then exurban wasteland occupied by a few factories, then finally, from around ten or twenty years before, apartment blocks. I had a rice cooker than I used to heat up water, which I would empty into a basin in the bathroom, to take baths, and then, eventually, the power was cut off. I spent days away from home, though, and I was splitting my time between a few friends' places. I wasn't working or doing anything but going out every night to party at shitty clubs downtown, sometimes finding alternate places to crash or girls to stay with. When I stayed with my friend Mike, we'd go together to the bath house outside of his apartment, or I'd shower whenever I crashed at a girl's place. I didn't have much money, but it didn't take much. We drank Coke Zero and cheap brandy at KFC before going out and got bad hash off some French students. But I ran out of money a while after the power got cut at the apartment, but I borrowed enough to get another month of electricity. I survived off mantou for a while, then I started digging through discarded bags of leftover takeout food I had tossed into the kitchen. It was the middle of winter, the power had been off, and the radiators never got cold, so the leftovers had kept surprisingly well. When I had no money and no garbage left to eat, I started snatching potatoes and radish from the front doorway of my neighbors. This was—and I don't even remember exactly now but I think—a seven story walkup, so I would alternate, day-to-day, taking food from different doorways. They kept their root vegetables out there to keep them cold. I cooked the potatoes in my rice cooker and ate them sprinkled with soy sauce from a bottle left behind by a previous tenant. I remember going out once to meet my friend Gigi at an Italian restaurant near People's Square, shyly taking her up on her offer of a meal, then, as we walked out, when she wasn't looking, swiping a half-eaten steak left behind at a table near the door. I stopped paying my rent, too. My landlord was a woman in her thirties, who had gone to school in the States and ran a side business renting apartments to foreigners. About a month into not eating properly and smoking bad hash and drinking cheap brandy, I started to hallucinate. I don't know if it even qualifies as an hallucination. It wasn't anything serious. But I saw my landlord, all the time. Her face was always popping up in crowds, accompanied by waves of anxiety.

When I ended up getting my nose broken in a fight at a bar, I couldn't afford to pay to get it fixed, but I managed to beg some money from my mother, which I put towards a ferry ticket from Dalian to Weihai (or possibly Yantai). I told everyone I had bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles. When I got to Weihai, I took a bus 700 kilometers southwest to Xuzhou, where ****** was from, where I had lived with her, and where she was spending a winter after a semester at Guizhou University's School of Marxism. She met me at the bus station. It was about minus fifteen. We took a taxi out to where he parents had moved. The last time I had been there, they had still been waiting for the apartment promised by the local government in exchange for moving out of the factory dormitory. The factory attached to the dormitory was already gone by the time I first went to Xuzhou. It had been replaced by a luxury apartment complex. The taxi out to their new place took half an hour. On the way there, the taxi hit a cat that ran into the road. When we arrived, her mother sat me down beside her bed, filled a basin with hot water, and washed my hair with a rag. ******'s father went out and came back with a roast chicken. The roast chickens you get off the street in China are not the seven pound roasters you'd find in a Safeway back home, but tiny birds, a couple pounds. There was a dish of tomato and egg, cooked the way her mother always made it, the eggs slightly rubbery, and not improved by being left out from lunch, and maybe a dish of pressed tofu dressed with sesame oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. I think it was the first full meal I had eaten in weeks.

During my time in a detention facility in Datong, we ate okay. There was porridge for breakfast, but it usually came with pickles. Lunch was usually more porridge, but it came with some stir-fried vegetables. Dinner was about the same, but we usually got a heartier dish of cabbage and mushroom with a few shreds of pork fat and gristle mixed in. Sometimes we got mantou; sometimes it was mouldy, but I've fed myself mouldy mantou before, too. We got a little bit of doufuru as a treat sometimes, too. There's nothing like doufuru on a warm mantou. And there was a 小卖部 in the 拘留所, which sold stuff like 罐头鱼 and Orion Choco-Pies and instant noodles. I remember one night, when I got sick and tired of eating 小米粥, I bought a bag of blueberry and cream snack sandwiches from the 小卖部 and ***** ate them that night, with our parkas spread out on the floor, watching a miniseries about Chairman Mao. I'm not sure it was enough to thrive on, and I started to get hungry when mealtimes approached. I was always a bit hungry, but the boredom was more of a concern. But anyways, I remember my first meal after I got out—I just mentioned this again, but it was at Real Kungfu at the airport—and the first pack of cigarettes I bought... but my first meal after being deported: I ate butter chicken at a moderately fancy Indian restaurant on 137 Ave in Northeast Edmonton.

A few years ago, when I lived in another part of Tokyo than I do now (this was two moves ago), I didn't really have enough money to eat. There was a Lawson 100 one stop down the Toden Arakawa Line, where I'd put together a day's meal, usually one or two loaves of sweet, sticky bread, a little tub of chocolate spread or strawberry jam, and a one liter bottle of no-name cola. I'd usually have enough left for a pack of cigarettes, but sometimes I would spot long butts on the sidewalk on the way to the Lawson and save them up to smoke late at night. I didn't have a job and I couldn't speak any Japanese. I put an advertisement on a job board for language tutors and got a few jobs. I made the mistake of offering a free sample lesson, so I'd end up having to take a train to some godforsaken corner of the city to sit in a Doutor or Tully's with a mousy OL, who would always tell me about studying overseas in her twenties or vague plans to vacation in Scotland. I got the feeling that these women took a lot of sample lessons and were likely looking for something other than English lessons, since they never showed much interest in my prepared materials. They sometimes contacted me on Line afterwards to make pleasant chit-chat about movies they had seen, but very few seemed interested in paying for lessons. I once took a train way out to somewhere in Chiba to teach English to a pair of ********-year-old girls, whose mother had arranged the lesson. I had made a set of flashcards to prepare for the lesson. I was taking it seriously, since I figured I could charge double my usual rate, and I'd get a paid ride out into the suburbs once or twice a week. Midway through the lesson, one of the girls lifted up her skirt and slowly, while making eye contact with me, ******** * *** **** *** ******. They didn't seem to find that unusual, and so I averted my gaze and continued with the lesson. When the lesson was done, the girls were called upstairs by their mother, who apparently received a glowing review, since she immediately offered to have me come out twice a week for lessons. I told her I'd think about it, then made an excuse about having too many students.

The truth was, I only had a single student, a middle-aged woman that I met with once a week in Asakusa, where she owned a small office building with a pet café on the first floor. She paid me in cash, prepared her own materials, and was a good conversationalist in her mostly-fluent English. I wouldn't eat the day that I taught her. I would take the money she gave me, walk up the street to a 7-11 and buy a pack of cigarettes, smoke a few on the way to McDonalds, buy a double cheeseburger and a Coke and go upstairs to eat. With my belly full and my head buzzing from nicotine, I would stumble back home. The relief only lasted for a short time. I would have to stop halfway home to duck into a public toilet and shit my guts out. I thought it was worth it, though. I did it once a week.

These are stories about being hungry. When I lived in Vancouver, long before both of these stories happened, I used to be part of an unofficial group of friends that would seek out new restaurants, like, maybe a place in Gastown, but more likely some obscure restaurant in Burnaby. I was working as a cook, I think, most of that time, and a few members of the group were also in the industry. I used to write about food a lot. So, anyways, I'd write about the eel and bacon hotpot at a Hunanese restaurant called Aroma Garden on Number Three Road or the rabbit heads at Chuanxiang Ge, which later became a Korean-Chinese restaurant, or even about the pappardelle with veal cheeks at a French restaurant downtown. I think I really enjoyed all of that, but what I really remember is—and goddamn, I was starving then, too, and living off ninety-nine cent loaves of bread from Safeway and shoplifted jars of Nutella—was getting the money together for a meal of steamed buns and steamed pork at the Richmond Public Market and a bottle of beer from the liquor store downstairs. More than any flavor or texture, I like the feeling of being uncomfortably full. I want to eat until I feel sick. And I sometimes tell myself that maybe this is some kind of phenotypic and genetic characteristic, something passed down by my ancestors, who lived on salted seal meat and frozen cod, but it's more likely something from my own experience. 人的胃是有记忆功能的, after all, and I spent most of my adult life a little bit hungry, and the rest uncomfortably overfed.

I'm not sure what made me think of that. As I write this, I am eating grapes, in the dark, checking each one with my fingertips for signs of rot.

(November 25th, 2019) I take the train so seldom that I took a picture of it. These trains run right under my apartment. There is a grate in the sidewalk where I can hear them creaking through the tunnels between Iriya and Ueno. I was on my way to Ginza, too, when I'm usually headed in the other direction, out to Minowa or Kita-Senju. I found myself standing in front of Mitsukoshi, waiting for it to open, accompanied by foreign tourists who pressed in to take pictures of the smartly uniformed department store staff as they made their morning announcement.

"Even if grass were to grow on the roof of the Mitsukoshi Department Store, Japan would not fall, but if the rain leaked through the roofs of five million Japanese farmers' homes, what would become of Japan?" That was what Tachibana Kosaburo said, shortly before the League of Blood attempted a coup and killed Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. He was an agrarian nationalist, who "took to preaching and practice of salvation through agricultural labour," gathering what is described as a "pretty large following" (see: Imperial Japan: 1926-1938 by A. Morgan Young). I think the quote must be from the multiday speech he gave at trial:
The suspension of the Blood Brotherhood trial enabled the trial of the civilian murderers of May 15th to follow on their court-martial. The twenty accused, with Tachibana at their head, were arraigned on September 26th. Tachibana's opening address alone lasted many days. He gave the court a lengthy account of his life, and how he came to hold the convictions that inspired him to form the Aikyojuku. ... Tachibana described how, in spite of his agricultural brotherhood, the Aikyojuku, rural conditions became worse, so that he became convinced that drastic steps were necessary, and joined the Ketsumeidan—Priest Inoue's Blood Brotherhood. ... On October 5th he was so overcome by his own pathos that the court adjourned to give him time to recover. Another day he dwelt on his fondness for Beethoven and Rodin, and said that it needed a great purpose to induce him to desert these joys for the comany of bedbugs in prison. On October 14th ... he said that had the murder scheme miscarried, they all intended to fleet to Manchuria. ... Asked why the power houses were bombed, Tachibana said he throught it would do the luxurious good to be in darkness for a spell. They had not had a sufficiently severe lesson. Ten years after the great earthquake Tokyo was more luxurious than ever, but the farmers how miserable!
The Ketsumeidan (this is 血盟団, which, as above, is usually translated as Blood Brotherhood), who launched the coup attempt:
...like all agrarian radical societies, owed much to the earlier work of Gondo and Tachibana, but its chief mentor was Inoue Nissho, a Buddhist priest of the Nichiren sect. Inoue's fabulous career had included broad travel experience in northeast Asia, intimate contacts with Kwantung Army men, and service as a Japanese spy. His Ketsumeidan was made up of a small group of young peasants who had pledged their lives to remove the "ruling clique" responsible for agrarian misery. The chief weapon was to be assassination, and after a select list of leaders from the business-political world had been prepared, each member chose his victim by lot! (This is from Democracy and the Party Movement in Prewar Japan: The Failure of the First Attempt by Robert A. Scalapino.)
Inoue and Tachibana's actions helped allow militarist factions in the government and the Imperial Japanese Army to take complete control.

And another distraction here, Mishima has Honda (who shops at the Daimaru department store) in Runaway Horses hearing the news:
After sipping his sake, he took up a steaming bowl of rice in which scattered green peas gleamed brightly. Just then he heard the jingle of a newspaper-boy's bell announcing an extra. He had the maid run out to buy a copy.
The paper, whose ragged cut edges and barely dry ink showed the haste in which it had been put out, conveyed the first news of the May Fifteenth Incident, the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai by Navy officers.
Honda sighed. "As if it weren't enough to have had the Blood Oath Alliance." Honda felt that he was above the usual run of indignant men who arose, their faces dark with passion, to condemn the corruption of the times. He was persuaded that his own world was one of reason and clarity. Now that he was a little intoxicated, its clarity seemed to shine with even great brilliance. ...
Incidents of this sort, arising one after another, were like waves rolling in from a night sea to break upon the beach. First a small crest like a wavering line of white out upon the deep. Then as the wave came rushing it, it smelled enormously, only to crash down upon the sand and melt back into the depths. ...
As for waves such as the May Fifteenth Incident, Honda thought, the beach was incident. It was only obliged to force them back into the deep with inexhaustible patience, preventing them from rolling over the land. To force them back each time into the abyss of evil from which they had arisen, back into the primeval realm of remorse and death.
The translation above is from Michael Gallagher, who once argued in the pages of the New York Review of Books with D.J. Enright after an unflattering review of his translation of Nosaka Akiyuki's The Pornographers. Enright considered himself a Japan expert, after spending a few years there in the mid-1950s, teaching at a university in Kobe. Enright hated Japan and hated most of the Japanese people he met and was revolted by Japanese art and history. "Unable to forgive orthers they have resorted to assassination," he wrote, "unable to forgive themselves they have turned to suicide, in its most agonising forms."

This is just a distraction, following one text to another. I waited outside of Mitsukoshi and went up the escalator. I don't know if all of the moneyed, aging Tokyoites that this place was built for even shop there anymore. It seemed to be mostly—obviously, of course—tourists from China, but they were confined to the lower floors, where Gucci and Louis are located, and upstairs it was mostly deserted. I wandered around long enough that I was around when the restaurants opened, and I ate a simple vegetable curry, made from produce pulled from the Terrace Farm. The dining room was nearly empty, except for a pair of mothers with their toddlers. There was the earthy, maybe slightly Bohemian vibe of high-end dining everywhere, which felt out of place in Mitsukoshi...

It feels sometimes like Japan has held onto some kind of old world, with these big department stores, or whatever, the shopping street I go to everyday that has a butcher shop, a bakery, a string of cheap restaurants, a shop where they make umbrellas and raincoats... Just think, sections of the train I rode downtown on were dug before my mother was born, and the nearby Ginza Line was dug before my grandmother was born. It feels sometimes like living in another time, but you can see it's on its last legs, and Mitsukoshi, the grand department store, is now as charmless as an outlet mall and the shopping street (the second oldest in Tokyo!) will slowly be cleared away to put in apartments, since it's close to a subway station and already surrounded by new tower blocks and hotels...

What would Tachibana make of it? (This is a rhetorical question to somehow bring this back around to my lengthy quotes from the account of his trial, but, how about this? There were eleven million farming households in 1965 and there are only one million now, and Mitsukoshi has a Terrace Farm!)

(November 26th, 2019) Thirty-six bags of radioactive waste were lost from three sites in Fukushima following Typhoon Hagibis.

I realized today that I haven't spoken to anyone younger than me in weeks, except *****.

All the old men working on the project to repave the street that splits the two sides of the shotengai seem to be in their early or late 40s, and the men directing traffic are my grandfather's age. The two men that work the nightshift at the 7-11 I just visited are probably in their late fifties or early sixties. All of the women shopping at Maruetsu are in their sixties or seventies or older. Everyone that lives in my building is ancient. Not long after I moved in, two centenarians died within weeks of each other. This is a dull corner of Tokyo, and these old people will be slowly replaced by younger people (slightly younger, we're not talking about people in their twenties) from the suburbs or beyond, and maybe also by immigrants from China, Vietnam, and India. Maybe "replaced" is the wrong word and I should say "their diminished numbers will be offset by"? These old people are going to live into their eighties, nineties, even older... And we know: the total fertility rate hit a record low in 2018. Tokyo had the lowest fertility rate in the country. And: "Kyushu University predicts up to 7.3 million people, or 20.6% of all seniors in Japan, will be suffering from dementia in 2025. And this will come with the social costs of 19.4 trillion yen ($178 billion)..."

I didn't see the story about radioactive waste on TV, but maybe I don't watch enough local news. I found it looking for another piece of information about Fukushima. The story I saw said they had twenty people hunting for the missing waste. I'm picturing middle-aged men in hard hats and coveralls, walking twenty abreast through some horrible corner of the prefecture, stopping frequently to confer and for the team leader to offer his encouragement and directions.


&: An American Bum in China by Tom Carter

Pulling up my hometown newspaper's front page, the top story today is about a man, woman, and ferret injured in a home invasion. And, really, there isn't a "hometown newspaper," and I'm referring to a website operated by Golden West Broadcasting, who run the town's two FM stations (one playing country and the other easy listening adult contemporary) and one oldies AM station. The only daily newspaper was bought up by Hollinger in the '90s, then sold off to Transcontinental in the early-2000s, and then given away in 2016 to Star News Publishing, who closed it down. It had a good run—a hundred twentysomething years—but what're you gonna do? It was that newspaper that gave me my first paid writing job. I remember going down to their offices on Fairford Street, just across from the police station and city hall, just off Main Street, and they were still using typewriters.

The city was a transport hub, with the Trans-Canada and the CPR running right through it, in the middle of prime agricultural land. The last boom was in the '50s, and it was mostly a slow decline after that. The city's population peaked in 1961 at just over thirty thousand and the slow hollowing-out only stopped in the last decade or so, when it became a commuter suburb for the largest nearby center, fiftysomething kilometers up the highway, which was experiencing its own boom. There wasn't much going on, especially when I lived there. There were no jobs on the railway anymore, the potash plant wasn't hiring, and everything seemed to be shutting down. The jobs I held while living in my hometown included: overnight clerk at a roadside chain hotel, working the line at a slaughterhouse (first, a beef slaughterhouse then a pork slaughterhouse, and I believe both operations have since been shut down), then various warehouse and shelf-stocking jobs. I never kept in touch with anyone from my graduating class at high school, but I sometimes see them surface in headlines on Golden West Broadcasting's news site, sometimes for coaching a girls volleyball team and more often for methamphetamine trafficking or domestic violence arrests. I was, I think, one of four that ended up leaving town: one went to teach high school in Grande Prairie, one moved to Edmonton and worked for the Edmonton Police Service, and the third is a mezzo-soprano who has performed with minor orchestras and is currently getting a degree in Deaf Studies at Vancouver Community College.

What would I have done if I had stayed home? I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. I'd managed to get myself to a university down the highway, but thank God, a year or two into a disastrous undergraduate career, someone offered me the chance to go to China.

I can't help but see something of myself in Tom Carter's American bum—Matthew Evans—who escaped rural Iowa for Southern China, in search of a girl he met off Myspace and wound up bouncing between shady teaching gigs, begging cash off women on QQ, and ending up in various detention facilities. What would he have done if he had stayed at home?
Evans spent two years studying at Muscatine Community College for his associate degree, then another two years in coding courses for something called a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement.
That certificate, what Evans called "a poor-man's computer science degree," wound up being valid only in Muscatine; Evans was laughed out of every IT company he applied at (whether because of the certificate or because of Evans, who knows). Without any career prospects, the twenty-one-year-old went back to the dairy cooler of Hy-Vee.
Evans makes his way through the expat underground of the 2000s, a time and place when a flyover state refugee with a forged diploma could find a way to get by, as long as they stayed one step ahead of the mostly ineffectual local Public Security Bureau. Even after some time in detention and deportation, Evans returns to China again, after a visit by Xi Jinping to Muscatine, a town that the Chairman had stayed in first in 1985:
Having been imprisoned in China, Evans felt embittered watching the heir apparent of the new world superpower saunter through the decaying city of his birth. But looking back, Evans admits he was angrier with his fellow Americans, whom since Xi's first visit in the 1980s had shipped the nation's entire manufacturing base to China, effectively killing off small towns like Muscatine.
Like his hometown's namesake fish, the musky, known for its low reproductive rate and self-destructively slow growth, what Evans saw upon returning to Muscatine was the end of the American Dream that his European forefathers had immigrated to Iowa to pursue.
"I couldn't believe what a wasteland Muscatine had become since I'd been away," Evans told me. "All the family-run shops were shuttered, the strip malls were empty, factories closed... I couldn't find work anywhere!"
For me, for lots of other temporary refugees in China in the 2000s, it wasn't so much that China held much promise, but it was one of the only places left to escape to, if you had no other prospects and enough cash for a round-trip ticket. I sold a 1992 Chevy Beretta to get the cash up and went over as a student, at first. The Western world was at war with much of the rest of the world, and, even if you had the means to, there wasn't much to hope for in going to Europe or elsewhere in East Asia. China was at the perfect point in its development, where it still needed the lowest rung of Westerner, who were given a little red book stamped with Foreign Experts Certificate 外国专家证 for showing proof of a community college associate's degree.

There wasn't shit to do back home. So, if you're going to spend your twenties stumbling from dead-end job to dead-end job, you might as well do it somewhere interesting—that's what I thought, at least. Carter describes them as a "new generation of young, restless, socially unmoored American expatriates fleeing to the Middle Kingdom, just as they did to Paris in the 1920s and to India in the 1960s." (I suddenly don't like the Paris in the '20s comparison, even though I've made it myself.) "The United States has lost its right to be called the land of opportunity," Carter writes, and he decides, "that title now goes to China, whose shores are now teeming with Western refuse such as Evans and myself." And me too, once upon a time.

I wasn't putting off a career in finance or journalism or anything like that to bum around China; I knew I couldn't work for a few years and start saving for the downpayment on a house; and my parents had already split up, so I wasn't going to return to some Norman Rockwell home life, hanging around the house, waiting for my big break. Whatever job I managed to lie my way into in Guangzhou or Dalian or Nanjing, at least I wouldn't be working outside, I'd have plenty of time off to party and write and do whatever, and I was learning another language, and I could completely escape from whatever was destined for me back in the heartland.

The story of Evans securing a teaching job at Nanjing Agriculture University sums up perfectly how people got by. He gets a fake degree from a diploma mill called Ashford University, goes into an interview secured through a friend of a friend, claims to the staff that he has an "agricultural background" and signs the contract. He held on for half a semester before caught out by his own students, who were expecting something more than elementary language lessons. But he bounces back. Nothing to worry about. He take his Ashford University diploma, takes a train to Shanghai, and talks his way into a job at the even more prestigious East China Normal University. Whatever happened, it was better than working the cooler at Hy-Vee.

Once I spent a very brief stretch in a detention facility, I decided it was time to get out, but Evans never makes that call. I mean, Carter never quite comes out and says it, but it sounds like Evans might have some degree of cognitive impairment. You say enough times a guy can't make eye contact or form relationships, it goes without saying, he's probably on the spectrum (and the John Dobson illustrations add to that impression). That probably goes a long way to explaining some things. (And so I think part of the greater point about the heartland hollowed out by deindustrialization and neoliberal vampires sucking all the vitality out of the American Dream is undercut somewhat by having your hero be such a fuck up, but, hey, first, maybe that's exactly right, and, second, it's a true story, right? But anyways.)

The book closes with Evans' adventures in Hong Kong, after his "soft exile" from the Mainland. He can't get a visa to get back in, so he crashes in Chungking Mansions while poking around trying to pick up illegal work, then winds up sleeping down at a ferry pier, surviving off McDonalds french fries. His musing on the 2014 Occupy protests and the Umbrella Movement are timely again. "He didn't know it yet, but Matthew Evans was witnessing history." Evans is somewhat ambivalent:
Evans was there every day, all day long, fixatedly watching the swarming wisdom of the streets. He saw it all—the brutality, the blood—but he never got involved. It wasn't his fight, and, frankly, he didn't get why the agitators were so determined to keep their city's government democratic.
Democracy, he felt, had not worked out very well for American, which since his youth had been on a steady political, economic, and moral decline—just as America, with its divorce rate, cancerous toxic waste, corrupted politics, failing education system, and stagnant economy, had not personally worked out for Matthew Evans, Iowa's own unfortunate son.
It is interesting to see the split, politically, between elite, educated observers of China, who, even if they spent considerable time there, hold out hope for some kind of liberal reformation, and the people that I know, who spent a considerable amount of time in the country but don't have an opinion column or a Twitter account and, who are broadly sympathetic to the Chinese state's ways of doing business. I've mentioned my friend from Iowa before, who did a degree in Chinese, then ended up teaching at training centers in Nanjing and bumming around that city, before going back home to work on windmills. People like him, who have no particular stake in the prevailing social order are, like Evans, more likely to be suspicious of the idea of a liberal reformation. My friend from Iowa has no particular concerns about freedom of speech, since he is too busy trying to pay off student loans and save up enough to buy a house in some Des Moines suburb (I don't actually know where he lives). What I mean is, I think if you've been completely fucked over by the way the world works at home, you're more likely to identify with those people being fucked over in other places, too—or, if not, then perhaps to identify some of the same forces at work: I can't buy a house for the same reasons that someone in Tianjin can't buy a house; I am forced to work in a warehouse on a zero hour contract or drive for a ridesharing service for the same reasons that someone in Zhengzhou is forced to do the same jobs. It's not quite class consciousness, I guess, but close enough.

If open elections for the National People's Congress were called tomorrow, the men I shared detention facility quarters with in Datong would not be much better off. They were petitioners, grabbed in Beijing by Datong PSB for protesting for compensation for the homes they were forced out of. I have trouble picturing any result in those NPC elections that would benefit those men. They were—and, of course, still are—poor, and were fucked over by a municipal government beholden to real estate developers. I know it's more complicated than that, but my point is: if you have no particular stake in a liberal democratic worldview because it's left you sick, sad, and hungry, it's much easier to ponder the alternative, or just say, well, fuck it.

Arthur Meursault, reviewing the book in the American Conservative, says: "This type of tale of chemical poisoning, child cancer, and nefarious collaboration between industry and government is often viewed more as a product of corrupt Asian despots like Xi Jinping, but the toxicity that put Evans in a hospital bed for his entire seventh and eighth grade years happened right in America’s heartland." And he continues:
...this book should be read more as a tragedy. It’s the tragedy of Americans without prospects who, as Patrick J. Buchanan would have put it, have been left behind by globalist trade deals, open-border immigration policies, and foreign interventionism. Matthew Evans, as well as his biographer, Tom Carter, come from this younger generation whose current and future prospects are a pale imitation of what their parents enjoyed.
In Evans’ case, his parents were able to build a life for themselves back in the 1980s just by attending Muscatine Community College. For their son, two years at the exact same school gifted him little more than a Computer Networking Certificate of Achievement ... leaving him without any prospect of a job or home ownership.
It is tempting to see something worthwhile in the PRC's mode of governance, especially if you, personally, don't have much to lose...

Evans crashed the occupation out of desperation, since it provided him a place to stay. He hunkered down with "Cantonese millennials" in "jubilant little circles taking selfies and singing English songs from the 1960s: 'The West is the Best, the West is the Best!'" He made himself at home, but eventually the protesters were driven out and returned to their actual homes.

That was when he ended up catching a flight back to American.

Evans is pretty much stuck, once he goes back. Even if he was not barred from returning to China, there wouldn't be much sense in going back, now that the golden age for Western refugees has ended. Where else is he going to go? He's trapped.

My friend from Iowa went to community college and works on windmills, like I said. The friend that I got locked up with in Datong ended up going straight back into Shenzhen after being deported to Hong Kong, getting hooked on methamphetamine, and coming to a sad end. Most people I know like Evans ended up marrying Chinese women, often daughters of rural elite who were going to school in larger centers, and they sometimes got involved in various business schemes, opening their own Happy Giraffe English School, settling into life in a third tier Chinese city, or taking their bride back to the heartland to raise kids, settling back into American life.

Where I come from, some of the highest poverty rates in the country, the highest violent crime rate in the country, and not much hope to do anything but work in a warehouse. The first time, I ended up going back to school for a while, staying in a series of one-room rentals and working in warehouses and restaurant kitchens, and the second time, I ended up working at a liquor store out in the suburbs, crashing at my mom's place, and the third time, I wound up getting back into the same old cycle of shitty jobs and grim rentals... But I never even went all the way back, I never got further than Vancouver or Edmonton, except for a single summer.

A guy like Evans doesn't have much hope, back home, either:
Iowa has been stuck at the federal $7.25 minimum wage for a decade. When local counties attempted to increase their local minimum, the state squelched it. When you factor in the increase in the cost of living over those years, you are talking about an implosion for working class families.
Several years ago, the United Way of Northern New Jersey started noticing that they were fielding calls from people suffering significant economic hardship in counties with a relatively low official poverty rate.
Working with Rutgers University, they developed a metric that tracked local housing costs, childcare expenses, property taxes, health care costs, utilities and transportation expenses along with wages. They dubbed this bare minimum economic survival cohort ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Constrained Income, but Employed.
Close to a decade later, working with local partners, the United Way has identified this struggling population — one that has remained largely invisible in 19 states, including Iowa.
"More Iowa households are struggling to make ends meet," said Deann Cook, executive director at the United Way of Iowa. "We are now approaching 40 percent.
"It is because the cost of living is rising faster than wages," Cook continued. "Iowans are hard-working people, but they are having to piece together multiple part-time jobs with no benefits. In the breadbasket of the world people assume we don’t have food insecurity issues, yet we do."
The United Way reports that, in 2016, 12 percent of Iowa families lived in poverty, with another 25 percent in that ALICE cohort struggling week-to-week. That combined 37 percent cohort reflected an increase of 27 percent since 2010.
There is no broad-based political movement in the United States that seeks to change the prevailing social order. Nothing has improved for people like Evans, and—it was never really much of a solution but—an escape to China or anywhere else is increasingly difficult. After reading the book, I wondered what Evans might be up to, but it's easy enough to speculate: he isn't up to anything. Just like those high school classmates I see in occasional local paper headlines, they aren't doing shit and they're materially worse off than they would have been, if they had been born several decades earlier.