Second-tier city, bursting with prosperity, somewhere in central China

Alphaville-with-Buicks: Busted in China

‘Net Never Forget’

On the bus westward from Shanghai, the young neurologist appraised my appearance, in a not unfriendly fashion.

‘You’ll have to shave off your mustache’ he stated. ‘Chinese people do not like face hair.’ Shave it off? Whatever nascent protest might have bubbled up within me was stilled by surprise. But I was his guest and the month ahead depended not only on his good will but that of numerous other strangers in the mountain city.

‘And we will have to get some proper clothing for you. To teach in.’

His wife was watching me closely.

‘She says you will look fine. You look better with no hair on your face.’

My very first time in the largest nation on earth: how is it that, traveling diligently from childhood, I’d never been here? Easy. China went berserkers more than once during those decades, thrust out alien bodies, killed its own citizens by the millions for what was now tacitly acknowledged a thoroughly discredited ideology: the only place I ever saw the lethal piggy smirk of Chairman You-Know-Who was on the currency — every single banknote carried that deadly smile. (Irony there somewhere.)

Huge social realist billboards exhorting one and all to serve the people and advance the glorious cause of the PRC, but not once did I spot that face we know so well. Was he on the road to ‘non-person-hood’?

Let me introduce myself. Come on, shake my hand. Look me in the eye. I’m a traveler, never at home or feeling at home in the U.S.A. since I first began to stray in the 1960s.

I’d been delving into alien cultures since 1962, when I was hired by the elegantly-named ‘English Language Exploratory Committee’ to host a holiday session of high-school teachers of English at International Christian University in Tokyo. The joint was deserted and we had the run, with no bible-beaters hovering about. Among participating teachers were several frisky and sexually curious lads, all my age or thereabouts, and the ‘oral approach’ to English upgrading included plenty of exciting but discreet late-night oral work as well.

‘English as a Second Language’ (ESL), my ‘plumber job’ as a Linguistics graduate; I’d always (foolishly) hoped to escape it but here we are in the new Millennium and this is what I had to offer: in this wounded world you put up whatever talent you hope will sell. And English was certainly in demand.

I’d met the doctor, a neurologist, and his gastrointestinal specialist wife at a comfy surf resort in West Sumatra. We got along well, all of us poking around in the hills of Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (no attempted surfing for us: we were uniformly deathly frightened of the roiling currents of the Indian Ocean, and for good reason). At one opportune moment I suggested I visit them in China — and do some teaching at his hospital.

‘I like to be useful’ I stressed, and it would not be the last time I used that party line.

It works. It is also true, and it pays off in Asia.

Nothing beats being of use (if not assuming a starring role) in any given environment, anywhere on the planet. This has nothing to do with one’s money or possessions — waving dough around never opens hidden doors or reveals welcoming faces.

If these stalwart medical professionals thought they’d benefit from ESL classes (and yes like several hundred million other Chinese, suddenly facing a welcoming world, they felt the urgent need for English listening comprehension and production) then that’s what they’d get from me.

The doctor wife whispered into her doctor husband’s ear, never taking her gaze from me.

‘Yes, and they cannot pay you, no, there is no budget for English.’

I grinned knowingly. ‘I don’t need money. I like to meet people, and have new adventures. That happens when I make myself useful.’

The bus swayed, rounding a long bend and beginning a slow nocturnal descent into an Olympian cascade of artificial light. Tens of office buildings were erupting in sheets of LED colors sweeping hundreds of meters up their sides. Fifty-meter-long high-def LED televisions were showing Chinese families joyfully joy-riding in their Buicks. Bursting with prosperity, this city where thousands had succumbed to starvation not so long ago.

Now it was flashy with showoff materialism.

‘Welcome to an echo of America, Nineteen Fifty-Five’ I thought.

‘They seem to be wasting a lot of energy on these light displays. Are they on every night?’

The doctor frowned, looking offended. ‘There is no waste. We have plenty of electricity. This is our city at night.’

‘Plenty of electricity’ generated by burning coal, I did not (tactlessly) point out. I was determined to be a good guest and not a nit-picker.

Even before I got the go-ahead to organize 90-minute evening classes for groups of doctors I was subject to a welcoming invitation to the classiest seafood place in town, BOOM. A delightful metamorphosis: from an anonymous well-worn expatriate traveler I was suddenly showcased an an honored guest — since the young pair of doctors had met me at Pu Dong Airport in Shanghai and escorted me to this second-tier city (I learned it had been ‘closed’ to foreign visitors until several years ago, as some sort of military research was said to be going on). ‘Foreign friends’ were exceedingly rare: unlike the major metropolises, where Europeans, Americans and especially Africans are a dime a dozen, these slow-paced smaller centres rarely saw white devils.

The President of the hospital greeted me. ‘President’ I mused. He was also a Party member and a skilled brain surgeon — but now encharged with the supervision of several hundred doctors — mostly under 40 — a physical plant bursting with patients (beds in ward halls) and innumerable non-medical responsibilities. Such as building up a security force to dissuade aggrieved families from beating up physicians (or even killing them), patients and their families attempting to wiggle out of paying for medical treatment or even shaking down hospital administrations, or occasionally conducting such unpleasant escapades as parking the cadaver of a family member in the hospital lobby, in protest. Oh yes.

‘Two doctors were murdered by a patient not far from here,’ my friend told me, quietly looking out the window into the brilliantly-lit night. ‘He was diagnosed as schizophrenic. So nothing happened to him. Now they’ve passed a law to protect doctors.’

Settled into a comfy ‘love hotel’ (unlovable though I was) we then strolled into Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing chain currently quite the rage across China. Chic, drab and flimsy fashion — not that I’m any sartorial slave, but the sport coat and pants that I was instructed to purchase for my teaching made me look even tackier than usual.

Now I was ready to start my classes. In like Flynn: for a ‘special hospital tour’, the President had even arranged for me to get dressed up in operating room drag, headcap and all, for a peek into an extremely high-tech medical action environment. When I was ushered into the brightly-lit theatre, and saw doctors clustered around an obviously very sophisticated (and expensive-looking) German apparatus, I smelled a familiar burnt stink — but it took me a few minutes to recognize it.

Yes, it was precisely the same odor of burning bone that a dentist generates when drilling through tooth enamel.

Then around the corner we strolled, and I was confronted with one of the most startling scenes I’d ever witnessed in my seven plus decades: a pinkish human brain poking out of a skull with a 6cm X 6cm square of head-bone missing. Two doctors were still busy with an electronic saw, attached to the German machine, and ignored me.

‘She had pressure on her brain. A stroke. They had to open it.’

I did not faint away but I did make a twitching motion with my hand, clutching for invisible pearls. Sink me. A living human brain, bright and shiny. Opened right up and pulsing.

That night it was black tofu and fried rice for dinner, as I was having dental problems and could not chew well. The tofu was in some kind of mystery fluid; having been assured there was no piggy or chicky floating about I dug in. Exotic. Nice.

Suddenly the doctor bolted, looking at his cell phone chirruping and beaming. ‘It’s the President. I have to talk to him.’ This was clearly a Big Deal. I’d been informed that my host would normally not meet the top administrator in the hospital more than once or twice a year; my presence was obviously a cause for excitement. Little did I know.

Hunched over his phone, the young doctor was pacing back and forth in the dark alley outside the fried rice joint. I’d never seen such a troubled look on his face.

‘They have a picture of you. It shows your organ.’

Now the most remarkable aspect of this borderline-absurd narrative, set deep in the mountains of central China, is that I suddenly realized precisely which photograph the hapless young doctor was referring to — even though it had been snapped on a lark some forty-eight years earlier.

By way of explanation: in the late 1960s I wrote free-lance travel articles for motorcycle magazines like CYCLE GUIDE, CYCLE and CYCLE WORLD, riding to such picturesque locales as Virginia City, Nevada. Renowned San Francisco photographer Paul Ryan went along with me, and on one of our trips, to Baja California, Paul shot some monochrome stills of me on the Kawasaki W-1 (it was a big shaky 650cc parallel twin, ironically nicknamed ‘the world’s best BSA’ as it had been built with the excellence and care that the failing British motorcycle industry should have invested in their own crappy machines).

We took scenic shots for an article in CYCLE, one of the oldest motor mags, the baby of notorious publisher Floyd Clymer, a crook whose claim to fame was the ability to ride a motorcycle while sitting backwards on it.

I then fatally suggested to Paul that he shoot a couple of gag shots of me wearing my helmet. And my birthday suit. Clickety-click. Now that naughty shot is orbiting in cyber-space, even though I couldn’t locate it.

‘Doctor’ I said, with an annoyed smile, ‘I thought Google, and Google Images, were blocked in China.’

‘Of course it’s blocked,’ he frowned. ‘That’s why everybody uses a VPN.’

I’d been ratted out.

‘The President wanted to check up on you. Why did you take that picture showing your organ?’ Now he was in minor-panic mode: he was after all the one responsible for introducing me to all and sundry, and his place of employment, and now this grotesque mess erupts.

What could I say to this young professional, whose nation had during my lifetime endured invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army (babies on bayonets), civil war with Chancre Jack and his corrupt generals selling weapons for Communist gold, the Great Leap Forward (20~40 million starving to death, thank you), the Cultural Revolution (children denouncing parents, reckless squads of Little Red Guards bringing down destruction), followed by the [natural] reversion of the economy to capitalism, albeit one with strict meddling from incompetent Communist apparatchiks?

‘It was a long, long time ago,’ I squeaked, unconvincingly. ‘Almost fifty years.’

He looked thoroughly confounded.

‘A kind of funny joke.’ Not so funny in China in 2017.

‘They found this picture of you on the internet. It is you, isn’t it?’

Guilty as charged, Yerronnerr. ‘Oh yes. I used to work as a motor journalist. I’m a championship motorcycle racer.’ (I couldn’t resist, stupid though it sounds.)

‘Now what to do.’

Poor guy was out of his depth. I felt a creeping annoyance. Who had gone to the trouble to snitch on me like this? And for what end?

Phone rings again. Doc scurries off into darkness for further consultation.

‘The President says not to tell you anything.’

I sigh.

‘He says we should only accept guests from acknowledged institutions. Like UNESCO or a university. Do you have any proof… an award or something?’

Now I’m getting aggrieved. ‘Look, Doctor, I came along with you to have a new adventure and be helpful with some language teaching. This is nonsense.

‘Why don’t I just write a nice letter of thanks to the President of the hospital and take the bus back to Shanghai tomorrow, late morning?’

Shock’n’awe. ‘Oh you can’t do that.’

‘Well this could also damage your reputation,’ I remind him.

‘You can’t.’

There you go. The Chinese, one of the most cultured people on earth (and among the most physically attractive), but also among the most rigid and sexually-repressed.

My first ‘lover’ in college had been an art student at the University of Texas in 1960, a slender Chinese guy who was pleased to be pleasured but expressed absolutely no interest in pleasuring me in return. (Thus the quotes.)

Oh what a lovely, smooth, sexually arousing body. I loved to stroke him those hot Austin afternoons.

‘I didn’t come here to cause anyone problems, Doctor. I’ve been a model guest this far, haven’t I?’ How awkward, how wearisome, to have to be so blunt. But I’m seventy-seven years old and really am not prepared to put up with nonsense.

‘I’ll just quietly leave, having had a pleasant visit with you and the other doctors. Thus no more trouble.’ No more fucking snitches on my case either. Now if it had been some objectionable political stance (a photo of a protest about the invasion of Tibet, for instance) I would have understood the suspicion and panic: every Chinese I spoke to was terrified of tangling with any matter connected to politics. But this was silly — only my majestic uncut dick flopping off the seat of a Japanese 650. In 1969. So come on now.

He put his foot down. ‘No. You cannot leave.’

So I did not.

Flash forward one week. An ESL course was organized for neurological, gastrointestinal, orthopedic, psychiatric, acupuncture, surgery and other physicians. Twenty of these eager young doctors piled into the lower-intermediate-level sessions, around half of them sticking with me through the onerous hours of adult language learning (if you’ve ever attempted to study a foreign language in a classroom context while holding down a full-time job you’ll appreciate what I’m talking about).

The thirty-hour short course was completed in twelve days. A detailed group and individual Progress Report was written up in fine style (I’ve only been doing this routine paperwork for five decades); it was translated into Chinese and submitted to senior management. So there.

I was quite satisfied with our short academic run, shadowed by suspicion. The young doctor and the withered white fella had done an excellent job, and for free as well (hospital budgets are very delicate and tricky, it seems).

The payoff: a couple of days after completing the course, and just as I was preparing to leave, my left testicle blew up. Back to the hospital and a doctor of Urology who looked me over, gave the ball a poke and said ‘Epididymitis’. As he walked off he said loudly ‘You’ll need to go into hospital for a week of IV antibiotics.’ From teacher to patient: there I was.

As I went to register as an Inpatient, my doctor pal steered me into a ward crowded with family members (they’re allowed to sleep on bunks with ill relatives). An older lady had her head all bandaged, like a World War II injured soldier.

‘That’s the woman you saw getting pressure on her brain relieved.’ Wow. Poor old dear looked the worse for wear but she was alive and awake and yakking to her kinfolks at least.

So there is my ‘Internet Never Forget’ cautionary tale of getting unexpectedly busted, thanks to ‘global connectivity’. You reading this, Paul Ryan?

Oh and the offending pikky? Steel yourself for a shocker, folks.

It came time to say good-bye to prosperous, innocent Alphaville-with-Buicks (Which Shall Remain Nameless).

The cell phone cameras waved about, many smiling group photos, doctors and administrators and their new teacher with arms around shoulders. A nice present from one of the hospital’s Directors (the President never showed himself after my mini-scandal erupted). All of my own hospitalization expenses forgiven (nice payoff for the teaching!)

And beaming next to me, shaking my hand and presenting me a lovely Chinese tea set as a ‘going-away present’? The very dude who’d snitched on me to the big boss. But that’s show business.