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At last we go to Shanghai, a city that belongs to no country. 
              Peter Fleming

Let some people get rich first.
              Deng Xiaoping
My paranoia rises as I wait in line to see this soldier who holds power over all of us, hundreds of polite penitents approaching the soldier’s little altar in the airport.  Study his triangular face. Is he 12?  22?  He is so skinny a breeze could knock him over, but he has power.
       I live in the sticks and he lives in a new China where billionaire land-owners are gods and cosmic high-rises leap into smoggy heavens.  But I can’t forget cruel tales of the Cultural Revolution and the easy violence of child soldiers beating their old teachers, taking their belts to whip doctors and their own mother and father and those neighbours whose mortal sin was to be local landords, their hair brutally razored and signs hung on their neck to make their class crimes clear to all.
       The accused have taken the wrong path to titillation and offences to morality and deviated from core socialist values.
       The Chinese embassy gave me trouble about my visa, making me sign a declaration that I would not talk to the media in China.  I worry I’ve been red-flagged (and huge red flags hang everywhere, lending an unsettling Soviet vibe).
       Our queue moves and I am called to the tiny soldier to meekly push my passport with my pale green visa glued inside.  Big stars on the flags and my two-entry visa has five stars and under the five stars I can discern a very faint picture of the Great Wall of China.  The soldier studies my visa, studies a screen, eyes lilting back and forth.  His face is troubled, so I am troubled.  Something is wrong.  He points over my right shoulder, points: There
       Where?  I don’t want to go to a backroom in China.  Some airports label it the Reconciliation Room.  Sounds healing, but too many walk from that room to the painful reconciliation of prison.  The man on the plane warned me, “In China it is dangerous to step out of line; Chinese courts work by the principle that if you are charged, then you must be guilty.” 
       What if I flew this far with no sleep and am Shanghaied into jail?  Or I’ll be forced to turn back and reverse every brutal sleepless move, backward all the way home.  No sleep and no Great Leap Forward for me.
       Travel these days; the process drains me.  In such optimism we climb from our beds and go up in the jets.  We rise from river flats at dawn to fly over night mountains and fathomless water, we leave homes and swift into darkness, we roar across to mysterious flowers and giant towers and tiny shop-fronts open to the street and what is it they are selling?  Open doorways lining a gateway city, a disarray of machine parts and monkeys and spices and rugs and the bright drugs of travel. It’ll be great, right?
       This soldier points again, impatient with his moronic tourist.  I thought he was pointing to a backroom where they X-ray and wash our souls, but no, I am stupid, he is pointing to a tiny camera.  I turn to the right, a camera eye snicks my picture, stores my eyes in their giant files, and the soldier dismisses me.  “Ok, you go.”
       Free to go?  I AM SET FREE!  I am amazingly happy at Checkpoint Charlie!  Energy courses through me, paranoia and jetlag vanished, bounding to the doors to China, the new China, the ancient China.  I run from an air-conditioned assembly line into an outside wall of tropical heat, coronas of steam-heat around our heads, my glasses fogging white, and my initial vision of China is of virtual blindness.
       I wipe my glasses and move into a mammoth city.  Much of the city is invisible in haze, but I sense a thousand high-rises troubling smoggy clouds.  And one such high-rise holds my hotel room and a soft beautiful bed (I’ve been sleepless for days).  I dive in.  My high hotel bed boasts a view of a pagoda by placid water, and moored beside this Zen temple floats a giant yellow rubber duck. 
       The mysterious east where hot light and boiling rain pours on my head by a pretty pagoda and a yellow duck on steroids nudges the temple: two totems for my journey. We are orphic and Occidental and post-industrial, a perfect setting for my surreal spy movie.  No sleep in days so I log a few hours as a dream tenant of this lovely bed. 
       In the lobby Billy from Cork asks me, “Are the hotel rooms bugged?  Do you think our emails are monitored?”
       We are paranoid and we sweat buckets in hot rain falling outside.  Never have I poured sweat in the rain and I picture Gene Kelly dancing in puddles of human sweat that splash at his lively feet.  In my room I can’t wait to tear off shoes and socks: death to socks!
       My friends from Cork are becoming uncorked in Shanghai’s dizzy heat and perspiration, far hotter than Mumbai last February.  Ann and Billy and I try a short walk across a park; back indoors we double over with laughter, incredulous at our sodden clothes.  Shanghai students assisting us all wear clean dry white shirts and black pants, like nice Mormon missionaries; they are lovely to us and giggle nervously much of the time as they guide us around.  Many hold up parasols for the sun and wear surgical masks for the smog. 
       One night our gang at the hotel sits up far too late at an outside picnic table draining cold tins purchased at a very affordable corner shop, a cluster of travelers from Ireland, Sheffield, India, Singapore, Taipei, and a few Shanghai locals.  Expensive bar tabs inside the deluxe hotel quickly forced us to be wiser with our money and our outside table becomes popular, an improvised and economical social focus in the breezy gap between high-rises.
       “Why is illicit drinking so much more fun than licit?” SlainteGanbei!
       Under our high-rise a tearful woman from Iraq wanders in and sits with us; everywhere I travel I see heart-broken representatives of that wounded nation.  No one knows her.  She just learned that her father is dead and she is so far from home.  We try to converse, but an Irish woman counsels us to leave her in peace; she wants to grieve alone, but not be alone.  She cries quietly in our polyglot group of travelers. 
       A happier man from Guangzhou sits beside me.  Guangzhou, Dr. Li says, is far to the south on the Pearl River and was known as Canton, the first port open to Europeans and hit hard by the Opium Wars.  Guangzhou is also where American consulate workers claim brain trauma after weird “sonic attacks,” feelings of heightened sound and pressure making them ill and perhaps part of electronic eavesdropping or microwave weapons.  Similar attacks in Cuba (the Havana syndrome, concussion-like) have harmed Canadian consulate staff; I am piqued.
       Dr. Li has a brush cut and a big smile in a big round face and we become fast friends.  He proposes many toasts and enjoys a slim cigar.  Cheers!  Salud!  Ganbei! 
       Asia’s heat makes me drink more than ever while a good friend at home (I’ll call him Sunny Jim) struggles mightily to quit booze, is in rehab at the same time I travel China.  Sunny Jim stops drinking and sunny Asia drives me to imbibe hugely.  I fear my own appetites, my constant thirst.  On different sides of the globe my friend and I act out China’s fears of order versus chaos.  Once I had ambitious plans for this journey, but with buzzing meaty heat comes paralysis. Maybe I also have brain trauma from sonic weapons, revenge for the Opium Wars.
       My friend Tony travels in New Guinea and emails me faux colonial telegrams:
       Monkey stuck to face…can’t remove…do send assistance. In the jungle Tony craves crocodiles and contagions and cigarettes burning away pesky leeches. 
       I’d rather risk frostbite, ski snowy peaks, walk windy moors, or even shovel my fucking driveway.  I’m not cut out for jungle heat and fanged monkeys or digging a spoon into live monkey brains; all I want this moment is cold beer in a quiet corner.  So much for my trips to Ho Chi Minh City or cool coastal cities like Weihai or Qingdao with a German brewery and a night ferry to Korea.  So much for my fantasy of Shangri-La’s lost horizons. Billy from Cork, more adventurous, is trekking from Mongolia to the caves and Hindu temples of Kuala Lumpur. 
       In Shanghai Billy insists we eat bullfrogs, so we hie to a tiny diner where faces lean over wooden tables devouring long crispy bullfrogs with ugly curled toes and pale skin crossed by burn marks.  Stretched on their back on the grill they look vulnerable, martyred.  We join the locals chowing down on greasy scorched flesh, our cheeks growing fuller, rounder, our eyes bulging from mastication and mixed feelings. 
       Billy looks around the room, studies the old faces, the big cheeks and orb eyes. 
       “Now have you noticed,” he says, peering side to side, then leaning in like a conspirator.  “The more boolfrogs we eat, the more we start to luke like boolfrogs?”  The Cork accent is the sweetest accent in the world; I want to be from Rebel Cork.  Bent low over the tiny table, Billy puffs out his eyes and cheeks, waits a beat, then darts out a tongue as if for a fly.  Ribbet
       Billy places a frightening rooster head on a British friend’s plate while the friend studies his device.  We wait and try to remain serious, but cannot keep a straight face; we laugh and he looks up.  WhatWhat?  He does not notice the ugly head on his plate and the suspense is killing us.  What is it, he asks?  He thinks we are looking at his Smiths T-shirt.  When he sees the rooster head on his plate, his genuine public scream satisfies our schoolkid side.   
       Lazy Susans turn just for us, heaps of colourful food, dishes redolent of ginger and scalding peppers, fish and crab and bean soup and sauces and rice wine; more than we can ever finish.  I met an older couple from the UK who traveled in the west of China and they lamented the horrible meals: much muddy soup.  I feel a bit guilty as the food I’ve eaten here is wonderful.  As in India, I try dishes by guesswork, gambling, drawn to lovely colours and never sure what I’m putting in my mouth. 
       Tons of meat test the groaning tables, meat a form of status, as not long ago locals had very little, not long ago endured shortages and famines. As children we were told to clear our plates because kids were starving in China; now China eats bullfrogs and snakes and duck tongues, bok choy and beans, shark fins and sea urchin, China eats rooster heads, pig heads and rats, roast duck and bear, crickets and crab, shrimp, squid, terrapin, steamed eel, China devours noisy dumplings and long noodles, China eats oysters and Elk Valley coal, eats artists and booksellers, eats islands and eats other nations. China has ego and I have ego.
       Billy scarfs morsels from a new dish that appears. “Very good; what is it?” 
       A Chinese woman laughs and her reply to Billy is translated.  “In your mouth already, too late to ask.” 
       I eat China and China eats the planet, plucks guiltless songbirds from the sky and drags fish from the seas until the seas empty.  How, with all these delicacies, does my airport soldier stay so thin? Billy swallows bullfrogs and China swallows territory from Vietnam and the Philippines. The Chinese hated Gunboat Diplomacy from the Brits or Japanese, but are happy to be that way now.  The USA has to borrow money from China while China designs hypersonic “Carrier Killer” missiles to negate the threat of the American fleet in the Pacific.  These giant rockets rise high, then dive like a gannet, diving to a target at Mach 10, too fast for an aircraft carrier to stop its dive.  The beauty of their weapons. 
       Recently the CIA set up a network of Chinese informants, but the CIA moles were hunted patiently and executed in front of fellow workers, a visceral lesson.  After the Century of Humiliation, China now humiliates others. 
The Bund       The Shanghai nerve centre during the Century of Humiliation was The Bund, beautiful buildings and banks along the busy river, and the famous Cathay Hotel.  Am I nostalgic for the fabled Shanghai of the roaring 20s and 30s when it was the Paris of the Orient, the Whore of the Orient?  I am aware of the danger of nostalgia for an era of bigotry, but colonial cruelty from the British and Portuguese and French and Dutch was followed by a harsher local cruelty.
       Jazz Age Shanghai has a guilty appeal.  The swing bands in ornate riverside buildings lining The Bund, champagne nightclubs and mannered erotic dancers and film stars drunk as lords, sleek costumes and the China Clipper looming in their sky, a swanky flying boat for the wealthy and their lovers to hop their way across the Pacific.  Cinemas and casinos and racetracks and the Brits’ fox hunt with Chinese ponies and a snort of gin, a fox hunt with no fox.  You have to admire that verve.  Let us don jodhpurs before the monsoons fill the ditches!
       As in Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited, a sort of exile magic, dissipation as an offering to destiny and, exactly like Fitzgerald’s story, this glittering cosmos less magic to those not allowed in the clubs or the Cathay Hotel, those outside the gilt glass and art deco revolving doors. From the 1800s to the Jazz Age, both sides prefer to see the other as inscrutable, both European and Chinese judge the other lot as mysterious barbarians, untouchables, déclassé.  Once locals like my new friend Dr. Li were barred from the groomed park or the leaded revolving doors of this expensive hotel. No Dogs or Chinese Allowed
       Now the hotel’s front steps are the steps of the people, now locals lie across the steps where once they’d be horse-whipped for impertinence.  Now the crowded street is their street, ala Quebec’s revenge of the cradle.  No more starched Brits and remittance men, no more Blood Alley where Jack Tar drank rum and got rolled, no more Berlin jazz players and drunken White Russians fleeing the Bolshies to sell their hoarded jewels in Jimmy’s Kitchen, no more Siberian Fur Store, no more Shanghai Grease Factory.  Mary Pickford and Noel Coward gone, Pockmarked Huang gone, gamblers and gangsters, coolies and bar girls, all gone.  But the Cathay Hotel stands in front of me, strangely preserved by extreme change, held in amber by war and revolution.
       What should be the hotel’s grand entrance on The Bund is closed with chains.  How am I to enter the stupid place?  I walk around the hotel on a side-street that seems Dickensian, dirty, stalled in time versus the spiffy space-age vista visible right across the river in Pudong.  This is rich real estate and yet it seems abandoned and no one walks this lane with me.  There seems no way inside from three sides, but finally I find a side door into the hotel lobby where they keep an eye on one portal and barricade the others.  Decades ago the gilded world retreated inside these walls, but the diminished world breathes on, like an outpost standing after defeat and humiliating treaties. 
       I wander around, stunned by Egyptian and deco detail, brass light switches and lamps and marble steps, stained glass and hanging glass, etched metal and murals, heavy iron boot wipes, and leaded-glass revolving doors that swing for no one, the old exits barred.
       I meet friends for High Tea that is too expensive, but I’m glad that I saw the old girl and saw the geriatric jazz band in white coats wielding clarinets (veteran musicians who show steady-going gentleman style of nostalgic feelings).
       My brief visit is worth it for another privately pleasing reason.  In the hotel I notice Victor Sassoon named as a former owner; three months before I saw that same last name in Mumbai when visiting the David Sassoon library and its lovely garden.  The Sassoons, I am discovering, are a fascinating family; originally from Bagdad, they became prosperous merchants in old Bombay.  Opium was “traded” by the Brits and the ambitious Sassoons sold a ton and took on tuxedos and property and mistresses.  The colonial powers forced trunks of opium into China and returned with silver, jewels, and crates of tea filling the dank holds of sailing ships. Drug dealers, in essence, the drug cartels of their age with a veneer of colonial class and a sweet fleet of clippers. By stumbling onto the Sassoon name in two different worlds, I feel connected; somehow the Sassoons are mine, even if by accident.
       After tea in the hotel Felicity and my Sheffield friends ask me to walk and admire architectural details on The Bund, but outside thousands of people are pouring to the riverbank for the night’s famous light show.  The choking numbers bring me panic and a very fast goodbye to my friends and I flee via side streets, not exactly steady-going gentleman style.
       Later I learn of a recent New Year’s Eve fiasco exactly where I fled, hundreds crushed or suffocated on stairs up to the river embankment.  Perhaps I sensed their ghosts.  Shanghai crowds in 1926 inspired something like terror for Aldous Huxley and I sympathize.  Thirty-six humans dying across from the Peace Hotel, laid low under trampling heels as others cheer a light show in the sky and dark ferries ply a glowing river to Pudong, this space-age idea of a city that rose from a swamp.
       In a small bar a few blocks away a waitress adopts me in my anti-social flight.  Phuong has friendly eyes in a sleek face, her hair dyed the palest rose, not a Soviet red, more a pale pink or violet.  I am happy to stop in her place and be adopted like an orphan.  From her bar I can wander a fragrant city laid out by the insane and come back to Phuong to recoup, to escape the jenao or hot din, the city’s fabled spirit or vitality.  
       Phuong’s place allows me to hide from heated streets and crowds, hide in her clean well-lighted place and plot my moves through an opulent metropolis.  She shoos away other staff who approach me; I am her property, her colony. I walk out to the Shanghai Museum and its sancai vases and the best Bronze Age pottery in the world. I admire jade Budddas from Burma and walk where the Race Club and Amusement Park once stood, and Bubbling Well Road and the Cemetery of Martyrs – wonderful names. Then back to her.
       Phuong helps with the menu and tells me I can have two-for-one drinks, news I like.  Our relationship is of course dependent on commerce, but Phuong’s kindness makes a difference, one person in a billion who is not a stranger.  She walks with her arms out a bit from her hips and palms facing back, as if flying or about to arch into a ballet move. I am pleased to be her colony, better than not being a colony.  I walk out on streets named after dead French generals and into Nantao, its ancient city walls smashed and a bent oval of a road laid where city walls once cast their shadow, the road a tangible ghost. 
       I cross distinct sectors as if in Berlin after the war. They’ve eaten all the songbirds, but I love the giant purple butterflies moving near the park where a Chinese band plays Germanic polkas and a man stares at us as he shits.  That is a very awkward posture, ass out, knees like a stork, and beneath him a neat heap shaped like a brain.  He is not shy.  Individual versus crowd?  No difference.  I must be less shy about such matters.  Dance like no one is watching.  I will apply this to my bodily functions.
       Afternoon shades into evening as I flaneur the French Concession’s trees and courtyards, some lanes utterly altered, some the same as a century ago, mazes of unruly alleys and titanium glass super towers.  Millionaires in perfect suits buy stellar bling doodads in super-lit jewelry stores that rise as vast hallucinations, high walls of light, skewered rectangles powered by a million mega bulbs overwhelming my camera lens.
       Live like a local, one is advised when on the road.  But I am not local.  I am alienated in the pure blurred light’s worship of new golden calves.  Jags and Rolls purr with royal horsepower, gleaming dreams unrolling by Mao’s old house, powered by billionaires with excess cash to throw around (throw a little my way, please?), a stark display of ego and desire and gold.
       Art follows money and the art scene is exploding.  Meat is status, but one can only consume so much meat, can only flaunt so much expensive whiskey to display your wealth.  An abstract oil on canvas trumps 4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie. Phuong tells me her city is in the top three of the international art world, counting confidently on her fingers: “New York City.  London.  Shanghai.”  I had no idea. The money, the riches, the haute art, the roaring economy: is it all real?
       Dr. Li says, “Some of the economy is smoke and mirrors.  There are state subsidies and economic stimulants.  Quotas for growth are imposed on an area whether it’s growing or not.  It must grow.  Tariffs might hurt things.”
       So what is smoke and mirrors in the Middle Kingdom and what is real?  My eyes tell me that the jewelry is real, the millions of cars are real, and the air pollution is real, this year the worst on record.  Chinese leaders have declared a war on pollution, but I am skeptical, especially with tales of falsified air quality readings and entire steel mills shunted to farming areas during the Olympics to hide their plumes of smoke and carbon. 
       Ancients believed that weather was controlled by high gods.  Dr. Li takes me up in a high-rise’s high-speed elevator to see a viewing platform with a panoramic vista of city and river, but there is no view today, or the view is of the future, our shining tower locked in smog. The high gods hints that we’ll wear surgical masks and not jodhpurs; maybe our children will mine the sky for heavy metals.
       On a UK TV channel I catch a Wham music video filmed in China in the 1980s and its footage looks ancient and quaint.  Shy Chinese teens, no makeup, no silk or heels, no plastic surgery, and not used to cameras and pop-star celebs. Everyone traveling on foot or bikes.  No devices and zero cars.
       My German friend Christa taught in western China, one of the very first foreigners in the area.  “This is more than 30 years ago,” she says.  “I lived in a ‘small’ city on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.  Qinghai wasn’t open to outsiders except a few workers.  The West at the time was suspicious, foreigners might be carpetbaggers, villains, spies.”
       “So no tourists then?”
       “None at all!  People weren’t at all used to the blonde, blue-eyed, pale-skinned look of ‘big-noses’, one of the kinder terms for Caucasians.  I was the only blonde anywhere!  People came up without a word of introduction to touch my skin, my arm hair, and touch the hair on my head as if I were an exhibit. Goodness, it’s all coming back to me.”
       “Did you get used to it?”
       “It was difficult at first, but I did get used to it. When I opened my purse for change, people would grab my purse and pull it wide open to peer inside, as if there was magic there.  They were curious.  The locals were a mix of Han, Mongols, Uyghirs, Tibetans and other minorities, many persecuted by Mao and still persecuted now, I believe.”
       “Did the Muslims or minorities seem integrated into day-to-day city life?”  
       “The minority people were anything but integrated.  The Hui men, ethnic Chinese but Muslim, wore white caps and grey kaftans.  Hui women were not seen in public.  Tibetans wore traditional sheepskin garb with colourful trim, whereas Han Chinese still wore Mao uniforms or quilted cotton jackets, dull grey, dull blue, or dull green. The market had different sections serving each ethnic group.  In the Hui section decapitated animal carcasses hanging by their hind legs to bleed out after halal butchering.  Live animals in the Han section (to take home and kill when needed for dinner), and enormous baskets full of woolly yak heads in the Tibetan section.”
       “Yak heads?”
       “Horns and all. The best fast food was the Hui section: thin slivers of beef or yak meat on iron skewers, cooked instantly over the fire pit and melting in your mouth, but so spicy as to bring tears to your eyes.” 
       “Did food cost very much?”
       “Three skewers cost about the same as the bus fare, and no ration coupons needed. It all comes back to me now.  Strings of red chili peppers hanging from window frames to dry, and heads of cabbage wilting on all the window sills in preparation for pickling.  And coal cakes (coal dust and water shaped into loaves) drying on every sidewalk to burn in the winter. Xining was a provincial capital, but it blended into the country, with the peasants’ mud-brick dwellings next to drab Soviet-style apartment buildings.  Behind the campus were fields, and some of my colleagues living on campus grew their own vegetables and kept chickens in their backyards.”
       “So did you have a chicken?”
       “No, I didn’t have a chicken.  In the coldest part of winter some friends moved chickens into their living room, though by spring most chickens had disappeared into the soup pot.  My nearest neighbour was one of China's "national living treasures," a well-known poet and calligrapher and top scholar on Chinese literature.  During the Mao era he had been sent into internal exile, for 're-education' in a labour camp.”
       Christa says this family were great cultural guides, giving her an insider’s access to ancient temples and archeological sites and superb lessons on Chinese culture and history from both father and son.  She smiles and blushes fondly at the memory, and I deduce from her demeanour that she had a love affair with the living treasure’s charming living son.
       Biking in the countryside she was often tailed, perhaps out of fear that something might befall the only foreigner in the land. 
       Christa says, “I could borrow a bike, but I saw no cars then except for official vehicles, Black Marias with numbers and cloth curtains concealing the mandarins inside. Some people are more equal than others.  No one else had a car.”
       No cars when Christa lived in China, no cars in the Wham music video, millions of cars rolling through China now.  I see Jags and diamonds and millionaire suits and there cycles a shirtless old man, back gleaming with sweat, his bike balancing a high tower of cardboard down the avenue.  How does his teetering tower of cardboard not topple? 
       Others have jewels and real estate and piles of money; he has no teeth and no papers, no Facebook updates, but the king of cardboard has his own treasure, straining in the heat to bike and balance his cardboard mountain. 
       I will bet 1000 yuan he is from the country with no hukou permit, an illegal migrant in his own land eking out a living.  As in India, as in New Brunswick, rural villages empty to the gravitational pull of urban and farms turn to dustbowl as loess blows away.  Come toil on the pyramids! Or collect cardboard. Do not pass Go. 
       No permit means he has no health care and no education if he has kids, a kind of apartheid. But not to worry, the government is on it:  Notice of actively yet prudently pushing forward reform of the hukou system management.
       Shirtless, shiny with sweat, the old man cycles actively yet prudently.  July is a bubbling cauldron of stew, my brain on boil, and Phuong’s bar is a cool place to return to, to hide my skull and skin from the sun.  As in old Bombay, my need for refuge from melting asphalt and from humans.  One evening I sit at a corner table reading a newspaper.  Two young Koreans walk in and choose chairs inches away from me, though there are a dozen empty tables.
       At cinemas I take a decoy seat, wait to be surrounded, then move to a new seat.  In parking lots I leave a car way out by itself and return in a few minutes to find it surrounded.  I believe this human tendency is primal, an ancient desire to be near others in case hungry wolves show up at the cave entrance.  But I dislike this yen in our post-caveman world.
       In the Shanghai subway I peruse a poster and a teen walks through a gap of a few inches between my nose and the notice on the wall.  Way more room behind me, but, this person dives the tiny gap between my nose and the wall, an Asian version of limbo dancing that is vertical rather than horizontal. 
       My son’s nickname in Incheon is Personal Space, because he keeps telling his Korean students about this strange concept; they write the words and his likeness on the chalkboard to tease him.  In crowds I walk with my daypack held in front as a bumper to fend off the seemingly sightless oafs.  And everywhere in the world that form of blindness that announces itself with devices and selfie sticks instead of white canes.  I swear all day in Asia. 
       Phuong jokes with the two young Koreans who wish to be in my lap. 
       Korea, she says.  Not North Korea!
       Oh no! the two insist.  Not North Korea!  Then all four of us laugh, though I’m not sure why we find this so funny.
       I mention my son near Incheon and ask where they live.
       You know where Seoul is?
       And Pusan? 
       It’s not those.
       A Norah Jones song plays; Norah Jones plays everywhere, her light pop-jazz in every lounge and bar and microbrew and shop.  I had forgotten Norah Jones, but she is a goddess in Asia.  Nina Simone tunes still echo in my head, tunes I listened to on my flight over the International dateline; I prefer Nina to Norah.  Like the Nazis, Japanese forces occupying China condemned “decadent jazz. “Phuong sings to decadent pop while working, sings along to Amy Winehouse and then Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, that last song giving me shivers.  I like Phuong and like watching her sing during a shift, it’s endearing.
       In my newspaper I read that Casanova, touring England in 1763, was shocked at citizens shitting in the street.  So the Chinese did not invent the public practice.
       Phuong surprises me with a confession: she writes an advice column where she poses as an older monk dispensing wisdom like a sage on a misty mountain.  Wow.  I have to digest this information.  An advice column?  A monk’s advice column?
       “You don’t believe me?”
       I have no idea what to say.  “In a newspaper?”
       “On line.  It’s popular, I have many followers.”
       “No trouble with censors?” 
       “No trouble.  There are many questions for people in China now.  Some are lost.  They write me.  Bad relationships.  Will I be happy?  Rich?  Will my boyfriend be faithful?  Should I get plastic surgery?  Why these bad dreams?  I think people worry more now.” 
       I think of the boy soldier checking my visa: does my tiny soldier worry?  Does he go home alone in uniform to proud parents?  Or does a girlfriend open a golden gown somewhere in those giant high-rises?  Will she stay true?  Because of the one child rule, China has many lonesome males, a tribe of the unmarried, branches that may not flower.  When sons are valued, fewer daughters arrive, so now the favoured sons, the plump little emperors, have fewer females to meet, to court and spark. Phuong says that in the old days an unwanted baby girl was buried head down with stones over top to keep the baby from rising up to haunt the mother.
       I refrain from asking her if there is money in a column.
       Phuong says, “I am good at giving advice.  At school I enjoyed the arts, but my family told me to be practical.  Take science, math, computers.  I have found a way to be artistic, acting a role, writing the parts.  I don’t want to work in bars all my life.  You should know this.”
       I agree with Phuong, but she is very good at her work, seeming carefree, energetic, not just punching a clock.  She sings Amy and Tina tunes, she helps me with the menu.  “Not the fish, it has existed too long.”  She suggests something healthy, spicy.  China erases me, Phuong draws me back, makes me human again, makes me comfortable, a rare talent. 
       A young Chinese male in dark-framed eyeglasses and a Michael Jackson T-shirt, worried by our red ale and black stout, asks in accented, but very clear English, “May I have – a yellow beer?”  Phuong helps him choose a safe yellow beer and gives me an amused glance.
       I ask her, “Are there no beggars here?  A million beggars in Mumbai.”
       “Too risky,” she says.  “The police will see them and if no permit to live in Shanghai, they’ll be arrested. 
Beggars hide, yet at night I see two extremely pretty teens under a towering slab of a hotel.  They have a convincing school-girl look, as if waiting for a beau to swing by on the way to the prom.  Yet one alters her posture when she sees me walking nearer, she straightens and presents herself to me.  They don’t look like addicts desperate for cash, but they stand out on the street, a dangerous business model. 
       As in Napoli, I am a naïf and find it disturbing that I can buy these daughters, though Shanghai had its tradition of young girls for sale in the fabled opium dens, and the European concessions supported hundreds of brothels. Perhaps I’m puzzled as I sense more fear of authority in China.  Much turmoil and noise in Shanghai, but a far more orderly form of turmoil than India.  Cars stay in lanes and trains run on time, a sharp contrast to surreal Mumbai.  Mumbai feels like a game with authorities, whatever each grinning face can get away with.  In China’s universe of unease and cameras, safer to obey, don’t beg or whore, stay in line. 
       Phuong asks our Koreans who are not North Koreans if they’d like a second beer. 
       “Oh no, we couldn’t have more.”  They start to pack up as if the police are coming.
       “It’s free,” I tell them.  “Two for one; the second beer is free.”
       “Free?  Yes, we will have another!” They bow and thank me profusely for explaining.
       Phuong whispers in my ear, “You understand me.  Why do they not understand me?” I like her words and breath at my ear and wonder what other plans and ambitions she has, what other secret lives. The undiscovered country, all the unknowns.  On a silk road I am tortoise and hare and I like the optimism in her movements.
       Morning is a sunny mood, a leap from my hotel steps to walk down The Bund, to explore a lovely city, this great smoggy mother’s brass light and confusing pleasures.  I feel good, but sunlight on my bare calf muscles triggers a harsh itching.  I stop to see horrible red blotches opening on my legs. 
       WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!?  Bedbugs in the hotel?  My stomach flops.  The mystery blotches blossom in sunlight and forty-degree heat and I watch in panic as the red sores grow larger as in speedy time-lapse photography. 
       But bedbug bites should be on my ankles, not the flesh and muscle of my calf.  Mosquitoes?  The buggers here are so light and tiny that I can’t sense them searching for my blood.  My legs are out of the sheets at night and I have spent time by fountains and ponds, but I grew up with mosquitoes and my skin never erupted like this.  Any contact or friction is painful and the ugly blotches embarrass me in a subway car; I stand and people in seats have a clear view of my red craters.  Other legs look perfectly clear.  I feel afflicted, unclean.
       Then that dread message to a traveler: ACCESS CARD BLOCKED.  Jesus H Christ, not again!  People around the world now trying to buy jewels and cigarettes on my dime.  Was it that dodgy ATM at night that would not give me cash?  A weird tin accordion door to lock yourself in and avoid robbers while withdrawing or depositing cash.  The flimsy accordion door was useless if someone really wanted to rob you. 
       Could Phuong and my favourite bar be to blame?  But I’m on my fourth hotel and a dozen cafes; it could be any of those transactions.  I’m screwed in China with zero cash.  I need cash to get my ass to the airport and need cash in Korea.  I need a card that works.  Travel at times is a heated nightmare with a soundtrack of atonal quarter notes, a chaotic form of willing ill will and ill health. 
       Why choose to pay through the nose for torture and sweat and sleep-deprivation and the insults of airlines?  Why gobble Gravol and melatonin and malaria pills? And airports, where always is heard a discouraging word, where you are made to feel criminal. Yet I keep signing up and itching that pox. I’m a rotten traveler, my eye is too critical, but I can’t seem to stop moving and it’s mortifying and fun.  How to predict any outcome.  A city and a river, a country: I just want to borrow it and go home, like the British and Portuguese, like Bombay’s lively Sassoon family, their clippers of opium and lovely hotel on The Bund. 
       The word Bund sounds German, but is a name brought from India, meaning embankment and reminding me of Venice’s term fondamenta.  On the Bund at night crowds cheer as space-age high-rises come alive with a light-show’s chemical patterns, floating images of snowflakes, red hearts, spiders, flying fish.  Spectral colours zigzag the skin of buildings and the skin of the crowd, living tattoos. 
       Thirty-six people died here, bodies fall underfoot, made small, crushed on the esplanade steps.  Cadres of ghosts hover with us, shoulder to shoulder under a sublime light show. Like a body, this river city endures blow after blow, a metropolis shaking off colonial and post-colonial spasms.  To save China, Mao fought the Japanese and cruel landlords and warlords and tyrants, but Mao becomes worse than all of them; he out-Herods Herod.  Crushed by foreign powers, then crushed by their own leaders, yet now Shanghai and China are happily snorting industrial-strength Viagra and the Century of Humiliation is long over.
       The siren city is stuck in my head like a Nina Simone song, but the city belongs to its crowd. All the missionaries who sailed up this murky river with pointy crucifixes; do they feel foolish now, an utter waste of their lives?  Do the Bible-thumpers wish they’d stuck to skittles and beer? Scientists claim that to observe a subject is to change it, but I could stare into Shanghai for 100 years and not make a dent.
       Sealed in sweat and soaked in history and in the over-heated humanity, I may be seeing the world’s sticky smoggy future, days of wine and carbon, the old Silk Road paved and the new asphalt melting under our soles.  D.H. Lawrence adored southern climes, but a relief to me to arrive home in cooler Canada where I vow to do as little as possible, to inhale fresh air under my huge maple as ospreys circle kayaks on the river, to hang out with foxes and eagles.  A hummingbird hovers by my face, studies my face (now on file in China), and I prudently and actively tell the hummingbird I’ll never leave home again.  I swear off joyless airports and our sullen slums of segregated “cabins” and segregated lavs and airplane seats that numb my tender limbs.  That airless world has defeated me.
       But times passes; Billy and my Cork companions call: We are all meeting in Lisbon.
       Lisbon?  Hmm, always wanted to see Portugal. Years ago my backpack was stolen Spain, and in Madrid I turned back, gave up on Lisbon.
       Ok, perhaps one more trip.
       Then a note from Bhutan; Professor Thinley wonders if I’d like to teach English under the Himalayas. 
       Ok, two trips.  But tell me, is it a kingdom where they have eaten all the songbirds? Is it possible to drift there by freighter or raft?  Or sway on a caravan of camels?  Please, please, not another poxy plane.
       My big regret is missing Phuong my last night in her city.  I wanted to see her one more time before jetting to Korea, told her I’d be back, but I wandered west in the French Concession and lingered too long at a microbrew, needed to find my room and lay my spinning head on a pillow, needed no more drinks, did not want to be rolled like Jack Tar the sailor. I stopped by her bar the next day before going to Korea, but it was not her shift and I didn’t see her and my crazy race-car to the airport awaited. 
       I miss Phuong, her angular face like Mezcala art.  I live in the woods on another planet and she was so kind.  Phuong saw my mosquito bites and brought me aloe, bent to anoint the inflamed bites, but I intercepted her aloe and dabbed it on myself, wary of a supplicant posture.  The Mary Magdalene vibe was very tempting, however; I liked her touch on me, her walk, her words at my ear.  What would a monk do?  Perhaps I can seek guidance from her mountain monk persona; I’ll climb to her peak on my knees as pilgrims do in the far west of Ireland.
       One person is my generous China, my host and haven, my balm and opiate.  I need a host; I am not ectogenous.  I travel crowds with my open sores and my pronounced mooncalf tendencies.  I don’t think I was tailed; I am a failure as a spy, I can’t get arrested, but I remember kindness. Phuong kept me sane.  And now the bright drug of travel calling once more, another trek to eat kingdoms of enjoyable panic and perfumes, to rise from a bed and climb on a jet where a screen whispers, Touch Anywhere to Begin

© 2019 Mark Anthony Jarman 

JarmanMark Anthony Jarman is the author of Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye.  His novel, Salvage King Ya!, is on’s list of 50 Essential Canadian Books and is the number one book on Amazon’s list of best hockey fiction.  His Selected Stories is forthcoming from Biblioasis Press. He won a Gold National Magazine Award in nonfiction, has twice won the Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award, and  was included in The Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Stories, and short-listed for Best American Essays and the O. Henry Prize. He has published in Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Brick, American Short Story, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, The Barcelona Review, Literatura Na Swiecie (Poland), Hobart, Washington Square, Vrij Nederland, and reviews for The Globe & Mail.  He is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Yaddo fellow, has taught at the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and now teaches at the University of New Brunswick where he is fiction editor of The Fiddlehead literary journal. 

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