Sunday, April 8, 2012

China Life

Upon a dusty, worn out mattress in a dark and run-down apartment in the slums of Hong Kong, I lay awake in a room I share with my Asian companion, silently contemplating my life in the dead of night. Why did I come here? More so an escape than a vacation; the rusty spring bed digging into my shoulder blade clearly attests to this. To live simply, one person among the horde, all struggling for those meager resources that maintain our struggle for meager resources. A life with nothing to lose, a life without an abstract and unattainable happiness, a life without confusion.

I test cough. The Asian I share a room with shifts and sniffs, indicating wakefulness. We quietly creep from creaky beds and sneak through doorless corridors, as we have so many other nights past, to spy on the curious contents of those other rooms. Our intentions are innocent: simply to absorb the sight of those sleeping souls, to become the keepers of memories that would otherwise never find a mind.

The stale, dusty air muffles our steps as we round a corner, first revealing just heads like half-assed spies before fully exposing our bodies to the entrance. Two fat black people sit upon a mattress on the floor; a mother and son, packing worthless looking possessions into well-used cardboard boxes. They are moving to the newly vacated room down the hall. Their morbid obesity suggests a long night long of shambling, dragging  boxes and mattress, and taking ample breaks to catch their shallow wheezing breaths. We offer our aid in their struggle, and receive gruff grunts of acceptance that hide their thankfulness from us, and the sorry status of their existence from themselves. We each grab boxes and are out of the room in the time it takes them to begin the arduous task of standing.

We travel down the dark hallway, decorated with peeling wallpaper and long abandoned webs, and catch a glimpse of a fluffy humanoid peeking around the corner of a side passage before disappearing. As we pass by the corridor, I look down and see the backside of an old bearded lady with long messy blond hair and a faded pink cotton dress quickly shuffling away, holding a little fluffy dog who stares back at me with haunted eyes portraying a clear message: how did I end up in this state of being?

We find the vacant room down the next corridor, set the boxes down, and head back for more. Upon our return, the monsters have managed to stand and pick up some boxes. They eagerly pass them over before shooing me away back down the hall. Going alone, I take a wrong turn and find myself in a room with the old lady. She is holding a pair of electric clippers, and frizzy blond hair is strewn about all over her soiled mattress. Both her dog and herself have received hasty amateur haircuts, strips of long hair punctuating the sheared surfaces of their skin. She looks up with an eager, toothless smile as if begging for acceptance. The now mostly bald dog shows me those same eyes as before. I apologize and explain that I must have taken the wrong turn and, holding back a sneeze, flee the eerie scene to finish my task...

When morning comes, I emerge from the dank building I call home, into a muddy city square lit by lanterns strung about like drying laundry, and the dim light of dawn. My family is on a vacation to visit me today, so I head off towards the train to find them.

I find myself on the train, dismal grey and full of uncolored passengers. Everyone is standing, facing no particular direction. I can hear their murmuring voices but see no moving lips. The outside scene of abandoned wooden structures and a drizzling rainy grey sky moves by slowly, framed by busted up metal train window frames ineffectively patched up with Scotch tape. I move to the back of the car where a metal door leads to the next one, pry it open, cautiously look behind me, and walk through.

I'm in the space between cars. Worn looking wooden planks extend from the doors on either side, meeting together in the middle with a creaky metal hinge. A loose tube of tough looking fabric surrounds the space between, possibly to save someone from being run over should they fall off of the precarious bridge spanning the gap, though I'm unsure its effectiveness would be proven should I fall. I begin crossing the rickety planks, shaking with the clattering movement of the train. Nearing the halfway point, I hear the metal door behind me slide open, and a stream of loud and angry sounding Chinese gibberish. Wide-eyed, I slowly and carefully twist my head around deliver to this man and his conductors uniform a deadpan gaze. He motions me to go one way or the other. Danger of crossing the gap forgotten, I hurry to the next car.

I step through the sliding door onto a semi-open car. Humans mill about the rectangular space like farm animals, loosely crafted wooden fencing preventing them from falling off the sides. The top is open to the sky, which is a cheerful cerulean spotted with clouds, and through the gaps in the fence I glimpse vast green fields and occasional trees passing by. I see my family at the far side of the train and feel an unexpectedly warm joy accompanying this knowledge of their presence. They beckon me to join them with a friendly wave, before pulling back a large plank in the fence and ducking through the opening. As I hastily make my way through the crowd, the plank bangs shut behind them. I pry it open for myself and slide through.

On the other side I find myself in a cavernous underground space, with a stream of sewage water that bisects a polluted earthen floor. The small groups of raggedy people huddling around oil drum fireplaces and inside dilapidated tents seem to pay no attention to me. I see my family has crossed to the other side, where they are already disappearing up a staircase into the unknown. I move to cross, but stumble; the tip of my sneaker soaks with the concentrated piss flowing in the stream, and my bare hands press into the oily earth as I stop my fall. I close my eyes and take a breath to collect myself before standing.

I get to my feet and feel struck, like a glass of moonshine chugged. I'm dazed and wasted, and struggle to get my bearings. I can barely make out the staircase I want to go to, but stumble to the left. I stop and try to turn, but frustratingly move again in the same direction, towards the dark passageway where the sewage runs.

Each step forwards is a failed feat of will as I continue away from my destination. I look up and see clearly; I'm in a cylindrical brick tunnel, the floor packed flat with garbage. At the end of the tunnel is a cubic space where two shady men are making an exchange. In unison, they look my way. One must be a ninja, because his arm flashes out almost instantly, releasing towards me a round metal compact disc-like shuriken. As it speeds towards my throat, I desperately grab the closest thing I see: a discarded pair of metal scissors. I defend against the first projectile in the nick of time, only to be assailed by a seemingly endless barrage of discs. Repeated deflections feed my confidence, and I begin pressing forward towards the attacker. As I span the gap, however, the disorientating daze redescends upon me. I struggle to keep my eyes open and focused, my scissors barely finding their way to clink against each attack. Time practically grinds to a halt, and it seems to take 10 minutes before I finally arrive at the end of the corridor.

A blur of movement; my scissor's edges rest against the ninja's neck, and the other man's gun finds its way to my temple. There is a long moment of uncertainty, but finally a mutual acknowledgement. Our weapon arms drop, the men complete their exchange: a small baggie of white powder for a handful of rusty coins.

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