Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays

Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays

by Bill Holm

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Arranged by letter of the alphabet, with at least one entry per letter, these short pieces capture the variety of daily life in contemporary China. Writing about traditions that endure in rural areas as well as the bureaucratic absurdities an American teacher and traveler experiences in the 1980s, Holm covers such topics as dumpling making, bound feet, Chinglish,

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Arranged by letter of the alphabet, with at least one entry per letter, these short pieces capture the variety of daily life in contemporary China. Writing about traditions that endure in rural areas as well as the bureaucratic absurdities an American teacher and traveler experiences in the 1980s, Holm covers such topics as dumpling making, bound feet, Chinglish, night soil, and banking. In a new afterword to the second edition, Holm reacts to recent changes. "Holm's view is entertaining, thought-provoking and touching. After reading his book, you won't look at the United States or China the same way." - Philadelphia Inquirer

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An Alphabet of China Essays

Milkweed Editions

Copyright © 2000 Bill Holm
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57131-250-1

Chapter One



After a year's teaching in Xi'an, the ancient Tang capital grown into a grimy cement industrial city, it is the end of July and time to leave China. For weeks I have been fighting with bureaucrats, trying to get fellowship money and school visas for intelligent and ambitious students, only to bang into the granite bedrock principle of all entrenched bureaucracy: "pay your dues and wait your turn; I haven't got mine yet ..." The lying, the fawning, the false smiles, the categorical no, the stifled anger, have worn me down. The call that never connects on the half-dead phone, the enervating heat, the army of flies, the endless bargaining over small potatoes, the chorus of "mei you" (not have) that sings out in reply to every request, whether for canned tomatoes, cold beer, or train tickets, has finished me off. I am exhausted and ready to go. I do not need a second opinion.

After a year in China, it is difficult even to remember America as a real country; it is a place created by your own imagination, where goods are available, service provided, language clear and direct, machines function with elegant efficiency,the food is clean, greaseless and served hot, the newspapers lively and truthful, and the weather an eternal southern California of the soul, helped out on rare occasions by Westinghouse and General Electric; in other words, a country with more than enough of everything, easily gettable everywhere, and because of that, no good reason to lie, hoard, or fail to do the job. I even forgot my old anger at American politics of the eighties and began thinking of the President as a benign old blatherer, silly but not capable of much harm in the long scheme of history.

Judge not my foolishness, dear reader! Every Westerner I met in China who was there for a long time invents his own version of this imaginary America. The old China hands who came in the thirties invented a bourgeois monster, and the foreign expert of the eighties invents a republic of pizza, good bourbon, T-bones, Chevrolets, and clerks who are happy to finger your credit card.

An anthropologist I taught with gave me an interesting insight early in my year in China. I'd complained to him that my cultural bolts were loosening, that living in a place without newspapers, television and cheese was all right; I preferred doing without them in Minnesota, but being enveloped by a culture which neither knew, valued, nor seemed to have any apparent use for Bach, Whitman, Samuel Johnson, Blake, Plato, Freud, Homer, Gustav Mahler, even Jesus, was discomfiting-particularly for someone like me who had staked his spiritual and intellectual life on those ideas and noises.

"In Asia," the anthropologist said, looking uncommonly wise and Confucian for a Minnesotan with a motorcycle, "you either lose your inner moorings, start to sink, go some kind of crazy, and just let it happen, or you will leave sooner than you expected and not learn anything."

"Impossible!" I fulminated. "My moorings are set in steel. I can't live without them!"

I woke up one morning three or four months later, crazy in exactly the way he described. I felt no panic, no fear; I was adrift and looking around, interested, even cheerful, in a manner that no one who has ever said the words, "Have a good day!" can begin to understand. It would be a good day; nothing would work, nothing would be available, and everything would go wrong differently than you imagined. Now I loved China. Now I was happy.

And now, for better or worse, I was leaving, curiously anxious to feel these two things simultaneously for a little while, the sharp new image of China while it was still fresh in me, and the old hazy daguerreotype of America, the yin and yang, the black and the white, the east and the west.

Scott Fitzgerald, in The Crackup, said he knew he was crazy when he became unable to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously. The experience of China means that you will never again see singly; the contrary of every idea in your life and culture looks as sane and reasonable as the idea itself. Your consciousness is bifurcated once and for all, so you might as well enjoy it. Every old truth is half a new lie, every perception half a deception. It's all right; be calm.

No Westerner ever really knows anything about China. It is too big, too old, too complicated, too unlike anything in our half-world made by Plato, St. Paul, and the British navy. Even the Chinese have a hard go of it to master their own civilization and, except for Party hacks, generalize timidly about China. But they at least start with the language. For a Westerner, literacy in Chinese means five years of intense drudgery and, without that language, nothing real can be known. But, after surviving a plunge into Chinese craziness, your mind opens in a different way to your own country, and having "seen" China, you are able to see what is in your own house or your own everyday life, with new "crazied" eyes. The view is peculiar and not what you expected.

My first view of China was the Shanghai airport at midnight, one lonesome planeload of late, sleepy passengers wandering around in a locked lounge, guarded at every entrance and exit by Chinese police-skinny teenagers in olive drab uniforms baggy enough to fit two or three of themselves. Jade imitations of old Chinese carvings glowed dimly in locked display cases. The water fountain told you not to drink out of it in two or three languages. Cicadas buzzed with such brazen violence that they vibrated the glass walls. Even if it was physically impossible, I saw the palpable heat pressing mushily over Shanghai.

Leaving China, I felt Shanghai in daylight for the first time in late July the next year. The heat was not a false image. Shanghai was three prairie scorchers squeezed together in intensity, plus the deep ominous humidity before a tornado, without any tornado arriving to blow it apart. Your skin, your shirt, your hair, were inseparable from the air. The old ramshackle houses (once home for a single Chinese magnate, now home to anywhere from fifty to one hundred, sans paint, sans toilet, sans windows) melted into it. The bricks and boards, damp, soggy, sweating, almost dissolved into the bizarre shapes of a Dali landscape. Through this heat moved more humans than you imagine on a whole planet, much less in a single city: humans loaded three or four to a bicycle, humans on foot, humans squeezed into rusty diesel buses, rich humans in air-conditioned taxis, humans underfoot, humans hanging out of windows, humans in limp uniforms in traffic kiosks, small humans, large humans, Chinese humans, foreign-devil humans, beautiful humans, grotesque humans, humans brought together with a single fundamental fact, the bottom of every fact in Shanghai-sweat-salty, acrid human sweat stuck everywhere in this vast, run-down, lively place.

I spent two days waiting for the plane to America in the Shanghai Jiaotong University faculty club-blessedly air-conditioned. Through the gray haze outside the lobby window stood an enormous bronze heroic statue of the Great Helmsman himself-Mao Zedong-right arm raised in salute, overcoat billowing in the nonexistent wind, face metallically noble, chin wart and all. Even the bronze sweats. Almost all these heroic helmsmen statues were pulled down after the Cultural Revolution, during which they pocked the landscape like teenage acne. The personality cult was now on the back burner, and though Map's waxed corpse was still on show in Beijing, the normal Chinese citizen, tired of his recent political firestorms, could go off to work without the Chairman's wart observing his progress.

But here in this dank city, a big one survives: an anomaly, a contradiction, like so much else in Shanghai. Much more than on Beijing, the West left its hand on Shanghai: on the colonial architecture, the shaded boulevards, the magnates' mansions, the traffic roundabouts, the local taste for coffee, pastries, and dry wine, the signs in English and French, the overwhelming numbers of old people who manage European languages and speak to tourists openly, the clinging silky dresses on the women, the eagle-eyed, feisty urbanity of the Shanghai man on the street.

It is a strangely appropriate midway point between Xi'an, the ancient backward isolated provincial city, and San Francisco, my first destination, the Valhalla of twentieth-century mercantilism and lifestyle-itis. Shanghai is half-and-half, stewed in its own heat.

One morning I got up at dawn for a walk, hoping it had cooled. It had not. Night is black heat; day is gray heat; dawn is pink fuzzy heat, all the same temperature. I strolled over to the little grassy yard in front of the bronze helmsman, and, having lived in China for a year and gone crazy, was not surprised to find twenty or twenty-five old people out doing exercises. One old man in a wheelchair sat doing Taichi with his arms and his neck, the chair slowly turning in front of the Mao statue, as he waved, plunged, and wobbled in his seated ritual of half-fitness.

I sat down on the steps in front of the Chairman's toe and started sweating onto a notebook page, hardly knowing what I thought to say at leaving this odd, broken-down, magnificent place. As I sat there wordless and wet, an old man in a sleeveless T-shirt and baggy shorts ambled over and showed his missing teeth.

"You are a foreigner?"

Since I am around six-and-a-half feet tall and red-bearded, I thought this perceptive of him so early in the morning, and answered yes.

"You are coming to teach at our famous university?"

"No, I taught at another famous university, and am just leaving. I catch a plane this afternoon."

I knew the next question was coming; it is regular as the rotation of the planets.

"What do you think of our country? It is so poor and backward compared to your so rich and up-to-date country."

I also know what response was expected of me, but somehow on this last soggy morning in Asia, I couldn't give it. I asked him questions instead.

"Do you come here every morning to exercise?"

"Yes, I do." He swung his arms, and jogged in place, like an athlete winding down his body. "How old do you think I am?"

This was going to be twenty questions, and I was in no mood to play it.

"You are Chinese, and older than you look, I suppose. How old are you?"

"I am sixty-eight, but quite fit, don't you think?" He pounded his chest.

Indeed, he looked fit, short, compact, and tough enough to have survived the last impossible half-century of Chinese history.

"You speak English very well. Have you been to America?"

"I am from Shanghai before the Liberation. I worked with Americans and learned a little. My English is poor, don't you think?"

This was a thousand simultaneous conversations, every cliché I had memorized.

"It is very good. Do you teach?"

"No. I am a worker, but too old now. I hope my children can travel to your beautiful country someday."

He translated the Chinese word for America directly-Meiguo -"beautiful country."

"How old are you?"


"The hair on foreigners' faces, you know, makes them look to US ..."

"Older. Yes, I know."

"And how many children?"

This was an inexorable conversation we were not engaged in, a verbal blitzkrieg. There was no stopping it.


"But you are a young man. Your wife can still ..."

"No wife."

"Ah. Perhaps you need a Chinese wife! You foreigners can have many children. We Chinese only one. So many people, you see."

"Bu yao!" I answered, cranking out my primitive Chinese to bring this to a halt. He looked puzzled. Wrong tones again? Maybe not; this man speaks Shanghai-ese, entirely different noises for "not want."

"Do you know who this is?" He gestured toward the elephantine statue.


"What do you Americans think of him?"

"He was a man of great energy; some good, some bad. He brought China useful things, but much misery, too. Probably more misery. What do you think?"

"You are a welcome foreigner. I hope you come back to China. It has been very nice to speak English with you this morning."

As the damp sun began to slather over the helmsman's boots, we parted, my last spontaneous conversation with a stranger in China. The wheelchair was still at his calisthenics, waving his arms like a perpendicular windmill.

My only real errand in Shanghai was to repair a last piece of Chinese bureaucratic incompetence. For six weeks, I had asked for a reservation not to Minnesota but to Seattle, where I intended to reacquaint myself with bourgeois decadence by sailing in the San Juan Islands for two weeks. I patiently explained in slow "special" English, time and time again, that I did not, under any circumstances, want to fly to Minneapolis, that it was thousands of miles from Seattle, that I wanted an open booking, like round-trip tickets, an impossibility in China, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. When I got to Shanghai to pick up my ticket-impossible by phone or computer, possible only by standing in line, in person-it read SHANGHAI-SAN FRANCISCO-MINNEAPOLIS, all in one long consecutive marathon. Some Chinese bureaucrat knew only that I lived in Minnesota and could not imagine my deviating from a brisk return to my home work-unit. After all, had I gotten their permission to go sailing?

My anger exceeded language, so I silently pocketed the ticket, found a taxi, and asked the driver to take me in air-conditioned comfort to the booking office of any international airline in Shanghai that had a computer. My American Express card burned with rage in my wallet, ready to strike any creature that stood in its single-minded plastic way. I had wasted hours, days, months of my precious life, whitened a thousand hairs in my beard, raised my precarious blood pressure, all to have a simple booking made that, in a civilized country (so I muttered to myself), would have taken one phone call and ten or fifteen minutes. And I still had to do it myself! But, at least, I was in Shanghai, where credit cards meant business and, as it turned out, Northwest Airlines from my very home state had an office in an elegant old hotel, the Jin Jiang, complete with functioning computer, clean carpet, soft chairs, glossy brochures, No Smoking signs (the only ones in China!), and a beautiful Hawaiian agent who did her business briskly and cheerfully, albeit with a sort of melancholy look probably indicating that Shanghai was not her first choice for a lively work assignment. A few minutes and 114 dollars later, it was done. I was booked on a plane to Seattle two hours after I landed in San Francisco. I walked out smugly, thinking to myself, "Now that is the way business is done in civilized countries. Good to get home!" To celebrate, I went into the hotel coffee shop and treated myself to a tuna fish sandwich, potato salad, iced tea (with ice cubes!), cheesecake, and coffee, my first such lunch in a year. It was awful. I paid seven or eight dollars in hard currency and walked out into the Shanghai miasma. I have never much liked tuna fish, I thought to myself, and cheesecake once did in my gall bladder. Sweat poured out of more places on my body than a physiologist would think possible. I smoked my last chocolate-scented Phenix cigarette, found a taxi and retreated to the air-conditioned faculty club to read the Herald Tribune until the plane took off for San Francisco.

I left Shanghai in late afternoon at the still point of heat. Like every street of every city in China, the road to the airport was not a series of isolated, disconnected events, but a mass held together by the continuous presence of human clots. It looked almost as if the old western houses were ready to explode from the density of human life inside them. I made a mental picture of the million square miles of Chinese countryside stretching off in every direction but east, the numberless villages, the living room-sized farm plots, the stuffed buses weaving between mules, pedicabs, bicycles, and walkers, horns sounding a continual alarm continually ignored by the billion Chinese simultaneously out on the roads going about whatever their business might be; every inch of Chinese soil remodeled, refertilized, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, rebuilt again, dense with six thousand or so years of corpses, ruins, tries, failures, secrets, catastrophes, treasures. China is a ruined place, spoiled by being used too long by too many, but it is ruined in the way that only human beings can ruin a place-with dignity, squalor, corruption, blood, foolishness, passion, and love. No animal did that, China says when you look at it, when you breathe in it. We did it, and that is what it looks like, and it will go on and on and on and on. Humans mostly do that, and, if nothing else, China is a human place.


Excerpted from COMING HOME CRAZY by BILL HOLM Copyright © 2000 by Bill Holm. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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