The Earthquake Personified

Lushan Earthquake At 8:02AM on Saturday, April 20th, the students at Sichuan University’s Jiang’an Campus were awoken by their dormitories shaking back and forth. The students from the relatively tremor-free provinces outside Sichuan – Shandong, Hainan, Guangxi, Hebei, etc – were “scared to death.” They jumped from their bunks and fled the buildings.

All Saturday and Sunday, aftershocks originating in the Longmenshan faultline shook the province.

I teach English Reading and Writing to about 150 of those students.

The class I’d prepared for the Monday after the earthquake was about personification as a literary device.

After having introduced the students to the personification technique, I asked them to discuss the bits of life that upset them, anger them, stress them out. They talked about exams and homework, of course. But top of their lists was the earthquake.

Imagine the earthquake as a character, I said, as a person with thoughts and feelings, and write a rap around that.

Here’s some of what they wrote:

It’s not the first time I appeared,

And I just wanna disappear.

All the people are afraid of me,

This is not what I wanna be…”

I read the newspaper,

And I knew I’d made a disaster,

There were so many people suffering,

I was sad and crying,

Why do I always make people die?

I don’t wanna be a bad guy…”

And as I walked around the class, reading what the students had written, and thinking about the flattened villages, the dead, the injured, the wholeLushan Earthquake thing seemed even more sad, more tragic. Here was an earthquake that never intended to cause damage or pain but could not help it.

In one of the raps, a tale of unrequited love, the earthquake was a woman who had fallen in love with the earth but was rejected, jilted:

I cried,

Because I didn’t become the earth’s bride.

I felt angry, I shook.

Maybe there was a better choice,

But I just wanted to make some noise.

I know I was wrong,

But the hurt felt so strong…

Sorry to scare your life,

I just wanna be a good wife…”

Raise a glass to the people of Lushan county.

And lead us not into…

Keeping the Saints SoberJack’s afraid that in China his life has “gone to shit”.

Drinking, fucking.”

Disgusted, he shakes his head, tuts. Back in Cameroon, big into church, he read the Bible every Sunday at service and was faithful, at least to a certain degree, to Christian moral codes. But living in China, spending every night on Bar Street, in the company of drunks and loose women, has tempted Jack, led him away, he believes, from the church. “Maaan. You’ve read the bible right? In Leviticus God commanded the priests not to drink so they’d know the difference between the holy and the unholy. But all I do every night is drink, man, I don’t know the difference anymore. I used to be spiritual, man.”

Probably 90% of Bar Street’s premises are bars. On summer nights, all steaming neon and mosquitoes, tables and chairs are placed on the paths outside bars. Vendors sell sticks of barbecued pork, aubergine, potato. Splash and sizzle of grease dripping on hot coals. Kao rou! Smoke, illuminated red/green/blue by the bars’ flashing neon, stings the drinkers’ eyes. Hiss and fizz of the fourteenth opened bottle, foaming. Cheers! He jiu! Beggars, watermelon, plastic roses. A doctor checks the street’s pulse. Under the influence both of beer and the self-destructive impulse, he says, with grave concern, blood pressure has intensified – 130/90 mmHg. A clumsy arm knocks a beer bottle from the table onto the path, launching a million tiny pieces of glass into the frenetic night, which broken glass like tiny fireworks reflects the epileptic neon. The sun goes down; its heat, however, remains. Here are the names of some of the street’s bars: Happy Passengers, Cowboy, Destination, Together, Don’t Lose Your Face, Leave Me Alone, Happy Happy, Temptation.

TemptationJack is famous in Temptation. A bar of two floors, one on street level, one below, closing hours are usually 6 or 7AM; basically, whenever the last of the clientèle leaves, stumbling upstairs into the city’s judgmental morning Sun. The bar is busiest after 2AM, when those who’d been at the nightclubs arrive to heap oblivion on top of intoxication on top of… Ganbei! The subterranean level is where the weird shit happens. The place is wild, messy, demented. A skinhead girl who never talks to anyone and looks like she’s on ecstasy but has probably never touched any Class A’s dances like a psycho on stage. Every night. Other girls sitting on the long couch prowl the bar with shadowed eyes. Guys playing drinking games with their fingers shout numbers – Yi! Xiao di di ge! – as if shouting about to break their lungs was the only way to make themselves comprehensible. Smell of piss and puke, which smell, no matter how strong the wash of disinfectant, will never vanish. Oh man. It’s name is apt. Temptation. Jack says, “Lead us not into temptation.” He is, however, led (by whom? by whom?) there.

Finger-counting games, hua quan, are played with the locals. You lose, you drink. He jiu! Drink! DRINK! Jack speaks phrases of the local dialect. Mei nu, guo lai ma! GUO LAI MA! A wind-up action figure is probably how he’s regarded by some of the locals; not as a man with a mind of his own and with deeply personal hopes and fears. He’s a toy, a clown, a night’s entertainment. They wind him up. And he is complicit; like a character-actor, has allowed that role possess, control and to a certain degree define him.

Every glass of beer knocked back drowning out Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the Proverbs.

He jiu!

Jack’s nights are partly defined by a positive feedback loop in which feedback loop A represents drinking alcohol and B represents feelings of guilt and shame. A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. Spiegel im Spiegel. Thus, the potential for feelings of guilt and the consequent desire for self-punishment are exponential, as is the potential for divergence from equilibrium. Fuwuyuan! Zai lai liu ping! Kuai yi dian ma! Six more bottles are opened. He jiu! System instability sets in. Jack ends up drunk as fuck, stumbling, stupefied.

This is the song that never ends,

Yes it goes on and on my

From his mouth a stream of slurred local dialect – ni zai gao na yang? and the locals laugh. Ni jia ma de pi!

The supreme happiness of life being the conviction that we are loved is maybe part of the answer for all this debauchery.

Our father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

On Earth, as it is in Heaven,

Give of this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us,

And lead us not into…

Jack has a flashing thought: The Lord’s Prayer, he thinks, is asking God to lead us not into temptation, which plea implies God leading us into temptation is in fact a possibility. What the fuck? Would God lead us into temptation? Would God lead us into sin? On purpose? Is God testing me? Is this, all this, this drinking, these girls, this… – is it a test of character?

JobIn his flat, in the afternoon, hungover, Jack reads the Book of Job. He convinces himself, at least temporarily, that, like Job, he is being tested, and that if he passes the test, he will be returned to a state even more prosperous and peaceful than that which he enjoyed before arriving in China.

On Skype, he talks with his mom. She asks, “How is the Christian life over there?”

China’s crazy, mom,” he says, “China’s crazy.”

That night, he goes to a bar on Bar Street. Half in jest, half not, he tells the other guys that after talking with his mom he’s now a born-again Christian. He sits mostly in silence. In his eyes, however, a sense of inevitability about the night – probably 5AM pissed fucking drunk again on fucking shit beer in a fucking shit bar talking to a girl who is pissed fucking drunk.

Thing is, there is nothing inevitable about your course of action. It’s only telling yourself something is inevitable that makes it inevitable. This is maybe a mental acrobatic trick which excuses or justifies behaviour you know is irresponsible, reckless, damaging. Why? Because you always have a choice; so maybe the sadness we sometimes perceive as part of inevitability is simply the awareness that a particular course of action is not inevitable, is in fact avoidable, and that you choose, and the course of action you choose is ultimately making you unhappy, but you still go ahead and do it, and you don’t know why, but guess it has something to do with loneliness, or the fear of loneliness.

This is the song that never ends,

Yes it just goes on and on my friends,

Some people started singing it not knowing what it was,

And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…

This is the song that never ends,

Yes it goes on and on my

Jack, my brother, look after yourself, be generous to yourself, take care.

Scaring the Monsters Away

NoiseWhen I first moved to China, the trumpeting of carhorns was nonstop obvious. Hot summer days I’d sit in the office thirteen floors above the city streets and, through the open windows, an incessant yawling of horns – of taxis, cars, motorcycles, buses – would ascend and invade.

I’d talk about how loud it was and how it never ended, how back home, in Ireland, it wasn’t like that.

Two years later, however, and I’ve gotten used to it. The traffic-noise outside my apartment in Jade City. The jackhammers breaking stone on the Second Ring Road. The bulldozers. The music streaming at earsplitting decibels from clothes shops. At least consciously none of that bothers me anymore.

I think I’ve figured out why.

One morning, waiting outside the train-station, an American friend began to complain about the traffic noise. “Why don’t they just stop!” she yelled.

Whispering to me, another friend said, “The locals don’t seem bothered by it.”

I nodded.

I began to pay more attention to China’s various sounds, plus the local people’s involvement in and reaction to those sounds. In Jiuzhaigou National Park, a valley of tranquil multicoloured lakes and ancient trees, the tourists roar at the top of their lungs and are happy. In hole in the wall noodle joints, the customers slurp without restraint their noodles and soup and are satisfied. On the streets some children scream and shout and nobody tells them to keep it down. Restaurants are an exuberant cacophony of chopsticks and fuwuyuan! and little clinked glasses of baijiu.

Compared to where I’m from, noise is tolerated – celebrated, even – in China.

And uncontested number one on the noise charts is Spring Festival when, on New Year’s Eve, in every city and everySpring Festival Monster (Nian) village, millions of firecrackers are lit, exploding across this big country like thunderclaps, like the sounds of war.

I’ve thought about this, about the firecrackers, and in particular about the origins of Spring Festival and how within its mythical origins is a tentative reason for China’s tolerance of noise. According to legend, and once upon a time, a mythical beast called Nian would come on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops and even villagers, especially children. Among other things, people used firecrackers to frighten away Nian.

Is this myth a possible explanation for the tolerance of noise in China?

Perhaps, because of the Spring Festival legend, buried way deep in the collective unconscious of Chinese people is a synthesis of noise and positive outcome. Down here, in the collective unconscious, where symbols are king, noise is explained as a symbol of safety from danger, something to be celebrated. Perhaps this is why most people at least seem not to mind the raging blaring noises of the city.

Scaring the monsters away, is why it’s tolerated.

What you begin to understand about cultural differences is that they are rooted in symbols and their interpretation. An object, an act, an event, a quality, a relation – all of these can in our brains become a symbol. And here’s the thing: using the received culture patterns I was brought up with in Ireland to understand the abundance and tolerance of noise in China results in little but confusion, intolerance and frustration.

Last week I wrote an email to a friend. I told him, “I never before thought I’d excited by the sound of bulldozers and jackhammers.”

Perhaps, over the course of two years in China, associations between noise and happiness have been created along my neural pathways. Perhaps my brain is changing.

A Big Fat Postmodern Wedding

When my friend, a local guy, asked me to be best man at his wedding, I immediately agreed, for two reasons; one, because he had helped me navigate through my early, disorientating days in China, and two, being best man would offer some insight into what is one of Chinese culture’s most important rites of passage.

The wedding celebration took place on the twenty-fifth floor function room of a new hotel in one of the city’s suburbs. Focus of the room was the stage, behind which a projector-screen displayed a slideshow of photos of bride and groom in various poses borrowed from Bond movies, fashion magazines, fantasy.

Below, in the thirteenth floor bedroom, the bride was having her make-up applied. When perfected, she knelt with her husband on the floor in front of her parents, who were sitting on the edge of the bed. Offering them cups of tea, the bride and groom asked the parents for their blessing. The parents, sipping the tea, wished the couple good luck and presented them with a hong bao. The bride and groom stood, bowed and said thank you.

There were others in the room; bridesmaids, grandparents, cousins. None of them, however, paid much attention to this ritual; instead sat on the couch looking at their smartphones’ screens. Here, I thought, was an aspect of the wedding ceremony, which aspect I had understood to be crucial to China’s approach to marriage – deference of bride and groom to parents – relegated to what appeared to be a sideshow, a box that had to be ticked off.

Questions were kindled. Why, I wondered, had nobody paid much attention to this ritual? Are family bonds, once unbreakable, under strain?

At 7.30PM, the guests arrived. The groom and his two best men, another guy and myself, stood in a grey stairwell off one of the function-room’s corners. The bride and her two bridesmaids stood at the top of a staircase descending to the function-room’s diagonally-opposite corner.

In the groom’s trembling hand was a wireless microphone. The ceremony’s host introduced the groom. The groom lifted the microphone to his lips and began to sing and entered the function-room. He walked onto the stage and down the aisle between the guests’ round tables to the back of the function-room, the foot of the staircase. The bride remained at the top.

At the other side of the room, using a script, the host asked the groom:

Do you love her?’

I love her.’

Really love her?’

I really love her!’

The guests, like an audience at a Saturday night TV variety show, cheered and applauded.

The bride descended the steps. On bended knee and acting the role of the prince in Cinderella, the groom slipped theCinderella's Slipper shoe onto his wife’s left foot.

Arm-in-arm, and trailed by best men and bridesmaids, who threw flower petals, the bride and groom walked to the stage, where they stood, facing the assembled guests.

A knife was offered by the host to the couple. Hand-in-hand, working together, they cut the cake.

Watching, I thought, here is wedding ceremony dressed up as postmodern variety show; a collage of rituals and symbols, both local and borrowed from other cultures; Cinderella, karaoke, the white dress, the host, the photos, the performance…

At first glance, this appeared haphazard.

But it was precisely this apparent confusion of symbols and ritual, this mix of different cultural influences, that revealed a lot of what is happening in China today, which is the search for new ways of ordering the world, for new meaning, for new patterns of belief and value.

After the Age of Anxiety


My parents and I are in our kitchen watching something when our Filipino cleaning-lady Marissa explodes and amid the shower of blood, which splatters the ceiling and floor, Marissa’s limbs hurtle and spin; bingbangboom. Her right arm whacks my mother’s face, her left arm clatters my father on the chin and her head knocks me in groin.

Groaning, on the floor, in pools of blood, I wonder: Did she somehow do it on purpose?


But that, I am afraid, is the least of my worries, our worries.


According to the media, we are ‘approaching the end of the Age of Anxiety.’


I wipe the blood from my face. ‘Father,’ I say, ‘maybe Marissa’s exploding has something to do with the end of the Age of Anxiety.’

He shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘No. You and your… symbols,’ he says.


Seeking answers, I visit the local church.

The priest, I forget his name, says, ‘I suppose it’s a possibility Marissa’s explosion has something to do with the end of the Age of Anxiety but then again anything’s possible these days don’t you think, considering?’ And he shuffles away, muttering, ‘The lights must never go out, the music must always play. The lights must never go out, the music must always play…’


In the University, deep in the Faculty of Science, over tumblers of brandy, the scientists hypothesise.

‘And had Marissa a temper?’

‘She could be stroppy,’ I say. ‘She was stroppy from time to time.’

One of the scientists smiles and says, ‘Well, of course, if Marissa had an explosive temper, did she have an explosive temper?’

‘I suppose you could say that,’ I say. ‘I suppose.’

‘You suppose.’

‘I suppose.’

He sits forward. ‘There is a theory,’ he says, ‘which proposes that the metaphorical can, in certain circumstances, manifest itself as an actual physical event, yes, ahem, so, you see…’ And he sits back, puffs from his tobacco pipe and swirls the brandy in his glass.


Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.


‘Father,’ I say, ‘is the Age of Anxiety actually coming to an end?’

‘I should hope so…’

He’s watching images of an earthquake aftermath. Feeling vaguely responsible and somehow guilty I decide (decide?) to leave the room.


In cafes, offices and pubs, in houses, apartments and restaurants, in cars on motorways, in tents on the edge of town, people speak about the end of the Age of Anxiety:

‘What comes after anxiety?’


‘Or more anxiety?’

‘Deeper anxiety? Like fear maybe?’

‘Like after a humid day you have this big fucker of a thunderstorm? That kind of thing? Like that? Hm?’


Marissa’s explosion and spontaneous combustion has made the news. Social analysts and academics argue over interpretations. The Symbolists swear upon their mothers’ graves that the nature of Marissa’s death is without doubt an indication of the age that, flexing its muscles, will replace the Age of Anxiety.

‘This poor woman exploded. People explode when they are angry. After much anxiety and tension people often explode. After the Age of Anxiety? The age of…’


     ‘Anger,’ my father says, shaking his head. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he says. ‘Not for a minute.’

‘You don’t? You don’t believe it will be an Age of Anger?’

‘Marrisa’a explosion had nothing to do with the age that is to follow the Age of Anxiety,’ he says. ‘Marissa’s death wasn’t a symbol. Why must people varnish everything with symbols? Even the scientists. The scientists! For the love of…’

‘So what is to come then, father, after the Age of Anxiety?’

‘Son,’ he says. ‘Do you even know why we’ve been anxious?’

I shake my head. ‘I never really thought about it,’ I say.

‘Electric speed and the global mass media,’ he says, ‘heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree.’

‘But what is to follow, father?’

‘The Age of Sacrifice,’ he says. ‘It will be a difficult age, one of great restraint. Many will deny it. Many will choose to live in the past.’

On a stepladder, washing Marissa’s bloodstains from the ceiling, my mother nods accord.

‘What should we do?’ I say. ‘Is there anything we can do?’

‘Sit tight,’ my father says. ‘But first, we must attend Marissa’s cremation.’


     Smoke ascends, becomes part of the clouds, and is inhaled, maybe, by flocks of birds, who know nothing about the end of the Age of Anxiety.

Lucky bastards.


Marissa’s funeral is media-plagued. My personal space (the boundaries of which have been closing in of late) is invaded by lenses and microphones.

‘And are you concerned about what Marissa’s sudden explosion symbolises? Regarding the end of the Age of Anxiety? And the age that is to follow?’

My father sighs.

I grab the microphone. (Ever since all the speculation about the end of the Age of Anxiety, and the age that is to follow, I’ve become uncharacteristically impulsive.) ‘Fuck the media,’ I say. I hand the microphone back. ‘Broadcast that,’ I say. ‘Print that. Fuck the media.’

My father pats me on the shoulder.

‘Fuck the media.’


On the newspapers’ front pages the following morning the words FUCK THE MEDIA beside a photo of my face.


Numb, numb, numb…


I want a woman.


‘Father,’ I say, ‘I am going out.’

From above his glasses his peering eyes appear to ask: For what, son, for what?

‘To find a woman,’ I say.

‘Be careful,’ he says.


For three strange days and nights, getting drunk in the nightclubs, waking up in strange places, drinking milkshakes to soothe my head, my stomach, my addled mind, I search the city.

Wandering, I hear rumours.

I hear that nuns are no longer allowed enter cathedrals; cookbooks instead of food are given to the poor; clocks, watches and calendars are dumped, daily, on top of meditating Buddhist monks. I hear, too, that control of the zoo has been handed over to children; gunpowder is poured down volcano craters; Braille has been replaced by smooth surfaces. Molecules of oxygen and hydrogen, I am told, have been ordered to no longer associate with one another. And suicide is now promoted, as per government policy, on newspaper pages.


I am in a bar. Before me is a dimly lit stage, upon which stands a man with a harmonica. A woman enters the bar and sits at the table beside mine. Beside the musician is a stool, upon which is a glass of water. The woman is beautiful. Her eyes are brown and melancholy; her lips, the colour of blood. Immediately, I want her. The musician dips the harmonica into the water and shakes away the excess before lifting it to his lips. I glance again at the woman. The musician leans in toward the microphone. Gradually, unobtrusively, a melody emerges, notes emerge, flowing from the combination of harmonica and breath. One dim light shines upon the musician’s face. All else is dark.

The notes, incomprehensibly lonely, remind me of a train whistling through a valley at night; the loneliness of a man or woman, unbridgeable, untranslatable. The loneliness of Earth, floating alone.


I glance again at the woman; her face in profile, softly lit by the spill from the stage.

The musician takes the harmonica from his lips. He pulls his head back from the microphone and the light. The bar is silent but the notes linger in my ears, ringing out. I say nothing, can’t even applaud. In silence I sit listening to the internal echoing notes.

The woman at the next table stands up, approaches my table. ‘I recognise you,’ she says. ‘You knew Marissa, the woman who exploded.’

I nod.

‘May I?’ she says.

‘Please,’ I say.

She sits. She seems preoccupied. ‘I saw your picture in the paper,’ she says, ‘beside the words FUCK THE MEDIA.’ She sighs. ‘I mean what are we to think when the media begins cursing itself. I mean I don’t know what to think anymore.’

‘I understand,’ I say. ‘I sympathise, I… I empathise.’

‘I want to have one thought,’ she says, ‘just one, one that I can say, hand on heart, hey, Melanie (Melanie’s my name by the way), hey, Melanie, that’s true, I believe in that thought, you know? Is that too much to ask?’

‘That music,’ I say, ‘the harmonica, it got me…’ I look down. I look up. ‘I don’t want to be alone, not now, particularly not now…’

She looks at me.

‘I want you,’ I say.


     We take the train from the city to a satellite-town.

Above the rattling of wheels on track Melanie says she loves clothes. Especially dresses. Especially dresses with a hundred buttons down the back which take a man a long time to unbutton.

We book into a cheap hotel.

She stands with her back to me. I unbutton her dress. She counts. ‘Ninety-eight, ninety-nine…’

Chemicals and electricity swirl in my body and in Melanie’s body and all around the room.

‘One,’ she says – I ease out the final button, hold my breath – ‘hundred,’ she says. And her dress, falling to the floor, crumples up. And she steps out of that crumpled circle into my arms.

‘If this age is coming to a close we can no longer be apathetic,’ she says, ‘we can no longer be unconscious, mindless.’

‘But I want oblivion,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ she says, sadly, ‘me too. I want oblivion too.’ And she begins to unbuckle my belt, saying, ‘Oh it’s ironic don’t you think?’ Then she shakes her head. ‘But no,’ she says, ‘no, I don’t want to think anymore.’

‘Neither do I,’ I say.


We empty the mini-bar. Little glinting empty bottles of whiskey, rum, vodka, gin are strewn with our clothes about the floor across the end of the bed. Sunlight streams in between a gap in the curtains, illuminating the stem of her cigarette smoke, which flowers at the ceiling.

‘I didn’t like the Age of Anxiety,’ she says.

‘It wasn’t a popular age,’ I say.

‘But surely it has been easier than what is to come? The age of… Kiss me,’ she says.

I kiss her.

We are frightened.

I kiss her.

Folly to be wise, folly to be sure, to be sure


On the train from Ireland’s west coast to Dublin a bearded man in filthy jeans is talking to the girl sitting opposite. It’s lunchtime. The man is drinking a can of Dutch Gold. He’s been drinking all morning. He’s full of emotion and talk and wants to open his heart. He’s a painter by trade, he says, and a writer by hobby. He paints landscapes and writes science-fiction and children’s stories, three of which have been published. His fiancée hung herself eight weeks ago and he’s been drinking ever since. Nothing seems real to him. Life doesn’t seem worth it but he doesn’t have the strength to strap a rope round his neck like she did. He smiles while talking, a melancholic smile. He says he has enough sadness to share around and that he cries at night and smiles during the day. If he was to write the story of the love he shared with his fiancée it would be more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, he says. They loved each other so much, spent all their time together, and he knew she had problems but…


He still sleeps in the room in which he found her hanging. Well, he tries to sleep but he can’t. He sees her still hanging there, dangling, pale. He’s fed up, he says, sick and tired of the world. He accidentally spills some beer over the girl’s coat and onto the table. He apologises, profusely. The girl says that’s okay, no need to apologise. He asks her what she does for a living. She’s a doctor, she says. He tells her there’s a world of emotion in her, that she keeps a diary which she should publish because, he believes, she has stories people want to hear. Promise me now, he says, promise me you’ll write, promise me you’ll try get something published. You see things at work people wouldn’t see every day of the week. The girl agrees meekly that she’ll try. During the day she works professionally, with her logic, without emotion, so there must be a world of untold emotion inside her. She should, she must, use her imagination, because if you don’t have your imagination you have nothing, the man says.


The train stops at Ballyhaunis. Swallowing the last of his beer the man alights. The girl breathes what might be a sigh of relief. Outside, standing on the platform, the man looks in the carriage window and waves at the girl. She buries her head in a magazine. The train begins to pull off. The man leaves the platform. The people in the carriage begin to laugh. An older woman looks at the girl.

Oh, I felt so sorry for you, thank God he wasn’t going all the way to Dublin.

They laugh.

Your forehead will arrive in 48 hours

Yes, yes, I’ve made up my face the same as others have made up stories. You like it? I like it. The eyebrows imported from Japan. The mouth all the way from Liechtenstein. The eyes I designed myself. The chin with its dimples a present from my girlfriend which was really a present for herself cause all girls I don’t know why like dimples, they think they’re cute. The nose I’m only borrowing for the moment but comes all the way from Saudi Arabia, some sheikh lent it to me. Lots of oil. I can still smell the oil. And the money. Weird. So yeah that’s my face. The rest of me like my legs and arms and all that I’m not sure where they all came from. Hey these studio lights are hotter than usual. I’m burning up. Can somebody bring me some water? I remember when I was maybe 6-years old and my daddy was still alive and he took me to KFC for I can’t remember why I think I might have been sick the week before and he’d promised me so we were sitting there in KFC and I had a different face back then and I was tiny, my feet not touching the floor, dangling above the floor, and my daddy was eating a burger and I was, too. Nothing really special happened, I just remember it, and I always remember it whenever I’m sad, or maybe it’s that I get sad because I remember it… Hey! Where’s that water? Can’t somebody adjust these lights? Turn them down a bit? No? Oh fuck it. So you like the eyebrows? What? The forehead? Well the forehead I ordered off Amazon over a month ago and it only arrived this morning so I’m not used to it yet but it looks alright doesn’t it? Comes from some country I can’t remember the name beside what’s that place? Finland? No, no, not Finland, Ukraine? That’s it, somewhere near Ukraine, some former Prime Minister’s forehead. I like it. Makes me feel clever. These? The ears? Ha! Oh it’s a long story but I’ll try make it short see I really wanted these ears but they were in limited supply like there were only three sets of them in the whole world but they came from some special Buddhist mountainous place so I thought now those ears must be good ears, not floppy, not like lazy you know, but precise like a really good microphone, like that one, yeah. Christ where’s my water? Hey, my water! Jesus who hired these people? But yeah I called the company about the ears and they said, ahem, ahem, sorry sir but they’ve been booked over a year ago. Shit, I said. But I’ve never been one to give up that easily. So I got into a plane and headed straight over to the place. And I herded goats for a month. In a field beside the monastery. Got to know the locals. All that kind of thing. Like the shows you see on TV. And the ears I used to have I cut them off, outside the monastery – yeah I was desperate – but it worked, and the monks came running out, their orange robes flapping in the wind, and saw me bleeding and gave me the special ears. I left the monastery pretty soon after. That’s how I got the ears. Brain I stole from… Ha! Haha! You were about to believe me! That I stole my brain! I had you going there for a second! Ha! No. The brain is mine. The brain is mine.

A Brief Inquiry into the Dynamics of an Argument


A father and his seventeen-year-old son are arguing about the boy’s future. The father, the boss of a lucrative coalmine, slams his fist on his son’s wooden desk.

You’re going to New Zealand for four years to study English!’

New Zealand? But I want to stay in China, I love China, this is my home, my friends are here!’

 ‘No! You’re going to New Zealand!’


On the conscious level, the son believes his father is angry because he (the son) is not showing respect to his father, and this is probably partly true. What he doesn’t realise is that a lot of his father’s anger is, in essence, the temper tantrum of a child.

Part of the tragedy here is that neither father nor son realise this. The dynamics of their relationship and in particular their arguments remain unexcavated.


The child within the adult encounters and clashes with the adult within the child. Thus, their argument is violently stubborn and unrelenting, and apparently beyond compromise.


Yet, what makes this antagonism and hostility between father’s inner child and teenage son’s inner adult even more confusing and sad for both father and son is a lopsided Confucian philosophy, one that demands filial piety but not parental kindness (although it could be argued that the parents believe their actions are rooted in kindness), plus the belief that this culture or tradition of Confucian hierarchy is as much a part of China as the mountains of Sichuan, for example. Thus, it’s not even that this tradition should not be questioned, it’s that it cannot be questioned. Like, you can’t question the Yellow River, can you? It’s just, you know, there.

The father – whose perception of the argument is being shaped both by his inner child (with all its self-absorption and potential for tantrum) and by his implicit awareness of Confucian hierarchy; my son should RESPECT me! – cannot understand his son’s verbal defiance, his son’s anger, his son’s failure to immediately comply.

The son’s inner adult, meanwhile, cannot understand why his father will not allow him the responsibility of making his own decisions.


But he will go, the boy, to New Zealand, and years later will return, and he will be a haigui, a sea-tortoise, speaking English with a Kiwi accent, and his exposure during formative years to whatever it is Western Culture signifies will – even when he has returned to China – have removed him psychologically from China. In his hometown he’ll feel like a foreigner, and that’s a very lonely thing, to feel like a foreigner in your hometown, more lonely than being a foreigner in a foreign place; he’ll have been doubly uprooted, unable to fully fit in in New Zealand and unable, now, after years in NZ, to fit in at home.

If the boy, now young man, was a character in a comic and a thought-bubble spawned above his head, here’s what might be scribbled inside: Thank you father, mother, for what you have done to my mind; where once I felt at home and connected, now I feel lost and lonely, dispossessed. You’ve made a homeless person out of me. And now… Now you want me to get married? To a girl I don’t even love? According to your clocks now it’s time for me to get married? Am I allowed any say in anything at all? I’m 26 now, no longer a child, yet you persist in treating me like one. I hate to think of it, but in my darker moments I do sometimes think of it, even though I love you, I still love you, I do, but I kind of sometimes look forward to your deaths, mom, and dad. 

For those who can play the Ressikan flute


A fortnight before returning to Mississippi, she said that her life in China was “fake”. What she meant was that every experience she’d had in China – the people she’d met, the feelings she’d had – although significant and meaningful for her, would, when she returned home, mean not very much, if anything, to her family and friends. She would tell them about her two years in China but because they hadn’t been there to share the experience, they would never fully understand its significance.

It was strange, she thought, living in China. Like, she wanted to connect and forge relationships, put down some kind of roots, even if tenuous and temporary, but, because she knew she was not going to live in China forever, that she was soon going to return to the USA, she sometimes wondered what was the point at all in trying to cultivate relationships? What was the point in leaving her apartment and experiencing something that in a few years would seem unreal, dreamlike?


Consistently voted by fans as one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is an episode called The Inner Light. Here’s a summary of the plot, which, I apologise, and perhaps due to brevity, does not get to the emotional core of the story:

The Enterprise encounters a probe, which directs an energy beam at Captain Picard, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up on the surface of the planet, Kataan, where he meets a woman, Eline, who says she’s his wife, and that he is Kamin, an iron-weaver, who has been suffering from a feverish illness. Losing memory of his life aboard the Enterprise, Picard begins to live his life as Kamin in the vllage of Ressik. He starts a family with Eline and learns to play the flute. He spends a lot of time outdoors, studying nature, and discovers that the planet is suffering from a drought, caused by increasing radiation from the sun.

Years pass. Kamin grows old. His wife dies. One day, he is summoned by his adult children to watch the launch of a missile. He sees his wife, as young as when he first saw her. He is told that he has already seen the missile, just before he came to the planet. Knowing that the planet was doomed because of the sun’s increasing radiation, the leaders placed the memories of their culture into a probe and launched it into space, hoping that it would find someone who could tell others about their species. Picard then realizes what has happened. ‘Oh, it’s me isn’t it?’ he says, ‘I’m the someone.’

Picard wakes up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Only twenty-five minutes have passed since he was knocked unconscious. The probe is brought onboard. Within the probe is a small box. Opening the box, Picard finds Kamin’s flute. He picks up the flute and puts it to his lips. Standing before a window looking out onto the cosmos, Picard plays a melody he learned during his life as Kamin.


The crux of all this is about wanting to not feel alone. Not being able to fully express something to another person is lonely and sad, and happens in everyday life anyway, even between the closest friends, but such inability to express yourself is deepened and widened by having two lives, one in one country, another life in another; two lives which, except for you, and the stories you tell, and the photos you show, and the flute you can play, have little overlap. You carry this entire other life around inside your head with you and, because you can’t 100% express it and know your friends will inevitably grow bored of the stories and photos, you either little by little forget the past or perhaps, once again, up sticks and leave your native land, and you end up a lonely wanderer, full of stories, to be sure – the traveller has tales to tell, to be sure – but increasingly wary and afraid of making deep longlasting connections with people, perhaps.


Her final weeks in China were vague. Homesickness was daily now. Unlike before, she wasn’t motivated to leave her apartment, meet people, and live. Now she spent most of her time sitting on her sofa, Macbook on her lap.

The Rise and Rise of the Venting Room

1. In which a young man reads of the Venting Room

With eyes wide open and heart beating faster than it had been only moments before, the young man reads a story in the Guizhou Daily:

‘In order to help students improve their mental capacity for dealing with stress, Number 1 High School in Guiyang has opened a psychological Venting Room. Principal of the school, Mr. Xi Biao, explained that the Venting Room’s purpose is to help students deal with pressure, particularly in the run-up to the Gao Kao. The room has padded walls and a punch-bag, as well as a mannequin. “When the students are stressed they can go to the venting-room and punch the punching-bag or mannequin.” It is hoped that the room will provide catharsis for those under stress.

‘The Venting Room was proposed by the mother of a former student, who committed suicide last year the night before the Gao Kao was due to begin. She said, “I hope the Venting Room will prevent other mothers and fathers going through the same pain my husband and I have been through this past year.”

‘A local psychologist has said, ‘If pent-up emotions are responsibly vent, they will not develop into more serious mental illnesses”.’

The young man stops reading.

Ten minutes later, he is on the number 48 bus to Number 1 High School. In his right hand is the Guizhou Daily, rolled up.

The school’s driveway and pedestrian entrance, flanked by old sycamores uprooted and transferred from elsewhere, is a gradual upward incline. The young man has walked the path hundreds of times before. When a teenager, he attended the school. Walking, now, along that path, he remembers the daily taunting.

2. In which an entrepreneur sees a gap in the market

Owing to the success of the Venting Rooms opened last year in Guiyang’s High Schools, local entrepreneur Mr. Cheng Xian will open a chain of venting rooms. According to a report recently published, the Venting Rooms have been successful in reducing levels of stress among students.

Mr. Cheng has said, ‘There is a demand among the general population for this kind of service.’ The modern world, he noted, with its various pressures and stresses, is one in which people need opportunities to release and to vent, but in a controlled environment.

Mr. Cheng’s Venting Rooms will be opened next month, with premises in various locations. Each premises will have various rooms, devoted to different kinds of stress. There will be rooms dedicated to men and to women, to different age-groups. Mr. Cheng has employed psychologists as well as feng shui experts to assist in designing the Venting Rooms. More details will appear over the coming fortnight.

3. In which the Venting Rooms’ popularity skyrockets

… supply cannot meet demand. The Venting Rooms are more popular than even Mr. Cheng imagined. People in their thousands flock every day to vent their anger. They smash TVs with baseball bats, punch padded walls, batter mannequins, unleashing in shrieks of violence their angst about various societal pressures, job-hunting, relationship break-ups, inability to meet mortgage payments…

4. In which Confucian philosophy is applied to a theory of the success of the Venting Rooms

A snapshot survery has revealed that the Venting Rooms’ most frequent service users fall into three broad categories: unfulfilled twentysomething sons and daughters; neglected wives; and those who’ve been treated unjustly by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Scholars have argued that the popularity of the Venting Rooms is “a symptom of and response to of the ills of modern society”. The conclusion of the survey, however, calls for a more rigourous and deep-rooted explanation.

Although hard to gauge and to verify, some Sinophiles have argued that Confucian philosophy is the biggest quarry of Chinese culture. An important concept in Confucian philosophy is li. An abstract idea, li can be described or translated as customs, etiquette or morals – basically, rules of proper social behaviour. Confucius argued that life can be divided into 5 relationships and that if li was present in each of these relationships throughout society, the social order would be ideal.

The five relationships are:

  •         Father to Son – kindness in the father; filial piety in the son.
  •         Elder brother to Younger Brother – gentility in the elder; humility in the younger.
  •         Husband to Wife – husband benevolent; wife should listen.
  •         Elder to Junior – consideration among the elders; deference among the juniors.
  •         Ruler to Subject – benevolence among the rulers; loyalty among the subject.

Hypothesis: The absence of li in these relationships is the fire driving people in their thousands to the Venting Rooms. Fathers are unkind. Husbands are uncaring. Rulers are spiteful, selfish and sometimes malevolent.

5. In which a sample of the Venting Rooms’ customers have their say

a. My father does not understand me and is not willing to, it seems. I’ve been back in China for a month now after six years studying in New Zealand. Six years! That’s a long time! I’ve tried to tell him I’m different now, that my mind is not the same as six years ago, that I want different things. But he won’t listen. All he talks about everyday is how I have to get a job here, a job I really don’t want, and that I have to get married soon. But I don’t want to. What I mean is that, ok, ok, I know I’m Chinese, but I don’t feel at home here anymore, you know? Every time I see a foreigner I want to go and talk to them. But my father says I shouldn’t hang out too often with foreigners. Why did he send me to New Zealand for six years then? What did he expect? Did he expect me to lock myself in my room in New Zealand? Never meet people? Did he think I’d return the same person who’d left? No, no, I don’t feel at home here anymore. I mean I love my father. And I know or at least I think he thinks he’s doing the right thing. But everything he says to me just comes across as unfair and unkind. He thinks he owns me, or something. I hate this. I can’t stand it anymore.

b. Before we got married, my husband was a kind man. At least I thought he was. I mean he cared for me, paid attention to me, took me out on dates. But everything changed after our marriage. He began to spend less and less time at home, more and more time with his colleagues. He plays mahjong every night and gambles away most of his wages. I’m also pretty sure he has a mistress. I’ve read the texts on his phone, messages back and forth between him and another woman. If and when I mention any of this to him, he gets angry and threatens me. He says if I leave him he’ll come find me.

c. I’m a farmer. Until two years ago, I’d lived my whole life in a small dwelling in what is now Huang Guo Shu National Park. One day, the men from the government came and said we would have to leave our home, that all houses within the grounds of the park were to be demolished, to make the park “more beautiful” for the tourists, they said. We didn’t want to leave but had no choice. The government said they would give us a new home in the nearby city of Anshun. They said that my daughter would have get a job as a waitress in one of the restaurants in the park. They tore down our house. But our daughter was never given the job. We went to the courts to try get justice but our pleas weren’t listened to. So, the other farmers and I gathered one day at the gates of the park and sat down, blocking the tour buses from entering. We refused to move. The police and the army came. They beat us. We hit them back. They beat us more. All we want is to be treated fairly, with justice.

6. In which the Venting Rooms go national and people replace mannequins

What began as a method of alleviating stress for exam-weary High School students in Guiyang, Guizhou province, and was transformed into a profitable business by a local entrepreneur, Venting Rooms Corporation is now a national franchise and has establishments in every major Chinese city.

Venting Room Corporation (HKSE: VRC) is China’s largest chain of venting rooms, serving around 30 million customers daily in cities and towns all over China. Headquarted in Shanghai, the company began in 2011 in Guiyang’s Number 1 High School as a room in which students could alleviate stress. Businessman Cheng Xian joined the operation as a franchisee agent in 2012. He subsequently purchased the chain from Number 1 High School and oversaw its national growth.

Initally, service users would beat up mannequins. However, in order to make the experience more real and therefore more cathartic, vacancies were created for men and women willing to be beaten up.

One of the Venting Room employees has said, ‘The beatings, although painful, put you into a trance, allowing you to push out everything and dive deep into your mind, finding places you have never been before.’

7. In which we briefly learn of a young man’s inner torment

The young man is intelligent and when at school usually studies well but during exams remembers none of the answers. Only when he has handed his exam paper to the invigilator and has left the examination room do the answers flood into his conscious mind. This happens again and again. He doesn’t know why he hates himself so much and wishes he didn’t hate himself.

People say he’s clumsy is why he often gets scratches and bruises and sometimes a broken arm or leg. He doesn’t believe it’s clumsiness, though. All the negativity in his mind attracts yet more negativity. The negativity in his mind leads him by trembling hand into negative situations. He often watches the happy and contented people. They rarely break their arms or legs, rarely have things stolen from them, rarely get into arguments with taxi-drivers. He wants to be like those people, so much, but doesn’t know how. The more he tries to find happiness, the lonelier and more depressed he feels. Nobody knows about this, not even his family. He can’t tell them, anyway, because his mother is suffering from a terminal illness. To tell his family about his problems would be selfish, while his mother is slowly, agonizingly dying.

He wants somebody to beat him up. This is an impulse he at first tries to ignore.

8. In which the masochist takes the reins, the whip

Alone with himself and facing an alienated and hostile world, the young man applies for a job at the Venting Rooms…