I wonder if they knew.
So, I’m back in Beijing now after a ten-day trip to the southwestern cities of Dali (Yunnan) and Chengdu (Sichuan). I attended a week long conference called Crossing Borders and Paradigms: Anthropology of Southwest China Reconsidered. The conference was co-sponsored by the Southwest University for Nationalities, Beijing University, and the Central University of Nationalities, and gave me my first opportunity to present an academic paper completely in Chinese. It went well, the highlight for me being when one of the members of the 1954 Ethnic Classification team (the focus of my dissertation and forthcoming book) chimed in at the end of my talk and announced to the whole room, in essence, “He’s right.” Needless to say, I “celebrated” at the bar that night. Special thanks goes to Stevan Harrell who, when his schedule did not permit him to attend, passed my name along to the conference organizers.
Beyond the conference proceedings themselves, there were a number of other pluses to the event. For one thing, my roommate turned out to be Siu-woo Cheung from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I began writing back and forth with Professor Cheung some seven years ago as a starting graduate student, and had long considered him to be one of the best scholars working on ethnicity in twentieth-century China. But we had yet to meet in person! Well, one night, at around midnight, who walked in the door but Professor Cheung. I soon discovered that, besides being one of the most insightful scholars working today, he is also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever want to meet.
After the conference was over, I headed to Chengdu, Sichuan with plans to grab a beer with my colleague, Professor Matthew Sommer. After yet another harrowing airline trip (involving another eight hour wait, a turbulent ride, mysteriously soiled luggage, airline reparations, and a last minute airport hotel stay), I finally arrived at Sichuan University. That evening, I had to chance to try Waipo zhouzi (外婆肘子) for the first time with Professor Sommer and his long-time friend Yasuhiko Karasawa (Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan). The meal was insanely delicious. Insanely.
Allow me to explain.
At some point during the stay, I polished off some of my old “classic” stories from Chengdu 2003, when I was conducting research at the Sichuan Provincial Archives. The short of the story goes something like this. Having grown tired of living in a hotel, my then-girlfriend and I moved into a local apartment overseen by a very nice Chinese man who was emigrating to Canada in a few months. We moved in at around noon, and proceeded to spend the next five hours scrubbing the whole place from top to bottom. Before retiring for the evening, I jumped in the shower for a quick soak when what did appear but the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen. We decided that, instead of making a big fuss, we’d simply give it a name. I think we baptized it “Frank.” We figured, how scary can a bug me with a name like “Frank.”
We headed out that night for dinner and for grocery shopping, over the course of which the sun went down. It was a pleasant dinner and a fun shopping trip – it’s always fun to buy things like oil, corn starch, salt, and all those staple items that scream “New apartment!” Upon returning, however, our little daydream ended abruptly.
I opened the door and turned on the light. After a few steps, I remarked, “There’s our friend, Frank.” He had moved from the shower to the hallway floor, perhaps on his way to grab a beer from the fridge. A few more steps and… wait… there’s Frank again. And there he is again, over there. And over there, and over there, and… Well, needless to say, we weren’t seeing double, and neither was Frank equipped with a hyperdrive. The apartment was covered, covered, with cockroaches. They were erupting through the sink, dotting the walls and ceilings, simply everywhere.
Taking out the bugspray I had just purchased (with the secret plan to kill Frank, I must admit), I banished my girlfriend to the bedroom, steeled my nerves, and shook the room with my battle cry, “I have become DEATH!” I killed and wounded a great many creatures that night, I’m not proud to say, and yet it made absolutely no difference. From the bedroom, it must have sounded something like this:
Psssst (the sound of aerosol)… DIE DIE!… Psssssst…. O DEAR GOD NO!…. Psssssst… Domine Iesu, dimitte nobis debita nostra, salva nos ab igne inferiori…
After I was summoned to stop, and to lay down my weapon and take respite for the night – a warrior weary from battle – one lone Frank limped into the bedroom after me. What a brave little bastard, I thought. Fearless. Unrelenting. At this point, I decided to perform an experiment. I took my shoe and sock off, and placed my bare foot about ten feet in front of the little soldier. “Let us see if you’re as afraid of me as I am of you.” If it relented, we could have rested in slumber, and lived to fight another day. But if not…
No sooner had the sole of my foot touched the floorboards than the little black, leggy tank made a B-line for my big toe. “Fuck this,” I announced. We gathered all of our necessary belongings, headed back into the Chengdu night, and hailed a cab. We were defeated. As it turned out, the hotel where we were staying was booked solid. But there was hope, the reception desk told us. Down the street a ways was a placed called “Angel Hotel.” Just make a right out of the door, and you can’t miss it. We followed her advice, and soon found ourselves in our new, temporary home. And yet, the bitter taste of battle still haunted me. As I went to place the Do Not Disturb sign on our hotel door, I felt a sting or irony. The sign was mispelled. Brilliantly, perfectly, serendipitously it misread: Anger Hotel.
More on this later….
Thomas S. Mullaney
Modern Chinese History