O Fortuna, / velut Luna / statu variabilis, / semper crescis / aut descrescis; / vita detestabilis / nunc obdurate / et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem, / egestatem, / potestatem / dissolvit ut glaciem.
Carmina Burana, Carl Orff
The first morning, after he’d arrived at the college, it was cool and dry and Warren could hear the maids busily setting thermoses of boiled water outside doors, their light knock and call - dasao wei sheng, and the rhythmic click and swish of their mops in the hallway. The night before, once he’d had a chance to unpack, he’d met the academic coordinator, Dr. Olds, and they’d agreed to meet at nine in the lobby of the Foreigners’ Guest House. At eight-thirty, before he came down, he called his father in Mobile to let him know he’d arrived safely. Most of the other teachers had left earlier on an excursion to the Great Wall at Huang Hua Gang, north of the city.
As Warren stood alone on the guesthouse steps, nodding occasionally to students, he thought about his interrupted sleep and contentious dreams, the lack of TV in English, the texture of the toilet paper, the pervasive smell of cooking oil and diesel, the dissonance of a hundred new sounds, and the incomprehensible language everywhere, everywhere.
Dr. Olds was a robust, officious man with angular teeth, thinning hair, and a habit of humming to punctuate things he’d said.
“In the morning I’ll take you to breakfast,” Dr. Olds said, “and then show you around the campus and the city.”
Dr. Olds had been in China for three years and could speak relatively good Chinese for a Westerner. He taught intermediate and advanced economics in addition to his program duties. In the little restaurant where they stopped, Dr. Olds ordered for both of them and asked for a pot of cha.
Warren had never been good with languages but he was determined to memorize words he knew he would need. He said the words for tea and the number one over and over in his head, but halfway through the meal he’d forgotten both. At 32 Warren had come to China to teach and, like others, find something he knew was missing. At home he’d become increasingly more irritable and disconnected from his friends and family. In the English Department, at the local college, he’d seen a posting for teachers in China and thought going abroad might help his malaise.
When the waitress brought their breakfasts Warren looked a little surprised and even revulsed.
“Is there something wrong?” Dr. Olds said.
“No,” Warren said,” ya’ll just eat some different things than my regular cereal and juice.”
Warren’s brother had kidded him that in China you have to be careful because they eat everything -- monkeys, snakes, dogs, even scorpions. Dr. Olds asked if he needed chili oil or soy sauce and he said no, that they gave him indigestion. Warren had never eaten with chopsticks before and in a moment of frustration wondered if he should insist the restaurant staff find him a fork and knife. He watched Dr. Olds consume his bowl of noodles topped with tomato, bok choy, and a boiled egg and thought it might be a good time to learn how to use them. When Warren picked up his chopsticks somewhat tentatively, Dr. Olds held his and demonstrated the correct technique by wolfing a large piece of egg and then clicking them together.
After showing Warren the campus and the college administrative offices, Dr. Olds took him out of the compound to an open-air market. The two had to cross Xueyuan Lu and Qinghua Dong Lu, one of north Beijing’s busiest intersections, and in the distracting cacophony of buses, cars, trucks, bikes, donkey carts and pedestrians, Warren was nearly run over by a motorbike he didn’t see. At the open-air market Dr. Olds walked him past stalls of vegetables, knock-off clothing, shoes, CDs, and videos, and shops that rendered fish, poultry, pigs, and cows.
After the motorbike incident, Warren tried to stay as close to Dr. Olds as he could. He thought he was handling the sights and sounds of the new city pretty well, though, until live eels escaped from a water bucket and slithered across his sandals. “Eels are a delicacy in China,” Dr. Olds explained, “they’re harmless.”
Warren couldn’t get their wet sliminess off his mind or the sweet-sour smell of the market out of his nose and when downy feathers from a plucked goose blew into his mouth, he vomited.
At a nearby McDonald’s, after Warren had the opportunity to rinse his face, Dr. Olds asked about life in the States, and why China.
“Change of scenery, new opportunity,” Warren responded. “I’ve had a touch of bad luck recently and I’m looking for a fresh start.”
Dr. Olds was curious about the bad luck and Warren said he’d bought a carpet cleaning franchise with his father’s help. For the first couple years, business went well and he had to hire part-time people to help out.
“But they were minorities,” Warren said, as though it clarified something, “and they did not do a good job.”
“Yes,” Dr. Olds repeated, “minorities.”
In the fourth and fifth year, Warren said, business declined for some reason and the company took the franchise back.
“There went my whole investment,” he said shaking his head. “We’re in court about it right now.”
“And your teaching experience,” Dr. Olds said, “say a little about that.”
Before he’d gotten into carpet cleaning, Warren said, he’d enrolled in a special master’s program in ESL. Near the end of the program he’d had to do an internship tutoring non-native speakers in composition writing and he'd subbed on occasion for high school English teachers.
“Anything else,” Dr. Olds said, “any other experience?”
Warren added that he’d helped his nephews for a few months when his brother decided to home school them.
“Yes, well,” Dr. Olds said humming, “shall we see some of the rest of the city then.”
On their tour of the city, Allison, a Chinese student at the college, joined them as their guide. In the taxi, she asked if they wanted to visit the lama temple first and then the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
“Tai bang le, Allison,” Dr. Olds said. “How does that sound to you Warren, what do you think?”
Warren didn’t recall the first place from the tour books but said all three sounded pretty good.
“Yonghegong had been built as a temple,” Allison said, “in the Qing Dynasty around 1694, for emperor Yong Zheng.”
While she talked Warren watched her red lips and marveled at her white skin and black eyes, especially her skin. She reminded him of porcelain dolls he’d seen in gift shops at home. At lunch she put her hand on his to demonstrate the right way to hold chopsticks and he found himself distracted by her sheer blouse, long fingernails, and bare legs. He wondered how his light frame and small body would fit against hers. Warren was five-five, with a receding hairline and tight ears, diminutive hands and feet, and when people thought of him they often saw him as small, even frail.
In his room that night, Warren lay on top of the sheets as his mind buzzed discursively. He thought about the classes he was going to teach and his students, about China and the millions of Chinese in towns and villages, about his sunburned arms and hot face, about the loss of his business and the money he owed his father, and about the light fragrance of Allison’s skin. He’d showered, drunk a cup of mild tea, and taken two aspirins. That was his normal routine when he wanted to settle his mind and couldn’t sleep. He resisted reading the Bible because it was what his father would have suggested. Just before three he opened it and read Psalm 85 like a mantra until he finally fell asleep.
On Monday morning Warren woke to find he’d left the window open and that night a Mongolian dust storm had coated everything with a thin layer of brown grit. The clean clothes he’d laid out the previous evening now looked as though they’d been worn for days. At the beginning of his eight o’clock literature class, Warren had to interrupt his lecture on Aladdin and the Magic Lamp when he had a sneezing attack. He tried to resume the lecture three or four times and each time he would begin sneezing again. When Dr. Olds appeared he thought it an appropriate time to play the Aladdin video. For the first few weeks Dr. Olds sat in on his class every morning.
Aside from a few minor glitches, though, during the first half of the semester Warren’s literature class and his two composition classes went smoothly and without incident. Though he thought about Allison often, she was not in any of his courses, nor did he see her on campus, but in all of his classes there were young women he couldn’t keep his eyes off.
“Chinese law forbids relationships between teachers and students,” Dr. Olds reminded him at one of their weekly meetings, “especially Western teachers. And there are severe penalties.”
Warren wanted to ask why he'd singled him out and why he continued to visit his classroom, but he became distracted by another discussion and never got around to it.
On one of his weekly forays to the Wufu market, a Western-style indoor market, Warren became involved in a small incident when he tried to pull three bananas off a larger bunch. The fruit and vegetable clerk immediately reprimanded him and took the bananas away. Warren pulled three more off a different bunch and the clerk signaled for the in-store police. A small crowd gathered when she recited Warren’s violation to the officer. When the policeman radioed for assistance a young woman in the crowd interceded. She asked what the problem was and the clerk demonstrated that Warren had taken bananas off the bunch, twice, without her permission and that was against store policy. In Chinese she told the clerk and the policeman that Warren was obviously a Westerner and was sure he hadn’t intentionally violated the policy. The clerk and the policeman looked at Warren, shrugged their shoulders, and to each other said, “Meiguoren.”
“Where do you work?” the woman who interceded said as she escorted Warren out of the store.
“I’m a teacher at Beijing Agricultural College,” Warren said.
“I’m a graduate student at China Tourism and Travel University,” the woman replied.
When they shook hands she said her name was Jing and she was from Hubei province.
“Do you know where that is?” she said.
“No ma’am,” he said. “But ya’ll do have a lot of towns in China, I’ve noticed that. Is it near Tibet?”
“That is Sichuan province,” she said. “Hubei is south of Beijing and I am from the city of Wuhan.”
She asked what city and state Warren was from and he told her “Mobile, Alabama, in the deep South.”
“Is it beautiful there?” she said. “Some day I would like to travel to America.”
“Yes,” he said, “it’s very green and wet but the people are a little strange.”
Before they separated Jing asked for Warren’s phone number and she gave him hers. The next day she called and invited him to meet with her and other students the following weekend. On the walk back to the college, he stopped to admire caged birds in the parkway outside the campus gates. Old men gathered there on weekends to talk and sell birds. There were a number of varieties of brightly colored finches, a mockingbird, a raven, something that looked like a meadowlark, and a small green parrot, as well as other birds. Warren asked how much for a pair of zebra finches and when the price was very low, he bought them. In a moment of reflection, he turned to look at the cages hanging from the trees and watched the birds chattering and flitting and grooming themselves. Before walking away he smiled and considered buying all the birds and releasing them. For the first time since he’d come to China, he felt like he could relax a little, enjoy himself.
Earlier in the semester Dr. Olds had suggested Warren and another English teacher work together because they taught the same classes. Emery Fry was a retired college teacher from California who’d lost his wife to ovarian cancer. Emery showed Warren some of the teaching techniques he’d learned over the years and occasionally instructed him in subtle ways.
“Warren, check me on this,” Emery said when they were working on arguing essays. “Does she have a claim with reasons or am I just imagining things.”
On Saturday mornings they began to explore the city together and became friends. Warren came to trust and rely on Emery and as they began working more closely, Dr. Olds stopped sitting in on his classes. Warren told Emery about the grocery store incident and Emery said, “After all, they’re still communists, Warren. You stepped on Comrade Fruit Clerk’s toes. In that small act of separating bananas, you usurped her entire reason for being.” Warren also mentioned the graduate student who had intervened and that he would be meeting her at Tiananmen Square Saturday morning.
One evening when they had been working late, Emery fell asleep on the extra bed in Warren’s room. As he napped Warren watched him and began thinking of his own father. They’d never had a good relationship and every week when he called they found something to argue about. His father disapproved of almost everything he did including the carpet cleaning business and coming to China. Emery found the carpet cleaning experience amusing and mentioned a Studebaker dealership he’d opened after the war that had gone belly up. Warren had been having a hard time controlling his emotions, had felt teary all evening, and when Emery woke, went into the bathroom to blow his nose and dry his eyes. It had been a few days since he’d run out of his medication and his father had assured him the refill would be there any day.
On Saturday Warren arrived at Tiananmen Square at ten to ten, paid the cab driver thirty-five yuan, and was immediately set upon by people selling all manner of trinkets. A woman with a sickly child in her arms forced him to take a bottle of water and when he refused to pay for it, began screaming “Wu kuai, wu kuai.” Warren escaped by crossing one of the busy streets that ran parallel to the square.
At the center of Tiananmen Square Warren could see Jing and a group of her friends talking and holding hands. When she saw him at a distance, Jing ran to greet him and called out “Wei, nihao, Warren. It’s so nice to see you today.” She shook his hand with both of hers and added it was good he’d remembered to bring his camera. Jing introduced him to her friends, all of whom could speak English, and all of whom were curious where in America he was from and where in Beijing he was teaching. Jing explained that Tiananmen Square was regarded as the modern face of China and that Chinese were very proud of it. During the Cultural Revolution as many as one million people would gather to hear Chairman Mao speak here. At ten-thirty they would begin, she said, and he assumed she meant a tour of the nearby museums and attractions.
“We would like for you to join our program today,” Jing said, “if you feel comfortable.”
Warren was elated that Jing and her friends were including him and said, “If you’re sure you don’t mind, I’d be happy to tag along.” At precisely ten-thirty, they produced a CD player and gathered in a circle. Warren stood next to Jing and she indicated he should try to follow the leader. The group began doing what seemed like coordinated exercises to Chinese mood music. They then sat cross-legged and one of the men read a list of phrases, which everyone repeated. Warren wondered when the tour would begin.
Jing was not the first of the group to be dragged away by the police, but she was among the first. Jing initially resisted but an officer bent her hand back and she reluctantly cooperated. Warren began taking pictures and when the entire group had been forced into a van, a detective asked for his camera. When Warren turned to walk away, other police encircled him and forced him to stay.
“Your camera,” the detective said, “or we take your whole backpack.”
“Ya’ll just can’t take people’s property,” Warren said. “I’m an American citizen and a college teacher here. I know my rights.”
When the detective grabbed the camera, Warren kneed him in the groin and made it clear he wasn’t giving it up. The injured officer signaled to the others and collectively they held Warren, took the camera, and placed him in the van in handcuffs. Inside the van Jing apologized profusely and said she never meant this to happen.
That afternoon a representative from the American embassy interviewed Warren and asked if he was a member of the Falun Gong. When he said he wasn’t, the representative asked what he was doing praying with the group.
“We were about to take a tour,” Warren said. “They invited me to go on a tour with them.”
“Mr. Tulley,” the representative said, “you were involved in a demonstration in Tiananmen Square with the outlawed Falun Gong group. If you will sign a statement recanting your membership and apologizing, we can have you released in a matter of minutes.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Warren said, “until I get my goddamn camera back.”
“Mr. Tulley,” the representative said, “the chances of you getting your camera back today or ever are about nil. If you want to be released from custody today, sir, please sign the form. Otherwise, Mr. Tulley, you may be here a while.”
Warren was irritated that he wasn’t able to go on the tour with Jing and her friends. He was angry that he’d been arrested, imprisoned, and had his camera taken away. And he was upset with the embassy representative’s tone and approach. Midway through Warren’s rant about being an American citizen and how that didn’t seem to matter much anymore, the representative excused himself and said he had other business to attend to. The guards were clearly puzzled when Warren wasn’t released and they were told to return him to his cell.
During the remainder of the afternoon and into the night, Warren angrily paced, called out to the guards, and refused to eat the rice and vegetables he was offered. In the early morning he became extremely agitated when he discovered he’d lost his return flight ticket. Warren had been keeping it with him as a sort of security blanket, even placing it under his pillow at night. When Dr. Olds appeared the next morning, Warren was escorted to an interview room to speak to him. Once they were alone, Warren accused the police of taking not only his camera, but also his airline ticket and he asked the director’s help in getting them both back.
“Yes, well, we know why they’ve taken your camera,” Dr. Olds said. “Why do you suppose they would take your airline ticket?”
“They steal people’s tickets and sell them on the black market,” Warren said, “students have told me about it.”
“Yes, well,” Dr. Olds said, “and how do they go about getting Chinese on airplanes with tickets that have clearly been issued to Americans?”
“They have ways of erasing the names,” Warren explained, “and then typing in new ones to match the passports.”
He said it as if he knew, but he’d never actually seen an altered ticket.
“Warren,” Dr. Olds said, “they have told me that if you do not calm yourself by tomorrow morning they are going to have to move you to Jing Shen Bing Yuan #3.”
“What is that?” Warren said perplexed.
“It’s one of the mental hospitals here in Beijing.”
Warren drew in a sharp breath and his face contorted as if it had been struck and pinched.
“No, please no,” he said. “Ya’ll can do anything but not that, please, no.”
And then he began to shiver and weep convulsively. Before Dr. Olds left, Warren asked if a package had arrived from his father. Dr. Olds said he’d checked before he came and no mail had come for him.
The following day, when he’d been moved to the hospital, Emery came in the evening after his classes and brought cards and greetings from Warren’s students. As reassurance he also added that the hospital seemed austere but clean and the staff had been helpful. To Warren the hospital seemed like a notch up from the cement prisoner-of-war barracks he’d seen in movies: patients slept on hard bunks in crowded dorm rooms, they were shepherded from place to place like children, and aside from morning calisthenics there were virtually no activities.
When Warren began to weep Emery put his arm around him, called him laddie, and said it would be all right. Warren told Emery he had been unable to sleep at all and was afraid he’d get sick if he ate the food or drank the water. Emery held up the bottles of water he’d brought so the attendant could see them, said “pingshui,” and when the attendant nodded he handed them to Warren. Emery continued to come every evening and brought both water and food each time. He joked that this was a clever way for Warren to improve his Chinese without having to pay for lessons and they both laughed. After a week and a half, Emery returned with Dr. Olds and fresh fruit and candy bars. Dr. Olds said he’d called his father and that he’d be there as soon as he could. During their conversation he’d asked that Warren be given a Bible.
“I have also spoken with the chief psychiatrist of the hospital,” Dr. Olds said. “On Monday, if you still have not slept, they will have to begin what they call dian liao.” He used the Chinese words to soften the impact.
“And what is dian liao?” Warren said.
“It’s electroshock therapy that will be combined with hormone treatments,” Dr. Olds said, “standard mental health regimens in China. They feel they have no choice.”
Warren placed his forehead on the Bible he’d been given, which was on the table in front of him, and folded his hands in his lap. “He has walled me about so I cannot escape,” Warren said calmly. “He has put chains on me. Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has blocked my way with hewn stones. He has made my paths crooked.”
A week later Warren's father arrived and was taken directly to the hospital from the airport. On the way Dr. Olds explained in detail what had transpired over the previous two and a half weeks, beginning with the incident in Tiananmen Square. When his father asked how Warren was responding to treatment, Dr. Olds said he wasn't sure. Before visiting his son, Warren's father asked to see the head of psychiatry.
In broken English the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Yao, said they’d begun a vigorous program of electroshock and hormone treatments, procedures that were uncommon in the West but with which they’d had good results.
“And how is my son doing,” Warren's father asked. “How is he today?”
“He is much less agitated, not so angry,” Dr. Yao said, “and he is sleeping and eating again.”
When Warren and his father met they were not sure how to greet each other and instead of hugging, shook hands. Warren's father noted that he seemed much calmer than when he'd left the States, and, as Dr. Yao said he would, that he’d already begun to gain weight from the hormones. After a gap in the conversation, Warren's father asked if he’d like to go out for the afternoon, that Dr. Yao had given him a pass.
“No, thank you,” Warren said. “I'm fine here. I've begun teaching the other patients English and we have a lesson scheduled in a few minutes. I'd hate to disappoint them.”
In a slightly irritated tone Warren's father asked if he couldn't reschedule it or put it off to the next day and that he'd just flown more than twenty hours to see him.
“Father,” Warren said smiling, “please don't come back tomorrow. Thank you for coming all this way to see me, but I'd rather you didn't come back tomorrow or the next day either.”
Warren's father was stunned and for once didn't know how to respond.
“And father,” Warren said.
“I won't be needing this either,” and without ceremony Warren handed the Bible to his father and left the room.
On Sunday, when Emery came in the afternoon, Warren told him a joke about the former premier, Li Peng, that he'd heard from one of the patients who spoke a little English.
“They say when you can understand the jokes,” Emery said, “that’s when you really begin to understand the language.”
Warren asked Emery if he knew Psalm 107 and Emery said he didn't but wondered how it went.
“Emery, would you say this is an inhabited town?”
“At fifteen or twenty million, I'd say it's probably one of the most inhabited towns.”
“When you go back to the guest house, Emery, would you please give all my clothes and things to the maids.”
“Sure,” Emery said, “everything?”
“Yes, and one other thing if you don't mind.”
“What's that, Warren?”
“I’d sure appreciate it if you’d pack up the little finches and their food and then bring them the next time you come?”
“Of course, if you want me to.” Emery paused and looked as if he were going to ask Warren something, then thought better of it. He returned a few days later without the birds and said the maids had placed them in front of an open window in his room and tied the cage door back.
“And they flew away?” Warren said.
“No, not exactly” Emery said. “They left and came back every day. But after sparrows got into the room the maids finally had to shut the window.”
Warren thought about the finches and wondered about his own future. Where would he go, what would he do for money once he was discharged? Would he be able to teach again? Maybe he could stay with Jing. In his mind he saw the birds returning week after week to peer in the window at their cage. He wasn’t sure where he was going or what he was going to do, but he knew he didn’t want to go home.
The next morning, after he’d finished teaching, Warren asked for a pass and was given one. The following day, when he hadn’t returned, Dr. Yao checked with the college, other hospitals, and the morgue, then told the staff Warren had been discharged because his health had been restored.