Friday, May 8 – Love, Patience and the Eye of the Tiger
By Jorah Kai CHONGQING, CHINA
Day 106. We all have good days and bad days in a pandemic. With “The Reopening” looming, we’re gonna have some bad days. Yesterday was my worst, but today is looking like it might be ok. I moved my 32″ curved 4K gaming monitor from my office to the bedroom about 80 days ago so that I could spend more time around my wife, hoping she wouldn’t abandon me to go shelter with her family and leave me alone in a foreign country where even ordering a sandwich can feel like brain surgery – and possibly require it, as I squint reading Chinese characters until I’m ready to hemorrhage.
It was a good move until it wasn’t. A week ago, I got a gut feeling to move it back to my office. It was time. But, it seemed like a big job. I’m a busy guy. And a few days ago, in a whirlwind of chaos, double fisting a swooshing coffee mug and a screeching cellphone, the butterfly effect of the wind I exuded as I raced by caused this precariously balanced mesh of technology and decorative bedroom furniture, in this case, a green meter tall drawer, to collide with gravity. I heard the smash from the living room, and there it was: my 4K screen on the ground, askew, the Playstation 4 on top, pinning down the larger opponent with some expert Judo. The HDMI cable was hopelessly bent, but the resilient little port seemed the right shape and size. Boy, that hole took a good one, but seemed to withstand the chaotic violence of rapid decoupling.
Sheepish, I brought all the gear back to my office. I found a new HDMI cable, and I set it back up, slowly, respectfully, hopefully. Everything started ok. On turning on, the monitor showed a crack on the right side, with a larger black bar about 2″ wide down the screen. It was pretty beat up, but it worked. The PS4 did a “shut down defrag” and then seemed to reboot ok. I use this as the main source of interaction with my dad these days. When he’s tired, or I’m tired, it’s easy to misunderstand each other, and a pleasant check-in turns into an ugly two-hour grudge match down memory lane, about choices and mistakes we’ve both made over the years. I wasn’t always an easy son, and we’ve got history. Instead, we play hockey. Sometimes I beat him, and he beats me, it doesn’t matter. We enjoy the sport.
A day or two later, I got to try a game, and, to my dismay, I could not connect to the network. No game, for who knows how long, and I felt so angry, so disappointed. Something important to both of us was gone.
Part of all this whirling around is trying to figure out what to do with this Beijing publisher. As an emerging writer, I took my cues from my elders, but whereas Stephen King had a nail on a wall so full of rejection letters that it fell off and he had to get a bigger nail before he sold his first book, all I did was put myself out there, write a blog every day for two months, and I actually had two publishers, in two countries, both want to publish my book. It felt like lightning in a bottle. Maybe I was too quick to jump into it– it came too easily, was it love at first sight, or a convenient matchup that wasn’t skin deep?
It was a hard choice. The first to express interest was an old friend from my days living in Vancouver, and she told me that my diary had a special something, kind of an odd futuristic sci-fi kind of feel while being interesting and relatable and at that point, still not a concern for the average westerner. Cyberpunk dystopian narrative nonfiction. Sure, that sounded like she liked it for the right reasons, and I may have made a mistake in fishing for a Chinese offer, but hear me out.
Back at the end of January, I spoke on the record to CTV News about the lack of help from the Canadian consulate in Chongqing, and how we as Canadians felt a bit aimless. They liked my bits, so they invited me on for a live TV interview that got played a few times in the West. Afterward, my good friend Stephane Vera sent me screenshots, and I posted them on my Chinese social media moments. So did my wife. We thought it was pretty cool until a friend of hers in Germany saw them and called her right away. Be careful! He warned. Really, why? She asked. Well, reporting for a western news organization in this special time, very sensitive climate about a topic like this could be seen as dangerous, he said. Some people have gone to jail for things like this, he warned. Xiaolin had me take the photos down right away. She was rattled. Now, since then, many people, including media here, have seen photos and clips of that interview in China. The guy was overly cautious, but, in this kind of environment, you can’t really blame him.
How does that relate to my choice? Well, I thought this is a China story, about how we dealt in China with this virus, and I should at least see if a Chinese publisher wanted the first crack at it before me, a Canadian, wrote and published it in the West. I couldn’t have foreseen then the western backlash against China, at least I didn’t. Everybody’s got their own spin on a story, but I hoped that if I took the time to get it through the Chinese publisher, at least I wouldn’t be worried they’d call me a spy, a dangerous foreign journalist, instead, I’d be doing a service to my adopted home, telling a story for them, that they were comfortable to print. At least that’s how I imagined it. Within a few days, I had good news back. I major publisher in Beijing wanted to talk. We talked. I was assured I’d have creative control, and that their edits would be marked in my manuscript and negotiable. They just wanted to fact check me and clean up logic and grammar, and I had a great team of my friends beta read, and a couple go even farther into the land of creative and copy editing to help me get it to snuff. I signed the contract and told my Canadian friend — that I hoped to work with her for my next one. I still do.
So here I was, ready to get this book, The Invisible War, out, already working on my next one, The Lighthouse, with collaborators around the world, and things started to get hairy. The chief editor for the English version was antagonistic, insulting, condescending, accusing me of wasting their time, forcing them to work all hours, and generally being unbearable. I told her, just stop replying to me when you want to rest and we’ll get back to it on Monday, but the abuse continued for a couple of days until I told them in no uncertain terms I would not speak to her, (my editor) again, and we could dissolve the contract or find a workaround. So the editor in charge of the Chinese version of my book offered to play a polite intermediary, and things kept moving forward. I got a few versions with edits, but they were small ones, grammar mainly, and would be given to me in a word document, and I would answer some questions, and they would be applied. I forgot they’d promised to give me a word document with in-doc suggestions. It had slipped my mind completely.
My local news agency set up several high profile press conferences, with international media, at my school, with my principals and local government leaders clapping and thanking me for telling my story, for telling our cities’ story, in the context of my experience. They all seemed so happy, so proud of me. I’m a writer, and I figured this is just what happens when you get lucky, and people want your book: good timing, or whatever. Later, I sat down with some high profile journalists, did a few more interviews, and facing some burnout, decided to put an end to that, at least until the book was out.
Around then, we built the Revel Alliance, and I was putting a lot of work into research aggregation and sharing, and trying to keep a community online that we could count on if things got ugly. There were some bumps in the road, and I was back on the global 24-hour clock, and I had some bad burn out for a bit. So I withdrew, let the mods manage the group, and tried to save my marriage. It was all so peaceful for awhile.
One day, Beijing wanted to change the cover, even after we’d promoted it to the media, online, and I had a T-shirt made. We had a strong vision, and they wanted to muddy the waters. I was resistant. And by that, I mean, I blew up, melted down, told them I’d cancel the whole deal, hire lawyers, just mess up everything. We put it on hold.
They suggested a different name… how about The Invisible Enemy? The Invisible Threat? How about the Invisible Fart, I said, and we can just call it a day. No man, Dash wrote a theme song, we’ve got a title. A title rewrite would take me at least a week to read through the book and try to plant new seeds, build a new spider web. We’re not changing the name. They can take it, or we can blow up the whole deal and spend the next five years in court. But they thought I was being dramatic. As things started to get back to normal in Chongqing and Beijing, they started to sound like my “struggle against the invisible enemy, and the invisible war” was a bit hyperbolic. Hey, we’re back in business, right? So I gathered articles about Xi, Trump, Trudeau, Johnson, Macron, and the rest, all talking about the wartime conditions of the COVID pandemic and how we were fighting together. They worried the Beijing publishing administration would not give us an ISBN in this sensitive time with the word “war” in the title. Again, I put my feet down. That’s the title, or we scrap the whole project. I was so mad, upset, just beleaguered. Later, we pulled favors and had the head of our newspaper call the head of the publishing company and talk it over. “Let the guy have his title, it’s his book, we just want to help him make it successful,” they agreed, and I won that battle. I was exhausted and drained and perhaps a petulant child in their eyes, I had thrown a big boy tantrum, but I had won.
Later, they pulled the cover on me again, but what the heck, I had my book, I had my title, sure, screw up the cover, I can live with that. It gets so much worse, though. They changed my back cover text to suggest “A feverish fear,” could read, “a feverish period,” and I told them in no uncertain terms not to tell people I had a feverish period. Phrasing!
I am, meanwhile, back to work, and using my “100-hour face masks” over 25 hours a week. What was supposed to last forever when 30 mins a week of shopping was my output was now going to be ineffective in a few weeks. We did midterms, which is hilariously confusing in China, a country steeped with tradition. We do not use staples. The midterms come from an official midterm printing company, shrouded in secrecy and when we open the envelopes, there are stacks of 11×17″ double-sided sheets, perhaps 6 or 8 piles, and we must give the students each one of these sheets, and the students fold them themselves into booklets and answer sheets, in 5 minutes before the exam clock starts. The foreign teachers always chuckle, but we are quiet: this is the way, this is tradition. Staples are for pansies, I guess. Perhaps they are an insurance liability. So I’m standing at the front of the room, with another teacher, trying to figure out if there are five individual sheets or six, make sure all students get each sheet, and 30 kids are all folding and turning and spinning pages around like a little book factory, about to write AP Psychology.
I need more masks. At least, more mask filters. I emailed the Swedish company Airinum to get replacements, but they were globally sold out until August. I asked them, then, if they could replace one filter I had that had a defective coupler, and after some negotiation, they agreed to send me a few unused “sample filters” from around the office. This is great. I was so pumped.
Later, Maria told me they could not send them to China. Whon-whon. So, I had them sent to my dad in Canada. Maybe he could boomerang them back to me? Worth a shot.
My dad and I spend about a week troubleshooting PS4 network connectivity. I added google server #’s, and I tried everything. We try this, and that, and hours go by, but we don’t give up. Most people would get angry, or quit, but we work with quiet perseverance and patience, and kindness, trying to salvage this thing we have, NHL Hockey, online, together. One day we got it to work, we played on my broken screen, and then I move the PS4 into my living room to use the 4-meter projection screen that rolls down for tutoring classes. It doesn’t work well on a sunny day, but on an overcast spring day like today, wow, it was pretty awesome. It made me want to buy a six-pack of beer and play a few games. Patience and kindness, forgiveness to myself prevailed. The hopelessness of “losing the connection to my father” dissolved.
One day, after reminding him 50 times to keep an eye out for them, he apologized, told me he’d accidentally thrown them out. I was livid, like, and I felt sick inside. These could save lives, and he’d oppsied, thrown out 10 of them? How could this great effort have just gone to waste? I had taught him all the protocols, but he said he got nervous, and maybe it fell into a recycling basket in the garage and got taken out. I was really mad. Then I got over it. Then I told him it was like he was going down on the titanic, and I got him a lifeboat, and he threw it away. I was that mad. I could have written ten more metaphors.
He knew I was worried about not having enough masks for myself, so he sends me almost $188, a lucky number in China, to get some. Surprised, off-guard, I accepted and moved on. I mean, it’s hard to be mad at someone that’s being so generous. The payment said pending, but I’m sure it would work out sooner or later.
Meanwhile, public opinion was a real emotional struggle. Friends who I’d originally warned who laughed me off, now were angry at me for being so right about the pandemic. Friends that had been interested and engaged in my personal struggle when their life was normal, now seemed upset I was selling my diary as a book while they were out of work. Some people who’d been grateful for the advanced notice to prepare now asked me why China hadn’t given more notice to the West to get ready for what was coming. The knowledge that I gained from living in China that earned me respect is now the reason some people are angry at me—- China knew first! China didn’t do enough. Is China your momma? People were mad at China for not warning them about 9/11 also.
The racism of this day and age hurts. The personal attacks hurt. The ignorance hurts. In an age where being smart is frowned upon, it’s a race to the bottom. People are so stupid it hurts, and in a pandemic, every COVIDIOT is a bio terrorist. So what are we gonna do about it?
It’s interesting you’re allowed to love your home town if you come from there, but if you move there, it’s suspicious. Chongqing did a great job with COVID-19 resistance, and writing a book about how we survived seemed a natural thing for a writer; now, it’s a huge question mark in the world. We will see. I had friends who are journalists, questioning how I could be a journalist and live in a country with restrictions of free speech. I’m not sure if that even makes sense. Many countries have different forms of government, but all of them have newspapers. I managed to truck through all of it, and then I had my students midterms back in class, and a new version of my book — the final one, they asked hopefully? To proof and sign off on.
I read through part one and two during a 4 hour set of exams and found 16 grammatical problems my Chinese editor created while trying to chop up my writing. I photographed them all, I addressed the problems, I wasted hours of my life, but I was ok to keep ongoing. Then Xiaolin and I ate noodles for lunch.
Afterward, I got into part three and four and realized certain things were missing. Key things. Dramatic scenes, dreams, poetry. The entire epilogue, the back half of the sandwich that was the literary frame that served as a poetic metaphor for my whole book. Someone had just taken som eof my best lines, jokes, and creative moments and cut them as ‘irrelevant’ irrelevant to who? It was damn relevant to me, the author of my diary. They were my favorite parts. I was explosive. Irrelevant to western readers of this Kindle or paperback/hardcover release? This literary element made an epistolary novel of a bunch of diaries that were already available freely on my blog. They were what I spent a week of sleepless frenzy crafting to make this a novel.
Why, because all you want is Chinese propaganda that says I love Chongqing?
That says CQ did a good job of repelling the virus?
Well, if you take away my ability to tell my story, with my art, with my poetry, and kill my ability to promote this book on camera if you take away the idiomatic speech, the metaphors, the artistry of my book and focus on the part where I said my city in China did a great job stopping the virus, you’d turned me into what the haters in the West already think I am:
a fake voice for China.
Is that what they want? I would have imagined, a world where our interests aligned, where me getting to write a novel and tell people how wearing masks and keeping distance and being mindful and productive in lockdown was a message that helped the world and also, if I said “look, my city did great, you should learn from it,” the publisher in China was proud that a foreigner, an objective voice, was publicly giving credit to their country at a time like this.
Together, we used each other to do good for people around the world, and for China, and as long as I got my message and my book out, I felt like that was a positive thing for everyone involved. But not like this.
In the midst of it, Xiaolin is picking up to visit her family, and while I’m invited, she’s also saying she left some cash in a drawer, and asking if it was the housekeeper or me that helped myself to it. Now if you know me, a friend highlander, a silver-tongued gypsy, or a guy that bought my wife a frigging HOUSE, the idea that I’ve borrowed $60 of my own money to blow on pizza while we’re trying to budget on family stuff —- just insulted me to the core, and I told her to go on without me. F*** that noise.
Once she’d gone, all I had left was my anger, my rage, my internet, people I was mad at on the internet in China, outside China, cable TV, and a tuna fish sandwich. It was a long and sad and desperate night and I felt like shit. It was the lowest I’d been in these 106 days so far.
I told the publisher and my agent that under no circumstances were they to publish this tone-deaf heap of garbage that was “This version” and we have big problems ahead of us. Either I get my version back, or they take my name off it, my pictures out of it, and I want nothing to do with this monstrosity.
I sat in a ball of suck thinking–
I want this
I want that
I wa. I wa. I wa wrawawawa
I am a baby, crying, burp me, and put me to bed.
Xiaolin comes home, late, and I’m quiet. I try to keep a straight face. I’m no baby. I avoid the sensitivities and thin-skinned need for consolation that she hates, my little pretty-faced Yoda momma, and we function ok. We even watch a movie, and relax and then sleep finds me.
In a whirling eruption of chaos, I find myself at the bottom of a volcano.
I fall in and out of love at least twice, and then, I tour a few house parties: some real, some legendary, and some clearly fictional. Well buzzed, I bump into a silver screen icon, waiting for the bathroom, while the jazz stylings and unabashedly horny jazz music of Fela Kuti is blasting, in another room, down a hallway.
Hoodie up, shoulders against the door, he notices me, and jabs a thick thumb at the off-white door. In a gritty, thick Italian-American he says, “they’ve been in there for 10 minutes, geez, the parties out here, my girl’s gotta pee.”
I look around. I don’t see his girl. Or any girl, but I look back to him. Really? I smile. Quirk a brow. “Sly?” I ask.
“Naw,” he says. “You got the wrong guy.”
I see him, younger, as I first knew him. Somehow, impossible.
“Rocky?” I ask, and he nods. He smiles a little at my obvious perplexity.
“You’re not Sly Stallone. You’re Rocky. Balboa. The fictional character?”
“What,” he growls, lips twisting up in a snarl. “You gotta problem with fictional characters?” I see the fire in his eyes, and I’m jealous. I’m all out of love.
“No, you do you, brother,” I say. “My battery is drained, they mopped the floor with me.” I stop, but he waits, and something in his eyes soften, so I keep rambling. “I feel like the whole world is closing in after me. Everybody is taking their piece, and when they’re done, I’m gonna be a stain, nothing left.”
Rocky frowns and crossed his arms. “You know, I mean, I don’t know if you know, but this is true, you know, that every champion, like, was once a contender who just refused to give up.”
“Sure,” I say. “I mean, I get it, you’re the champ, you’re the inspiration, you know in Philly they still play your eye of the tiger theme song when they score points, the Steelers, the Flyers, they love you man. You’re not even real, and you’ve got a statue, that’s wild. I’m just some gu—”
Rocky grabs my shirt, pulls me close, “not real? I’m not real to you? Do I feel real? Does this,” he balls up a meaty fist and waves it in my face, “does this look real enough to you?”
I gulp. “Sure, Rock. You’re real, at least in this place, and this is the place .. we’re still waiting for the bathroom in.”
“So my advice is no good to you, cuz you live in a different, you know, universe?”
“No, I mean, you’re inspiring man, don’t hit me, I get it, you’re the champ. I’m just fed up with this giant behemoth, you know, in China the printing company is a part of the state or whatever, so it’s like, I’m just some guy, trying to win the fight of my life, against the Chinese government.”
“Chinese government?” Rocky mirrors. “Who’s bigger, Mr. T, or the Chinese government?”
“Um,” I say, trying to fathom the parameters. “You mean in social media likes or actual—-“
“Who’d you rather fight in the ring, some Chinese bureaucrat, pencil-pushing paperwork cowboy, or the badman Mr. T?”
I laugh, nervously, as he pins me into the wall with his fist in my face. “Yeah, you’re right, Mr. T was pretty impressive.”
He smiles, and lets go of my shirt, and backs up, then straightens up. “I fought Mr. T, Hulk Hogan, even,” he pauses, a solemn look crossing his eyes, “Ivan Drago.”
I nod—the big Russian guy who killed Apollo in Rocky IV. “You got a big heart, Rock. This is a different kind of fight, I mean, half my friends think I’m a fool to be proud of my city, Chongqing, and then if these publishers take all the artistry out of my book… it’ll be some hackneyed Quasimodo…I don’t even want my name on it.”
“So is the fight over?” He asks.
“Is it already over? Did you lose?”
“No… it’s just not looking good.”
“So the fight’s not over and you’re already acting like you’re the loser.”
He shakes his head, and knocks on the door. He’s clearly through with me. “Hey open up man,” he says. I hear laughter inside.
“Rocky, I’m just tired of getting beat up, knocked down man, how many times can I take it? I feel like hamburger helpless.“
He turns back to me and shrugs. “Well then, let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, you know?”
“It is a very mean and nasty place, and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You understand me?”
Oh, this is the speech from Rocky 5, nice. He’s talking to his son. I love this one. I don’t wanna ruin it so I just nod again.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
I smile, an earnest grin. Epic Rocky moment. Ok, brain, get off the floor, I got it.
“Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that.”
It hit me hard then. I’ve been scared. Everybody’s scared. We’re all blaming somebody else for what is essentially the condition we find ourselves in today, and Rocky just called us all a bunch of cowards. And he’s right. We are acting like a bunch of cowards.
“That’s true,” I say.
“Nobody owes nobody nothing.”
“Nothing,” I repeat. I felt a fire in my belly, a bit of that highland fury return.
“You gotta earn it.”
“But I’m just –” I say.
“It’s not always the big guy who wins,” he interrupts and slams a fist into his palm. “I thought I told you that. Who wants it more? Does this matter to you?”
“Yeah, it’s my life, it’s my name, my friends ready think I’m crazy to stick up for Chongqing, now if I let Beijing ruin my book, I’ll be a laughing stock, this is me, against the ropes. I don’t know if I can go one more round.”
I might have been tempting him, but he leans into it.
“Going in one more round when you don’t think you can. That’s what makes all the difference in your life,” says Rocky. “No, maybe you can’t win, maybe the only thing you can do is just take everything they’ve got. But to beat you, they’re gonna have to kill you, and to kill you, they’re gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of you, and to do that, they’ve gotta be willing to die themselves, and I don’t know if they’re ready to do that. Do you?”
Something clicked. I don’t think anybody wants this to work more than me. They clock out at night. They go home; they go to bed. This is my life.
“If this is something you wanna do, and if this is something you gotta do, then you do it. Fighters fight.” He claps me on the shoulder.
The bathroom door creaks open and out spills in a puff of atmospheric haze, two giggling women spilling drinks, a brunette and a blond, and they look at me, and I realize it’s Melania and Ivanka. What the hell are they doing here? Melania powders her nose in the mirror, and the two of them whizz by us, awkward, into the crowd, and I feel a large, meaty hand on my shoulder. I spin around, and standing in the bathroom doorway is a bearded, red-haired giant of a man. “He’s right,” says the Celtic warrior. He straightens his kilt, drinks deep from a large white goat horn. “The Italian knows what you need to do, I know what you need to do, do you ken, lad, what ye need to do?”
I look him in the eyes, feel that steely highlander power.
“Aye, Uncle Rob, I do.”
He nods and chases after the giggling ladies into the hallway.
“Yo, your uncle is Rob Roy?” Says Rocky, and I smile.
“That’s right, Rock, and I’m ready for my training montage. Thanks,” I say. “You’re a real peach.”
He puts out a meaty hand, grabs mine, and I shake it, even though in my mind, part of me is rebelling at this otherworldly, antiquated gesture. “Nobody’s ever called me a peach before. You gotta way with words, kid. Remember, the mind is your best muscle. Big arms can move rocks, but big words can move mountains.”
Adrian rolls up, slipping under his arm and pulls Rocky into the bathroom. As the doors closing, I hear her ask, “Rocky, why do you fight?”
Rocky says, “Because I can’t sing and dance.”
The door slams closed, and with a jolt, I wake up, the weird little house is gone.
I look around. I’m back in China. My arm is vibrating. The dogs are dreaming, feet whirling and kicking in the arm. Benben is running in a field full of yellow daisies. Xiaolin is asleep beside me. My family.
It’s a new day, and I’m ready for a new fight. My head is clear, and the world is good.
My dad sends me a picture: all the 8 HEPA filter masks showed up, after all. We got all confused and turned around for nothing. I check my phone, and that damn transfer is still pending. I refund the PayPal transfer. We’re all good; nobody’s gotta feel sorry for anything, we all just need to do our best to do what we need to do. He’s got the masks he needs, I’ll find mine somewhere, I’ll be ok.
A few hours pass, I teach three packed classes, it’s like doing small room standup, and I’m refining some good jokes, good lessons, and I get some good applause. I make it back and Xiaolin makes me some lunch, eggs and tomato, rice, and soup. I make coffee, and when I turn around, she’s cut up some of the freshly grown lemons her dad gave us a bag of, and put them in a glass with some rock sugar, and hands me a glass of lemonade.
“Here,” she says and smiles. “Don’t drink it all at once, you can fill it back up for later and enjoy it for a while.” That’s life.