Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Conversation with Jiujiu: The Chinese underworld

We've had four of these dinner conversations, which I'm beginning to cherish. The first was about Tibet. The second, Moutai. Most recently, over Moutai, we talked about Jiujiu's trip in 1994 to the American West, when he was still a relatively young man of 36. He stopped in Washington (state), Oregon, Las Vegas, Hollywood (where his office companions left him hanging in a museum, which he perused by himself, listening to performers, then studied a bus schedule for a long time (without much luck), found a Taiwanese student who was also lost who advised him to get on the bus and go one stop down, eventually leading to a reunion with the office workers who complained, "We looked and waited for you!" to which my uncle, with a laugh, told them, "You didn't look that hard... I watched you get on the bus and leave!") and San Francisco, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to dial my mom using Collect ("There's a way of dialing where it charges the person who picks up the phone, not the dialer..." "You mean Collect?" "Yes, that's it. I used that."). He did this just before boarding the plane, and when it didn't work, he asked an airport employee to try it for him. The airport employee looked hurried, but he tried, and when he couldn't get through either... "He worked up a head of sweat!" Jiujiu said with a laugh.

What follows was our third conversation, reproduced to the best of my ability.

This past Saturday I was getting ready to head out to the Goose and Duck Pub when I apparently drew the concern of my jiujiu, a wise, level-headed guy who's not very unlike myself. It was getting late, and he suggested I wait until the next day to go. I told him I couldn't, that I'd already gone in the morning (to watch the Houston Rockets lose amid Chinese fans, only there were no Chinese fans because it had been pouring rain and the game wasn't on TV... just a laptop), and that I was supposed to get introduced to the bar's boss, an Irish-Canadian named John. They were expecting me, in other words. (And they were -- I got a couple business cards and a story pitch out of it.) Jiujiu, knowing I wouldn't stay in, decided to give me a talk, instead.

GHB. Cocaine. Heroin. Other stuff. There's a drug called "shake-head drug." Makes your head swivel. There are other drugs that don't have names. This is China, was the gist of what he was saying. You have to watch out.

A string, he said -- after imitating a violin player, then asking me what instrument I used to play (it was the violin; I should note here that Jiujiu knows a few words of English, but sometimes the words he uses are literal translations; string, in this situation, of course makes no sense; he means "seed"). I need to plant a string in your head, to know this exists.

At dinnertime the topic surfaced again, though completely unexpectedly.

Have you seen the movie -- the documentary -- Hong Kong Box? he asked.

I had not.

They talk about a black box. You know what a black box is?

A box that's black?

It's black, so you can't see inside. Like, what does it mean to say we're black boxes? You can't see my heart's secrets, I can't see yours. To the West, China is a black box.

I nodded.

He got on to explaining how this documentary depicts various Western nations, and that the French come out alright. The Germans, on the other hand -- they're doctrinaires.

In what areas are the Chinese smart in? Jiujiu asked rhetorically (at least I assumed it was rhetorically). If you're buying eggs, and one egg costs one dollar, then if you want to buy 10 eggs, they'll give you 10 for 10 dollars.

The Germans, on the other hand, will give you one dollar for one egg, then another dollar for another egg, and so on until they've reached 10.

This is a very simple example, Jiujiu continued, but you can extrapolate from that.

The Chinese who do good do good better than perhaps anyone else in the world. But those who do bad do that better than anyone else, too.

In 1949, when China wasn't recognized by the West, they were friends only with Russia. The first TV came from Russia. Eventually they learned AC circuitry, and within years everything had AC in it. (I think he was after the term "alternating current"; not positive though.)

He explained -- all very tangentially, of course -- the materials inside the first TV, and bet I hadn't seen one more (I'm sure I have in Science City or the Smithsonian).

In the late-50s, China detonated an H-bomb, my uncle said. Then the atomic bomb. In the 60s, China got a man in space. In other words, the speed of the country's progress was incredibly fast. The Chinese are very capable people.

But my point is, Jiujiu said, and it was good he said it because I was beginning to doubt whether there was one, there are those who are equally adept at being cruel. It takes study and practice to do good, but some people don't have access to learning and books. So they apply themselves in other areas.

Law in China is very loose. It's a relatively new idea, probably only 40 years old, because not long ago there were emperors, who were like the country's parents. Whatever they said went. The idea of law is unfamiliar to some people. They don't know law exists. They think they can do whatever they want. And the enforcement is sometimes just not there.

You see people who are good and caring -- you're around them -- but there's another side, too. The underworld.

Then he told a story of one of his bureau's employees going to Yue Lan. I was supposed to go, he said, but didn't. I let this colleague go instead. He was seven or eight years younger. They were having a meeting there with three or four other people, and afterwards a car picked them up to take them out partying. He took a smoke from someone, and then he disappeared. Later, when everyone had left Yue Lan, he still hadn't been found. The office sent people back to find him. Eventually he surfaced, but he had no idea what happened. And his head was never the same.

Where is he now? I asked.

Don't know. We considered him a sick man after that incident.

You have to always be skeptical, Jiujiu said, soberly. Even after you meet someone for a second time, and third. At a sports bar everyone's interest might be focused on the games, which gives you the impression that things are safe. Someone may want to take your number, but it's best not to give it out. Then again, you could become friends. That is a possibility. But you have to have this "string" in your head.

I'll be careful, I said.

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