Because of our ancient Confucian traditions, we Chinese dont find any bad connotations in the name Big Brother.
The student who spoke had something downtrodden and emaciated about him that was alien to his classmates, and to Polly, the substitute teacher, as well. The extreme slit-eyes set at almost forty-five-degree angles to the mouth full of buck teeth, several of which needed western-style root canals; the way he insisted on hunkering on the window sill during break time like a cruel nineteenth-century newspaper caricature of a celestial: this was the white supremacists quintessential Chinaman. The only thing missing was the plaited queue, and Polly had difficulty not imagining it behind the tiny sunburnt head, tucked under the unfashionable blue collar.
The other students found him unacceptable, and now were laughing at him. He pretended to ignore them and stood, reverting to the formal Chinese classroom etiquette which Pollys husband, Sammy, had demolished long ago. He was taking urgent exception to the sobriquet of the dictator in the novel theyd finished and laid to rest half a semester earlier.
For us Big Brother is something quite fine, a bastion of society. We Chinese look to our elder brother in moments of dire anguish. We respect him and he, in turn, treats us kindly, and
The crueler, bolder boys (Polly sometimes caught herself thinking of them as boys, though they were thirty and fathers, many of them) began, in loud voices, to say mean things in their native idiom, forgetting, or refusing to believe, that Polly could understand. Two years of homilies in the underground church, accompanied by Gregorian chant transliterated from the Vulgate into the local street lingo, had given her a rough proficiency. She and Sammy were the first foreigners to have learned the dialect since the communists threw the missionaries out.
From the back of the room came scoffing voices.
Yes, that may be. But Xiao Bus elder brother cant be looked to in this particular moment of dire anguish. At least not from this vantage point. Hes fifteen years down the turd-hole of history and still hasnt managed to graduate from the rustication program.
Dont be uncharitable. Its not that he failed to graduate. Its just that he wishes to remain in the countryside to serve the people.
There were giggles from the girls, rather, the women, who arranged themselves in the front row every day, as infatuated with Polly as American sixth-graders with their new gym teacher. They were delighted that Sammy had long ago abdicated in favor of her. It was these women who had rendered her name Po Li, Active and Lovely. They always gathered around her on break-time, under the jealous scrutiny of the young man at whom they laughed now, and talked about her big dark eyes.
You could be Chinese, theyd say, paying her the highest compliment imaginable, followed by the inevitable So why dont you have children?
Then, when the bell rang, theyd rearrange themselves immodestly in the tiny missionary-style school benches, each draping at least one of her legs over somebody elses, so that many pairs of underpants showed. Their thighs were fat-free and tended to be extremely white, for, as urban Chinese, these women avoided sunshine. The lovely tans of which they were capable were considered declasse. This probably had as much as anything to do with their giggling at the idea of serving the peasants.
The semi-conscious underpants display was the main reason Sammy had hung on as long as he had. He called it the leg show and found in it endless fascinations both wholesome and unwholesome. Their level of repression is so deep that theyve lost any conception of the privacy of their own genitalia, he marveled. Collectivized crotch, I call it.
At any moment Polly expected uniformed men to bang down the door in search of her husband, to arrest him for whatever hed been doing at night lately rather than sleeping in their fruitless bed. She took solace in one thought: if they came, the authorities would not find Sammy here, for he no longer came any closer to the classroom buildings than to their squalid room in the barbarian compound.
He had started a model teacher, to his own and Pollys amazement. Teacher San Mu, the walking encyclopedia, the students had called him, and invited him to the bookless reading room to talk. During the first semester everybody, Sammy as well as the students, had done beautifully on 1984so beautifully, in fact, that sometimes Polly found herself shifting nervously in the special observers seat reserved for provincial cadres who never showed up. (Even in those distant halcyon days shed had premonitions of educational doom, and had hoped her presence might delay their coming true.)
Under Orwell and Sammys subversive influence, dangerous things had been said out loud, right in class: a non-revisionist history of the party is impossible to get in China, but in Hong Kong and America books as true as Emanuel Goldsteins are openly distributed; the insidious processes of Newspeak can be recognized in Maos attempts to de-feudalize Chinese charactersa whole catalog of such oral braveries. Polly would kick her husband and make discreet warning nods in the direction of the party informant (his head always down, seeing nothing, hearing everything, taking copious notes in the back of the grimy classroom); but Sammy and the students would laugh and proclaim with one voice, Animals and English majors are free!
In the halls, in the dorms, in the nightmarish rest rooms, big-character posters suddenly appeared in English, Chinese, Japanese, even Russian:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Sammy knew exactly whod painted and posted these incendiary da zhi bao, and he was delighted to be taken into the confidence of such stout comrades. He said he felt just like one of the boys. Being a male Anglo Saxon from a prosperous far-western community, hed never had much experience with this sort of thing. He was still in high school when the draft ended, and only got in on one anti-Nixon rally. His personal contact with police officers was limited to the night he got stuck somewhere in the sagebrush outside Provo and a highway patrolman gave him a canful of unleaded and five dollars. So thumbing his nose at totalitarianismor at least inciting his pupils to thumb theirswas a new and exciting experience for Pollys plighted spouse.
For the first time he began to see a connection between life and livelihood. I had to come to a Marxist/Leninist society to learn the importance of job identity, he said. He would wake up at night mumbling that his heart felt like it was expanding down there among his ribs, and set to work on new lecture notes under the mosquito net.
One day the pregnant pinto cat from the cafeteria was no longer pregnant, but no kittens were in sightjust four particularly smug and plump rats lounging in a damp patch of earth out back, a classic Daoist omen. The students expository essays began mysteriously to de-politicize and sink to innocuous topics like child-rearing, and to be accepted for publication by the op-ed folks at China Daily, where theyd formerly been rejected with indignation.
Then the class switched, as the syllabus had given ample warning it would, from Twentieth-Century Dystopias to Contemporary American Novels in Verse (a bibliographically manageable area of study, Sammy assured them); and their pirated mimeographs of the equally verboten Pale Fire turned out blurry, and the class lost its aim, flopped. No voices but the teachers drone were heard any longer. The party suck, as Sammy wouldve referred to him, felt the time ripe to move to the front of the class.
Sammys complaints about living conditions and bureaucracy and giraffe-in-the-zoo syndrome began at about this time. Polly was sure these now-perpetual laments were just a way of camouflaging his shock at discovering a spy in his classroom. Intellectually, of course, it was no surprise and was even amusing to him; but emotionally it was a kick in the face that left a bruise he could never acknowledge to himself or Polly. It would have made him seem naive, an apple-pie-and-milk American boy come bang against political reality for the first time at the age of thirty-plus.
In self-defense, Pollys husband had developed a rotten attitude toward his professional responsibilities and toward China in general. She shouldve foreseen this. Ever since the afternoon of their wedding, when hed collared a ripe, uninvited transient at the communion rail and grilled him on transubstantiation (a doctrinal issue hed cited, along with his gout, to excuse his own non-participation in the Eucharist), Sammy had been reacting against what he considered Pollys liberal guilt-inspired politeness. And now he set out singlehandedly to demolish the myth of the American foreign experts as youngish Peace Corps types trying to assimilate themselves gently into Asia.
He shouted down wrong numbers with the ugliest gibberish that could be squeezed between clenched teeth. He stepped with all his might on toes in the street, well aware of the calcium deficiency endemic among these frail people. He gave not a centimeter in the bike lanes, using his triple mass and momentum to send other cyclists sprawling, and flagrantly violated the law by not stopping at the scene of the accident to work out contradictions for an hour of fleeting Chinese time. In shops, even state-run ones, he dickered in vicious dialect for twenty minutes at a time, then let the few coppers hed bled from the shopkeepers slip from his wallet. The very merchants hed just bullied, having lost the screaming match only because the shock of an enormous waiguoren howling within arms length was so distracting, would be obliged to chase his enormous strides down the street or risk being imprisoned for damaging their countrys reputation for honesty in petty things. He was out of control more and more lately.
Sometimes hed wake her up in the middle of the night and ask her something like, How the fuck do you maintain such an attitude among these commies?
And shed begin to explain to him that she believed in Heaven and Hell, had tried many times to imagine them both, and that Hell had nothing to do with physical discomfort nor even political oppression, but consisted of the total absence of God, and that no place on earth could ever be unbearable to someone who had faith in Gods immanence as well as transcendence, and that such faith could be based on a general intuition, the kind Sammy said he felt at certain moments with music or novels, or even with her sometimes, and hed be snoring before she could finish.
Something vestigially Puritan in Sammy had made him spend part of one early afternoon finding a justification for putting his wife to work while he wandered the streets on his bicycle searching for immanence among the open sewers. He decided that all (instead of just most) of the students were secretly hoping to be assigned jobs as interpreters for China Travel Service when they graduated so they could get rich on bribes from the foreign-class hotels; and that, short of flunking (which would be disastrous) they were deliberately trying not to distinguish themselves academically because the university tended to fasten onto the best students and doom them to a life of professorial poverty. And a knowledge of Contemporary American Novels in Verse was not exactly essential to the future tour guides of the Middle Kingdom, who werent even expected to be familiar with their own culture before the Beginning of Everything in 1949.
But the shreds of the Orwellian big-character posters still flapped from some of the walls; and it had been, Polly now realized, mainly to win back the affection of his students that Sammy had resorted to his grand finale of pedagogical hooliganism: over Pollys near-hysterical objections he had distributed copies of a sabotage and assassination manual which he thought theyd appreciate, a souvenir from his high school days and what he called the summer of extreme boredom.
Remember, hed said while walking out the door for the last time, ignition systems are basically the same in all modern automobiles, even those driven by your unelected leadership.
Several chuckled, didnt they? hed beamed when she came home from finishing the rest of the class period. They almost acknowledged my presence in Asia today, huh?
Polly had at that moment decided to bestir herself from the passive observers seat and to upgrade her academic status to teachers aide before he got them both deported or cremated or something. Like a dutiful wife, she found herself expending most of her psychic energy pondering the preservation of Hubbys career (such as it was). She only hoped his hide wouldnt need preserving soon.
Polly had taken over the postgraduate English and American literature course with the blessings of Cao Xiwei, the Samuel Johnson-quoting dean of the foreign languages department. Professor Cao somehow figured that, since Sammy was a white foreigner, anybody who got into his good graces would automatically be invited to the British Isles on a visiting lectureship that would blossom into an immigration permit and a romantic, affluent means of jettisoning wife and children. He called Polly an occidental beauty, and every time they passed in the halls reminded her of the amazement he felt whenever the students turned in glowing reports of her teaching skills.
So lovely and yet so active, Professor Cao would marvel in his perfect Oxford accent; and, when Polly brought up some administrative problem long neglected by Sammy, this tweedy little Chinese would look very carefully at his watchit always required inordinate effort for him to ascertain the hour, for he kept it set to Greenwich mean timeand he would say, Oh, sorry Dear, but I must be popping off.
Shed been foolish to worry that a man like that would trouble himself over the formal qualifications of the teachers in his charge. She wished she hadnt hesitated to assume the podium on Professor Cao Xiweis account; for she worried now that, before bestirring herself, she had allowed Sammy to do some serious damage to the poor young man standing before the class today, this Big Brother-obsessed Xiao Bu.
It was hardly surprising, here in this nephewless, nieceless place ten thousand miles from home, that her doomed maternal instincts should find an outlet in this boy. There she went again, referring to men her husbands age as boys.
But then, maybe she knew at least one boy who wasnt Chinese at all.
Sammy, even more than the others, seemed to hate Xiao Bu. His every action toward him was a scream: I know it was you who betrayed your classmates and spoiled our momentum in the dystopia unit! Time and again Polly tried to tell her husband that hed mixed Xiao Bu up with the real informant, that Xiao Bu wasnt the only party member in class; but Sammy refused to listen, sputtering something self-consciously racist about them all looking alike. Polly hoped this indignation, though misplaced, was genuine, and that Sammy hadnt alighted upon Xiao Bu just because of his craven and subjugated personal appearance, the defenseless look of the natural-born victim.
One good thing had come of Sammys absenting himself, besides the possible foiling of policemen who might come around hungry for his blood: he seemed to have taken the real party suck with him.
Perhaps the informant had been given orders to suspend his book learning in order to perform fieldwork, a kind of on-the-job totalitarian-tool training, by following Sammy around. Polly had to admit that slogging after Sammy through the mud streets of this city would be better preparation for the future of that particular boy than slogging after Vladimir Nabokov through the pages of his most difficult non-novel. In any case, the faithful informant was conspicuous in his absence today.
Polly could not imagine why her otherwise fairly intelligent husband had mixed Xiao Bu up with the real Iscariot among his disciples. The spy (whose name Polly could never remember) was almost a Hollywood-B stereotype of treachery personified: smooth and compliant in all small things. Xiao Bu, on the other hand, had all the smoothness of a Heilongjiang street with frost-heave, and displayed open moral indignation at Sammy and his syllabuswhen Sammy wasnt around, of course. And, if hed been compliant enough on several occasions to allow Sammy to borrow his considerable linguistic skills to extract himself from various snake pits of bureaucracy, it had only been an impersonal favor ones duty, as Xiao Bu put it.
This is the south, Sammy would jeer in front of everybody after accepting Xiao Bus help. A man of gumption gets ahead outside the party here, by exhibiting the entrepreneurial virtues. You belong in Manchuria, Mosquito Lunch, in Mukden among the moldering Maoists.
And when the poor boy was chagrined to the point of hesitating to come down from his hunker on the window sill, Sammy would threaten to report him for insubordinationa threat that under normal Chinese circumstances would have been ineffective. Everybody knew that barbarians opinions on classroom comportment were less than meaningless. Administrators were expected to heed only the reports of the party informant and the classroom monitor. And, as far as Sammy knew, they were one and the same person in this case: Xiao Bu himself.
But there was something lupine and sociopathic about the way this big-nosed outlander mouthed the word insubordination that compelled Xiao Bu to come down and be seated among his snickering classmates, even though the only seats left were in the front row next to females.
Oooh! Mosquito Lunch has a girlfriend! Sammy would squeal, just to get a few chuckles. Polly suspected the chuckles were not aimed at the person Sammy had intended them for. But, as he said, it was good for killing a few seconds of class time.
The teacher is a professional ass-maker, he was fond of revealing. And as long as he has the opportunity to practice his craft, it matters little whom he practices it on, himself or his students.
And here stood Xiao Bu now, Sammys latest product, alone as anyone could be in a stuffed Chinese classroom, shunned by all, convinced deep in his soul that Pollys husband hadnt abdicated his grading rights just yet, and that he, Mosquito Lunch, was about to be flunked on general principles and exiled degreeless to some bleak office in a village even remoter than the one his ostensible elder brother was mired in.
Pollys heart went out to him. It would be impossible for a foreigner, especially a brash American, to imagine the extent of the boys anguish. Public ridicule was not practiced in this country except under the most violent circumstances. Sammy shouldve known that.
Polly understood now that it was for Xiao Bus sake that she had agreed to take over and let Sammy spend his time hanging out at his favorite fancy hotel on the south side of town. She hoped her husbands new off-campus friends, whoever they were, would teach him a little compassion. For Sammy was a textbook sadist in many ways, a masochist as well.
As part of the formal procedures for removing him from the classroom, Sammys graduate committee back in the States had addressed a formal communique to the Dean of Humanities. The document indicated that they had detected little evidence of the nurturing instinct in this particular teaching-fellow.
Of course, the self-destroyer inside Sammy had provided photocopies of this communique to anybody in China interested enough to look, and had passed around the name and address of a certain mail order house specializing in fake diplomasonce hed gotten here on the free flight, that is.
Hed only just gotten his own wife on that plane, accessory to fraud, with a whither thou goest that convinced her not by Biblical precedent, but by the searing self-hatred in the voice hed used to quote the Book of Ruth. Shed come along not only to protect the Xiao Bus of China from him, but him from himself.
What kind of father would such a man have made? A moot question now. No, not just now. It had been for thirty-plus years. It was only Polly who had recently found out it was moot. Maybe thats why God allowed Sammy to be the way he was, inclined to cruelty towards creatures under his domination and in his charge, creatures unable to respond in kind: for none were fated to be there for the first quarter of a life, only for quarters of years.
But was it really sadism, or just audience awareness? People laughed so easily at Xiao Bu, and it was impossible for a man of her husbands temperament to pass up a laugh, with all its implicit popular approval, however fleetingespecially in enemy territory, which is what Sammy considered any classroom to be.
On those monthly occasions when, just by routine, with no justification that they were aware of (for the goings-on in the classroom meant nothing to them), the foreign affairs department refused to give Sammy his money, or withheld the scrip for his kidney-stone anesthetics, Xiao Bu was there to help with the screaming and the desk-pounding.
Pollys dialect was passable, but her Mandarin was ludicrous; and the foreign affairs department was ruled by old Mandarin-belching militarists and hard-line Maoists from up north, whom Deng Xiaoping considered too unsocialized to be presentable anywhere near the centers of national policy-making, where a significant foreigner might catch a whiff of them. Everybody but tiny, silly-looking Xiao Bu was terrified even to approach the armed guard at the administration compound gate; and Xiao Bu was ready to put his party membership in jeopardy by helping a foreigners wife (doubly low) to storm the payroll office.
Your husband was invited to our country by the National Ministry of Education, and he is on a standard contract that must be honored by both parties, said Xiao Bu without a trace of irony in his voice. If Dr. Edwine doesnt get paid, he will be unable to leave China. (He was planning to leave eventually, wasnt he?) Our leaders must be made to understand that the law is on his side. Its only a matter of getting past a few corrupt clerks at the lower levels of the bureaucracy. It is these small potatoes, and not the ling dao, who are the ‘red bandits Chiang Kai Shek had so much to say aboutbut please dont quote me, Teacher Po Li, if you love your little Xiao Bu.
And he soon learned where such idealism would get him when the ravenous lesbian department chief smashed him against the wall, in full view of Polly, and screamed in his ear, You cant bring big-noses in here! This is the foreign affairs department! Whats your name and unit number?
Xiao Bu had to write self-criticisms for a month, for he had shattered the cardinal principal upon which this society, both dynastic and post-dynastic, had been based: he had tried to talk to a superior more than three tiers higher than himself.
According to the bona-fide American professors who came to China on plush short-term sabbaticals, this elitist corruption was part of the realistic charm of the Middle Kingdom, like the rats and the forty-percent hepatitis rate. But even they were shocked to hear of this southern foreign affairs department behaving like the shameless, faceless felons at a northern sham institution such as, for example, the notorious Beijing University.
Xiao Bus studies in the 1984 unit had to slide a bit while he performed the auto-brainwashing of self-criticism, and Sammy, of course, feigned outrage. He offered to flunk the boy, and was never persuaded to believe the tale of the siege of the payroll office. He had been at a banquet at the time with some extracurricular friends. But that didnt stop him from using it as a source of new mockery.
So, Mosquito Lunch fancies himself a servant of the people, does he? Sammy cried, loud enough for everyone to hear, giving a mock Young Pioneers salute and swilling Snowflake beer purchased with renminbi that the boy had just procured for him.
Polly now called on Xiao Bu to answer the question shed secretly coached him on beforehand, so he could shine forth in class and salvage some of the face that her husband had so systematically eroded from his prominent cheekbones. Xiao Bu was by far the brightest, but required extra help because he preferred reading books off the reading list, older ones, like A Tale of Two Cities, from the era before Freud (whom he considered a bourgeois reactionary). Your husband teaches only counterrevolutionary pornography, Xiao Bu complained, though he assumed hed better master it for his futures sake.
Just as shed coached him (he was too straightforward to have thought of it himself) he paused to give the other students a fair chance to answer the question themselveswhich they never did.
The silence of the unresurrected tomb fell over the rows of drooping black heads. It was possible to hear the amazing rats that brawled in the room across the dark corridor: hell room, where the garbage of the three years existence of this already decaying building had been swept and retained for unimaginable reasons. The creatures thrashed among the liquefying refuse, making noises like the hundredth-generation Nile crocodiles in their open sewer at the zoo.
Under this distressing layer of sound she could hear the idle clerks behind their locked departmental office door screaming over a cramped ping-pong game, rules and walls modified to resemble those of racquetball. Their bare feet sloshed among the defrosting yellow croakers, rejects from Sammys banquet hotel. It was payday, and the Edwines werent the only people around here expected to live without cash. The renminbi substitutes were aging more rapidly than they should have in this late-February lunar new years weather, because the clerksthree thin-blooded oldish ladieshad been mistakenly given an extra ration of coal for their foot-warming stove and refused to bank the flames even after their enclave grew hot, ostensibly because they didnt want to blacken their fingers for fear of smudging the non-existent official paperwork they had no intention of touching in this anarchists dream-university.
Polly knew they had, by this time, stripped to their old Chinese ladies-style underwear, the cotton short-shorts and the tank-topped tee shirts over tiny unbrassiered breasts that, after fifty, began to sag just enough to resemble youngish western breasts.
They loved Polly dearly. She was the only person they allowed into the office. (Even Dean Cao Xiwei had never gotten much more than his nose past the door.) They dragged her in almost every day to coo over her curly hair and attempt to commiserate with her for having such a rhino for a husband.
How do you know about rhinos? Polly had asked once, condescending without meaning to.
We saw your man every day for almost a whole month, and you ask us how we know about rhinos?
Now their strange shrieks mixed with the miasma of the faculty toilet down the hall, which, Xiao Bu assured her, in desperately apologetic tones, was shocking even by southern Chinese standards.
When she had her period and had to make visits to that pit of uncirculated sewage, Polly had to force herself to recall the gist of her midnight homilies to her snoring husband on the subject of the impossibility of hell on earth. At that time of month, only one thing saved her from playing truant like Sammy before her (aside from the knowledge that they were on work visas and too broke to shift to tourist visas, and one of them had to look occupied to keep them both from being deported to a place where Sammy was unemployable). It was that one solid fact about herself that shed always known, something as essential to her personality as her religion. Though shed abandoned her own teaching opportunities to follow Sammy here, she was a teacher.
And here were students. Despite their age, cultural circumstances had conspired to make the members of this class resemble empty vessels ranged before her.
They were taking the opportunity of the real spys absence today to indulge in some free-ish speech a la the pre-crackdown Sammy days. Their dialect jeering at Xiao Bu began to assume a somewhat political dimension, as the question of his being class monitor was broached.
Nobody else could be persuaded to take the job.
Yes, the rest of us have things to do outside this classroom, such as live life.
Xiao Bu tilted back his head and began to recite a poem in the classical style by Mao, which Polly only caught the gist of: something about there being no life outside the collective, and this being obvious to anybody who has boned up on his Marx and Lenin, etc.
As could be expected, the others laughed at the mere mention of Marx, Lenin, evenmaybe especiallyMao. They were apolitical from apathy as well as blissful ignorance. The ideological excesses of the Ten Years Chaos would never be repeated among these people.
And yet, when pressed to make some kind of critical appraisal of a literary workand they had to be reminded in the strongest terms that critical appraisals were a major part of the course requirements, regardless of the one-man-circus her husband had mounted in the terminal stages of his tenurenone of them turned out to have anything but the stale Marxist cliches in his/her mind:
Ginsberg, the personification of Death in Malamuds short story, should be regarded with the utmost respect because, as a ticket-taker in a railroad station, he is serving the people. Dreiser and Jack London are Americas two greatest writers. Rip Van Winkle is a tragic and not a comic figure because he slept through his countrys glorious revolution.
Not unlike certain of our classmates big brothers.
Oh, but Elder Mosquito Lunch took an active role in his countrys latest revolution. Its just modernization hes slept through.
And when, outside the critical mode, they mocked Marx and their own party cell secretary, they displayed a pure cultural nihilism. Nothing else but animal greed was there to fill the ethical void.
The place was a physical hell, and the students were frolicking without joy on the rim of a moral purgatory. Polly had been cast in the role of Virgil for now, and hoped auditions for Beatrice were still open. She wouldnt leave these children until somebody deported her.
Teacher Po Li, I dont know about Nabokovs positive, but I do think that Orwell has one, Xiao Bu was saying, ignoring Pollys coaching to return to the previous units book. His earnest need to express whatever he was about to say had overcome his desire to shine in class.
That positive, paradoxically, is a fascist and sadist. In the act of writing the book, Orwell discovered a devil-god inside himself, infinitely wise, infinitely cynical, named OBrien, capable of the most treacherous crimes. Including murder.
His small voice rose with such blackened passion on the last word that even the girls stopped giggling for a brief moment, then resumed twice as loud as before.
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