May 20: Love and Rockets
"What is pride? A rocket that emulates the stars," said esteemed English poet William Wordsworth. These days just picking up your phone to tweet puts us on DEFCON 2, creating a fight or flight response in most social media users that can easily escalate into full-blown war. A single tweet can earn or cost you thousands of followers or gain the love or hatred of your friends and family. Pride is a driving force for both creation and destruction.
I find less and less reason even to bother anymore. Disengagement is a positive feedback loop. Where once I'd find hundreds of notifications to check, like, comment, and reply on every day, spending hours a day 'waging war' on the anti-maskers with science and facts and 'sharing the truth' about important daily issues, now it's a mere trickle. The year of the Tiger taught me to pick my battles. A social media manager would call this a loss, but it feels like a win in my life. My life is here in China, every day, not on some digital battlefield. My time is my own, and my wife is happy about the change.
That said, it's hard to find the will to sit and write when the world is spinning at 1000 miles an hour, or 460 meters a second. What should you pay attention to when a dozen pots are boiling over? What should the chef decide to salvage? Maybe just MeiTuan some takeout while the world burns.
This peace and contentment is death for a writer. Whether it's a novel, a column, or just a diary, the complacency to enjoy the moments as they blaze by could be the end of our career, so I find the will to carve some time and write some words. I'll tell you a little story, at least.
It started on Friday, May 13, not an omen at all, when I was asked to speak at a Chongqing publicity event to give a presentation about my writing, my COVID book, and hopefully, my next one, Amos the Amazing. With China's COVID zero policy strictly in place, that meant getting a COVID test, something I haven't had to do since I attended the World Forum for China Studies in Shanghai last October. Since we beat the first outbreak in January-March of 2020, Chongqing has mainly been COVID-free. A couple of cases here or there quickly contained through mass testing have made us one of the safest and most open megacities in the world. Even while other western cities are 'open for business' with COVID running rampant, and Shanghai and Beijing are on 'cautious semi lockdown' to prevent a widespread outbreak, Chongqing just hums along. Schools are open, business is good, people go to restaurants, and barely a COVID case in the city. I've heard it said recently, even among doctors and front-line workers, that COVID can't make it across our rivers. Maybe it's a river spirit or a water dragon. COVID can't reach over our mountains. Perhaps it's invisible giants. Or maybe, we're just really damn good at track and trace and have sacrificed a lot to stop unnecessary travel these years. I'm just a hyperactive fantasy novelist with a vast imagination. All of the above?
To be honest, there is an air of militarization I'm slowly picking upon. My school just asked for weekly COVID tests, conducted on the basketball court. At least they're throat swabs. Government buildings require 48-hour test results for proof of entry -- at least for foreigners, but they say it's for everyone. Even with our great record of holding back COVID, there is a bit of manic urgency in the air to get vigilant again.
So Xiaolin accompanied me Friday afternoon to a hospital, and we waited outside for a COVID test. They were only 28 RMB ($4USD), which I thought wasn't bad until I read now that the new process, mixed-samples, cost only 4 RMB ($0.60),… pretty reasonable either way. As we got closer to the front of the line, I paid and showed my green health code, and then approached the trailer. To my horror, it was the nasal swab. The woman in front of me sat still as the thin, long swab was shoved a full finger length into her nose. When the nurse pushed it an extra finger length to wiggle against her skull, she quivered uncontrollably, and I barfed a little in my mouth. The mouth saliva swab tests I got last year in Shanghai were a lot- a LOT - easier for me to take.
A sharp prodding into the back of the nasal cavity, a scattershot of blinding lights, the involuntary watering of the eyes, and the feeling that certainly, this time, they were going to puncture, just utterly eviscerate my brain. Don’t move! Although every fiber of my being cried out to squirm and wriggle away, to make this retro-future transnasal craniotomy stop, I must not move. Moving makes it worse, moving makes them dig deeper into your skull. And then it’s over. Another COVID test was done.
I had to pick up the test the following day, and Xiaolin was busy. I tried it on my own, with my rather mediocre Chinese. It was drizzling, but I felt a quick jog to the hospital wouldn't get me soaked, so I didn't bother with an umbrella. When I reached the hospital doors, the nurse pointed me around the side of the test center. I told her no, I wanted the test report and googled the Chinese translation. She insisted on going around the side. We went back and forth a few times, and finally, I nodded. Ok, around the side, I sighed with a sense of foreboding. After waiting in line for 15 minutes, I began to get soaked and slowly realized I was waiting to be tested again. No one was picking up tests, and they were all leaving--- with scrambled brains and crossed eyes. I excused myself and ran to the front to talk to the nurse not once but twice to ask if they had the test results there. She said they did. Finally, she pulled off my mask to stab my brain again, and I reeled back. No, no, no, I did this already. I need the damn paper.
No one could understand what I meant, though, because the results automatically go to your phone. Why would I be back to get a paper? A foreigner problem - the app relies on the Chinese ID number to collect the test results. It's never been updated to allow for a foreign passport number. Finally, cold, cranky, and soaked, I was back in the hospital and found a nurse who could set up an old printer, pull up my record, and give me a paper copy—one of the rare moments where it felt really out of sorts to be a foreigner. But eventually, I got my paper and was ready to eat a quick lunch and wait for my car to the conference.
It was at least an hour in the car, weaving and winding through unfamiliar streets under the canopy of tall trees to get to the convention center where the meeting was held. A friendly, bald man and several women were waiting, smiling at me as I arrived. He introduced himself as the leader of Tongliang District and remembered my old visits to Tongliang with the Chongqing Foreign Language School. This is when, watching my city folk teens explore the challenges of rural China, I dreamt Amos up, his curious mind full of magic and wonder. He also remembered my reading event last year for Chinese university students. It was really lovely to see a friendly, familiar face to welcome me, and then I was inside. Catherine was speaking about the time Ernest Hemingway was in Chongqing in 1941 and the impression it left on him, which I found a humbling experience for a journalist and aspiring novelist like myself.
Alex, the creator of many cinematographic videos and documentaries about Chongqing, spoke next about some of his positive experiences and the 40 million impressions his videos have left on Youtubers. Then I got up to speak, with my PPT and pictures of my life, before and after China, the pandemic, and the wild ride it's been since I became an award-winning published author and 'China Expert.' I introduced my journey through Tongliang as I created Amos and my plan for his story; how, I hoped, he would become an iconic representation of Chongqing as Harry Potter is for King's Station, London. And after, James gave an incredible, totally fluent speech in Chinese for a good half an hour that wowed me with its candor, humor, and incredible fluency.
Job well done. I hope we find a publishing house that believes in Amos the Amazing and its sequels as much as I do, Dr. Gao does, and the 60 beta reader university students and her daughter does, because so far, the response has been electric.
The days flew back quickly, and before I knew it, 520 was upon us. 'Wo Er Ling' sounds a little like 'Wo Ai Ni,' I love you, making it one of the 4 or 5 sanctioned romantic holidays for the Chinese calendar, and we had a nice dinner outside at a Thai hotpot restaurant Basil House. It was tasty and healthy, which works for me since I'm still on a strict no sugar, no alcohol, and daily exercise diet to get in shape for the summer vacation.
With so much going on in the world today, it's hard to know what to comment on first. There was an interesting study, though, by Axios. The average number of social media interactions per published article this week are as follows: COVID-19 (44), Economic inflation (77), Russia-Ukraine war (91), Abortion (141), Joe Biden (170), Elon Musk (417), Heard-Depp (508). Climate Change didn't even make a list for western social media… a pity. So let's go from least to most; rapid-fire.
COVID-19 is all but forgotten in the west. Most of the time, those who are fully vaxxed, vexed, and boosted get it as bad as light cold and are fed up with any inconvenience. We don't often hear anymore how it might be ripping through the developing world, but from the little, I do hear, their lack of vaccines and boosters produces a grim body count. In the US, masks are no longer needed on flights there or anywhere else except maybe hospitals, and while some still die from it, the public has decided it's over already. News coverage of China's continued 0 covid struggle is met with curiosity and a lack of understanding. Two different realities, it seems, and only in the future will we really be able to evaluate what worked out best and why. There was an article today, though, that said as many as 40% of foreign teachers and students might leave China this year, citing missing their families and not knowing if they would be allowed back after a visit home, as well as being fed up over lockdowns as primary reasons. I miss my family too, but my life is here, and I can't imagine what I'd even do if I went back.
Inflation is at an all-time high, they say. Gas, food, goods, rent, and housing are all at an all-time high, and many people are just barely hanging on or slipping through the cracks in the west. Tent cities in every city grow by the day, busted up violently by police and forcing people to scatter … like leaves in the wind.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," said Dwight D. Eisenhower. The war drags on without end. Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, has been left alone to rebuild while eastern ports like Maripol are being overrun. Heavy casualties on both sides and now the third full month of hiding in cellars and subway stations for the population that hasn't fled - more than 10 million Ukrainians have the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
The Supreme Court of the US, already scandalized by the recent revelations of Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, texts about trying to stop the lawful election of Joe Biden and supporting Trump's criminal insurrection, leaked a ruling that states this summer they plan to strike down the 40-year-old precedent Roe v. Wade, eliminating the human right to early and safe abortions in many states disappear and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale a little bit less science fiction every day. This installment of conservative judges is a lasting smear from Trump's four years rocking American values and democracy that will set them down an ugly road for decades. Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate, warns that 'any number of rights could be next.'
Biden is in the news, warning everybody to get scared about the next outbreak: Monkeypox. He's in Japan, meeting with PM Kishida. "Monkeypox contacts advised to isolate for 21 days," says the BBC. What is Monkeypox? Monkeypox is a rare viral infection most common in remote parts of Central and West Africa. The disease, first found in monkeys, does not tend to spread easily between people (in public settings) but can be transmitted through close physical contact, bedsheets, exchange of fluids, and in some cases, perhaps respiratory droplets. Symptoms include a high temperature, aches, and a rash of raised spots that later turn into blisters. Symptoms are typically mild and, for most people, clear up within two to four weeks. A person is considered at high risk of having caught the infection if they have had close contact with an infected person without wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). Although it's alarming to see cases in the US and Canada now, it is not airborne or nearly as contagious as COVID and, as such, much easier to contain and shouldn't become another pandemic.
Elon Musk is in the news, denying sexual misconduct allegations after a flight attendant accused him of exposing himself and propositioning her. He also just bought Twitter for 44 million and was named as a witness but declined to testify in the ongoing celebrity US trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
This trial is the #1 news story on Twitter, in the US, and on the internet and has been for about five weeks now. Many people aren't sure what to make of the whole thing - 8+ hours a day, being made available to stream for free on Youtube, plus expert commentary by 'body language analysis,' lawyers, and many entertainment news and media channels. "What is this?" asked Spotify's #1 most popular podcaster, possibly the 'loudest voice in the world,' Joe Rogan on his podcast. "Is this a new reality show? Premium content? We don't know what to make of it (this much star power, entertaining us with their sordid lives, all day, every day)...
Without getting too much into it, Johnny Depp left his wife, French singer Vanessa Paradis in 2012 after making his old friend Hunter S. Thompson's novel The Rum Diaries into a film and meeting Amber Heard, a minor actress cast as his love interest. They had sparks and romantic chemistry, and he decided to try love. He left behind his grounded and peaceful life in France with children Lily Rose and Jack and moved back to LA, his old stomping grounds. It was alleged a lot of heavy partying occurred, and they were married finally in 2015 but divorced a year later in 2016. While Depp gave over 150m USD to Paradis after their 14 years together, Aquaman starlet Amber Heard settled for only 7 million and promised to give all that to charity. She then published an OP-ED that said she was a domestic violence survivor; a claim traced back to Johnny Depp, which, in the age of #MeToo, tanked his career (Ok, but having her lawyers accidentally write #MePoo on a legal form read out in court, after it was alleged she pooed in their bed when he left after an argument, and #AmberTurd started trending, is just too weird... it's like reality itself is mocking us). WB canceled him in the Pirates franchise and Fantastic Beasts series, and his other acting work dried up in the last five years as well. "One day you're Cinderella, and the next day, you're Quasimodo," Depp said about his rapid cancelation after decades-long AAA hit movies and very beloved collaborations with Tim Burton such as Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, and many other hit films. After losing a high-profile trial in the UK going after the Sun paper for calling him a wife-beater, it was revealed the judge was the father of a friend of the writer who defamed him in the Sun. He turned to the American courts and fought hard to make the trial public, so he could finally tell his side of the story.
What it seems, after weeks of testimonies and analysis, is that Amber's claims of being violently assaulted for years are pretty shaky. It's not so much "he said versus she said," but, "she said versus everyone said," as she disputes the testimony of Depp, his staff, police that responded to multiple incidents, her makeup artist, her psychiatrist, and many friends that contradict her version of the time together. For someone who loves taking pictures and recording arguments, she doesn't have a single credible photo from her or the paparazzi of a bruise or injury and no medical reports of the alleged violence. Her credibility was damaged when she never donated the money she claimed she had given away to charity, and it was brought up, for example, how could a man who wears heavy rings on every finger have beaten her repeatedly and never left a mark? She also claimed to have had her nose broken several times but declined to see doctors and was on TV doing talk shows the day after with no visible injuries.
Then there's the likability issue. Generally, Johnny admits his faults and battles with drugs and alcohol but seems likable, genuine, and human. She comes across to netizens as trying to appear perfect and failing far, far from seeming honest and sincere. She also gets very angry when pressed for details, and the audio recordings presented as evidence defy her story; we hear Johnny begging to go for a walk to cool things down and her screaming and shouting to keep on fighting. Her psychologist testified she has Borderline-Personality Disorder and other issues that could invent drama for attention and might be a to understand all this media circus, but again, sensitive people don't want to jump to dismissing a woman's claims. This is nuanced, something the internet really struggles with. Perhaps, in the end, all evidence should be investigated, but people should be innocent until proven guilty. The social pendulum has gone from not listening to women to ruining someone's whole life based on a story without any proof. I think what makes sense is for everyone to have their chance to speak, and their day in court.
All of this attention might not turn out to be good for her. While the internet seems to agree Johnny Depp was unfairly canceled, ongoing investigations into possible court perjury by Amber are ongoing in both the UK and Australia. An FBI investigation has opened as to her intimidating witnesses that discredit her story. Petitions to have her removed from AquaMan2 have closed in on 5 million signatures, and there are demands to have Johnny brought back to Pirates, and Fantastic Beasts 3 flopped after they kicked him out. I think the most interesting thing is the discussion of how abuse can affect both men and women and how it took an actor like Johnny Depp's life to be destroyed and aired to the public for people to realize it's not a one-way street, and that in the age of equality, women can be quite vicious and cruel to men as well. Anyway, enough about that, the world is burning, and that didn't even make a list.
I had a great day learning to cook my favorite Chinese food, Yan Jiang Ro, with Baba, the fantastic family gourmet chef. Baba is 80 and cooked all day to provide a great lunch and dinner for the family.
Then we met some friends downtown, it was Jacob's birthday, and we tried out the new food court at Shi Yo Lu Paradise Walk mall.
Tomorrow morning is a big meeting with a huge local publisher. Fingers crossed, they'll find my work marketable. Either way, this summer, I'll be back to writing my SOLARPUNK book about China's solar energy transformation plans, along with a rewrite of a paranormal thriller and finishing up Amos. Looking forward to it, whatever else life has in store.
"Under the wheel of the running train,
Like a dog in the pouring rain
Diamond days cut and dry
But beauty in the hurricane's eye.
Under fire under thumb
No golden hand, no golden sun
Diamond days cut and dry
But beauty in the hurricane's eye."
- 'Yin and Yang' by Love and Rockets
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