Bridge to Potou

This is written in 2011.

‘Saccharin is an artificial sweetener. The basic substance, benzoic sulfilimine, has effectively no food energy and is much sweeter than sucrose, but has an unpleasant bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially at high concentrations. It is used to sweeten products such as drinks, candies, biscuits, medicines, and toothpaste.’
– Wikipedia

2008: Zhanjiang, China

Was it a kind of Saccharin Bangladesh they were striving for, the Australians via the Chinese, or a benzoic sufilimine me?  The quest seemed to be for a kind of pseudo-Hatiya, in China, Muslim-free and with lighter skin tones.

Both Chicken Bones and the girl had done the village bit.  CB had done it twice, taken me to two model villages on two occasions.  ‘You don’t have to live here, but…’

Over the suspension bridge we’d gone that first time, the bridge that linked the Potou District with the rest of the city.  Beyond the city limits and a little off the main road: it was there.  A red gateway marked the village entrance, and away to the left stretched an artificial pond, landscaped with those Chinese zig-zag bridges to make the village park.  Villages don’t have parks like that, Chinese towns do.  And in this park was not a single villager.  The handful of streets, they were swept and clean, the houses a little too immaculate for normal.  The houses were brave; Communist Party and fortune favoured.

‘I’m not a communist,’ CB had said, lying or not, as we walked in the open, his words happily swept away in the little breeze.  Actually the communists, the lower not-necessarily-active ones, I’d thought the nicest people.  At least they believed in something beyond real estate. 

Under the Potou Bridge
That show, Monkey Magic, a Chinese story, Japanese actors: it’d been popular in Australia when I was a kid, and the university students in China knew of it too.  They used to refer to it, though in China there’d been two versions shown; they used to compare them.  I could see it, in that first model village, Tripitaka riding in on the white horse that was really the dragon who had eaten the original horse, finding the village, pristine and perfect, and lecturing Monkey on how nice life could be when everyone lives in harmony.

‘You don’t have to live here, but….’

Inevitably as it would turn out, the village was really under a spell, the harmony an illusion.  There was an evil lake-demon at work.  How else could the fight-scenes start?  That’d be the show, Monkey Magic, dubbed in English.

There wasn’t a lot to do in the model village, so after several minutes we left.  I don’t recall much of what CB said that day, apart from that he used to take his family there.  It was on the way home, across-again the Potou Bridge that he’d made those few disparaging comments about South Korea, saying that Koreans were a recognised minority in China, inferring the Korean Peninsula belonged to China.  It was in the car, with its better acoustics.

Me under the Potou Bridge
Still I wondered why he should have taken me to a village.

The second model village was out in Suixi County to the city’s west.  It wasn’t manicured like the first, but specialised in efficient farming methods.  I seem to recall greenhouses and drip irrigation.  There had been a pond there too, full of wide-mouthed goldfish that we’d fed with crumbs bought from the kiosk.  CB had enjoyed feeding the fish.  We stayed for lunch.

‘I’m not saying you have to live here,’ he’d said, to the breeze, to the wind, ‘I just wanted you to know what a Chinese village was like.’  Except that it’s not what a Chinese village is like.  ‘I thought you might get a few ideas for Hatiya,’ he’d said.

Chicken Bones had quite an interest in my future address.  Once I’d explained to him that while I had no problem with Zhanjiang, and on the whole I didn’t, Hatiya had more than a decade of history to it and I had many friends there.  It was the best I could do, for there’s no explaining Bengal, the world’s heart.  You’ve either been there, understood, or you haven’t.

‘If you stayed here for ten years,’ he’d said, ‘you could have friends like that here too.’  It was lame; who’d change friends like that and why, for skin colour, for religion, for the convenience of some bigoted bureaucrat in Canberra?

And then there was that odd remark about the small NGO I’d co-founded with the Hatiyans in 1999.  It’s another history.  CB had said that if I’d done that kind of thing in a Chinese village I’d be a national hero.  He’d told me of some American doctor who’d stayed in China a long time and was loved for it.  Or was the guy Canadian?  The Chinese understand the value of propaganda, obviously: not worth explaining to CB.  He either knows or he doesn’t know.

Olympic Mascots in Zhanjiang (Me in front - I am not one)
Bengalis are not like that.  Thank heavens for Bengal.

‘You can live anywhere in the world you wish,’ CB had said once.  Yes I know this.  ‘Except Bangladesh,’ he’d said.

‘Well, Hello Dhaka!’ I’d thought. Give me your crowds, smells, inconveniences, rickshaws, noise, manners and rudeness, your laughter, tears, sweat, blackouts, tea, street food, bargaining, cross-country footpaths and no footpaths, traffic, smiles, buzz, drone, shouting, running, dancing, teasing, joking, selling, begging, villagers and true city folk by degrees, your dirt and democracy in the heart, of the heart, the flute-playing and songs and guy sleeping on the median strip, the hammers and drills of the endless un-demarcated building sites… Give me what you are Dhaka, all of it, and I’ll keep up with you!  Or at least I’ll try…

But I write that now, if truth be told, and then, before living in Dhaka I had a lesser opinion of her; it was the village I would pine for.  And it was never the spite that made the destination.  It wasn’t CB’s ‘except Bangladesh’ really; just a happy universal alignment of life’s desire with the moment’s spite.  I’d always believed it important to as much as possible not let Australian security boffins deform my life any more than could not be avoided; and I’ve always tried to be true to myself in that regard.

And he’d said, when I was allowed to live anywhere, ‘and I hope you choose China.’  There was a little suggestion to set up a small shop in Guilin and live quietly; there was an admission that China had an age restriction on granting visas for English teachers, was it 54?  ‘What would I do thereafter,’ he’d asked.  These were the in-the-car, out-of-the-car kinds of things with all the minor contradictions of such a political mishmash.  These were the discussions of my future that had nothing to do with me.

I’d already imagined China was some kind of Australian security sector paradise.  There the state could intervene in any life in any way imaginable; no rights, just like what they’ve been achieving in Australia.  Like they do.  And it’s not only me who’ll tell you Australia cooperated with China closely during the Howard years; do the research, it’s in the public domain.  A kind of Australian Siberia, I’d considered it, closely monitored exile for those who had enough audacity to consider things like human rights and human-write.  

‘You can say and write anything in China,’ CB had said, ‘but you can’t publish it.’

And the funny part – was there any chance at all CB was supposed to be a sort of Saccharin Situ?  They were about the same age.  CB had been on a few package tours and said he was interested in travelling.  The similarities end there.  Situ is a universe.  CB was a peach.  But perhaps that’s going too far; do they go that far?  Like everything else I really just did not wish to know.

Hatiya.  No substitute. No saccharin.  For Bangladeshis are people in the end: as full-blooded as any and more richly human than most. Bangladeshis matter.

My apologies go to the anti-Muslim anti-South Asian Canberra boffins: China wasn’t ever going to work out. 

Post 2007 there was no question it would be Bangladesh.  When I faced death and Ukraine-d away from it that dreadful evening, through the torture months and that other little thing I won’t mention, there was only one thought, well there were two.  The first was, ‘keep going until the world says stop,’ in the stronger moments; the second was ‘if I can only do one more thing, then I’d like to see Hatiya one last time.’  That’d been the ultimate ambition when my life was in the reckless hands of others.

‘Some people say, ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,’’ CB had said.  In Canberra they’d always had a problem with that little Hatiyan trait of sharing: giving, receiving could only mean the red menace to the security set.  They never got over the Cold War, I’d always felt.  I’ve certainly heard those words in Sydney.  Those were words that certainly sounded more Canberra than Beijing.  It can be.

In Hatiya of course it’s not communism: it’s caring and community; it’s custom.  It’s not communism but ‘boro-mon’ –ism: big-hearted-ism.  And if certain Australians cannot understand such simple concepts, well that’s their poverty.  Such a pity that poverty is publicly funded though, to be spread out like manure across the whole of society, or at least in Howard’s day it was.

I’d tell you about the girl too, in China, our trips to that other village and the small town where I could stay forever, so I was told.  It may be she was CB’s Judas, but the girl is good; for seven days I’d loved her before sense resumed.  China was somebody else’s dream, I’d remember: I needed to go west, follow the sun. 

She’d brought forth my tears, the first time since 2007, and more or less the last time since then; that evening by the river.  She’d shed hers that evening in the park.  We drank wine and shared literature.  She was the good one; the good Judas.  I’m getting ahead of things…

And so when CB was done with the Saccharin efforts, and it’s no coincidence I now understand that Bengalis eat sugar by the truckload: real, sweet, cane sugar with everything.  No substitute.  When CB was done there was only one thing left, ‘how do I get to Bangles, quietly, safely, without the Canberra fanatics?’

I thought of it every day in China, the getting to Hatiya.  Especially I thought of it each evening.  The sunset was always the best thing to Zhanjiang.  It was my favourite thing in China, because, due to latitudinal alignment, the orange disc that dropped into the Zhanjiang horizon each day was the most similar… it was a kind of Saccharin sunset to remind of it, that just four hours away by plane was the real cane-sugar version.

Here is the real sugar cane version.  And now i live in a real sugar cane city.  But it doesn't mean I don't know that China is beautiful too.

By the river, Zhanjiang

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