Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Consulting the I Ching

The itching of mosquito bites on my ankles. Her next to me ripping out the staples holding embroidery to its backing. My finger's bled blood coagulating. The Qing dynasty period drama playing on the iPad. The medicinal cupping marks on my back pressing into the sofa. The honks from down on Jiangnan Xi road. The last crumbs of a colleagues biscuits melting from between my teeth. And the lingering tipsiness of the Four Specials in my blood.

There are moments and then there are moments. Today has been the most testing of days since I bid working life farewell temporarily. There have been 101 little processes to jump through since my passport and bank card were stolen. I still don't have my hands on my own money. I could get that within 7 days provided I had my passport in my hands at that time. I won't. In 7 days my passport will be sitting on a visa officer's desk for 7 working days. It's a mystery how these things can't be done faster than seven days. My money is in the bank but for procedural reasons my bank card can't be issued within 7 days. And the visa, I've had many, can't be done within 7 working days because that's how long they say it takes. Bureaucrats don't exceed the expectation here - they're paid to meet them and only that. 7 days is an interesting number because that is how long it took for me to get a new New Zealand passport, including postage to and from New Zealand and processing time at the end. The contrast is stark.

Someone just died in the period drama on the iPad (甄嬛传, if you must ask). You can't have missed it - dying people have blood dribbling out of their mouth. Someone poisoned the emperor's daughter-in-law. All poisonings and serious kungfu blows require blood to come out of the mouth to indicate that something has happened. It's a convention of TV dramas and the kungfu novels I read. I feel like I haven't felt much through and after this instance of thievery but I know the sheer frustration of bureaucracy isn't just felt by me. Blood is being spat.

Before she had a sherry and I had some Four Specials, I grabbed some coins and consulted the I Ching (易经). That doesn't sound like me, does it? I Ching is usually classified as divination - foretelling the future - but perhaps it's deeper and more realistic than that. I'd heard of the I Ching long ago and turned my nose up at it more often than I turned it down. A friend and colleague gave an I Ching book to me at my farewell and said that the next we meet we could talk about it. Well, we've already met incidentally - perhaps that wasn't divined at the time of giving - and we're yet to talk about it.  But it's worth talking about.

You toss some coins, or some yarrow stalks if you have them around, you form a hexagram (6 lines, either complete or broken) and from that you read one of 64 possible permutations. But if you expect the future spelled out for you you're in for disappointment: each prognostication is deeper and more arcane than Nostradamus's quatrains. But then again that's perhaps the truth of it all: Life is textured and arcane.

The voice of doubt above is very much of my life and views before. I can't say I've read it much now with any doubt, only interest and introspection. There is not such thing as a lucky hexagram. All have risk and promise; there is no one approach in life, our approach should change with circumstance (challenging us to change and not be fixed); and sometimes it requires some direction to take action confidently. 

She drew a "Biting Through"; I drew a "Ding" (a traditional three-footed pot). I could relate hers to her more than perhaps she could. And I'm the stable three-footed pot, which even when tipped, tips out the worst and keeps the best. 

She's taken out the embroidery. Apparently no-one died in the drama and the sherry has been finished. If there is one thing that can be foretold is that waves ease, winds pass and the drunk sober up.  

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


"Do you want it or not? If you don't, well that's fine. If you do, I'll need a little something. Give me 5000 yuan and I'll send it over. How does that sound?"
I lent against the desk of the police station, contemplating this text message and if and how to reply. He'd already called me once before sending me a text - he was heavy accented and had his script tight and mechanical. I suggested he message me to buy me some time.  
"I received this," I said giving my phone to the uniformed person behind the desk to show the text. 
She laughed, "He's trying to trick you! Ignore him." My phone, almost out of batteries, displayed another in-coming call from the same man. I ignored it.
"You're a bad man," I texted back, "You've taken my money. Even if I wanted to pay I can't. You took my charger, too, I'm almost out of power."
"Do you want it or not," he texted. "If you say nothing, I'll assume you don't." I left him to assume.

Later on, I was giving my statement to another officer: "And I received a call from the guy who stole it." 
His eyes lit up, "You should meet with him. Bring a friend and call the police."
"In my country that's what we expect the police to do. Besides, he only wants me to put money in his bank account."
"Oh, then just ignore him."
"Do you want me to get his bank account number because I can ask for it."
"No, he'd have used fake documentation to open it." He wasn't interested in following it up and finished my statement. My phone ran out of power with the need to help him find the address of the restaurant where it was stolen.

Objectively, it wasn't a great day. I had put my bag on a seemingly safe restaurant chair for lunch with my colleague sitting opposite me and had still managed to get my bag stolen: my passport, travel document (with my phone number and address), keys, wallet, bank card, a copy of Fight Club and a memory stick all taken. Later from a neighboring hotel's office I got to see CCTV footage of the thief leaving the restaurant (also not required by the police) to confirm that it had been taken. Before that it'd been one or more of theft, David Lynch, insanity or magic.

 But I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't angry or upset. I had a little bit of anxiety when communicating with my tormentor. It's probably the kind of equanimity that I had had before for a time. Perhaps my impending end to work had relaxed some of the nerves that tighten through work. The previous day I'd given out a written warning and two strong action plans without sweating either.

And then another leaving colleague lent me the book Antifragile today by one of my favourite writers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I haven't read it but the name made sense when I sat down to write this. His definition of this word is something that isn't just resilient in the face of the unexpected but actually gets stronger. That in a world where security and stability is valued we make things increasingly vulnerable to the unanticipated changes and developments. But the world has endured despite sudden and spectacular changes. We should embrace a little chaos. I'm sure Tyler Durden would agree with that. Or at least be indifferent to it, as Laozi might prefer. And the police might like the latter rather than the former.

It was a tiring weekend. The theft, the police, work, a late night game of football to watch, four hours' sleep, an early morning meeting work, a farewell dinner with teachers and great whiskey, then a farewell party with students and staff with more whiskey and not much sleep and then a trip to the Public Security Bureau and consulate for my passport issues before more work again. Tuesday was the promised land. It was smooth. 

I'm not sure which page of the I Ching (Yijing in Pinyin, the Book of Changes, by some translations). I shook some coins and came up as Force/Persisting, total Yang. I wouldn't have made head nor tail of it but it was in a book I'd received among my farewell gifts. I hadn't given a toss about the I Ching because I could just write it off as silly divination. But just a few pages in and I'm keen to get more of an understanding. Coins are all I have now, anyway.

And then there was Francis. We have no lack of weird students, to be clear, and Francis seems weirdly, obsessively lucid. The kind of person if I weren't a teacher, if I weren't so up to my neck in leaving and tying up lose ends, I might indulge. I've only met him twice:
First time: Two months ago I went down to the Lounge Area of my centre and helped release a teacher for a newspaper interview. I was there for 20 minutes to entertain them while he was gone. I left and did a few other things and then when leaving he pulled me over to his computer. "You're lawful good," he said. (Actually, it took me a while to realise it was these two words because of his pronunciation and even when I knew it was that, I still didn't know what it meant. He drew me a diagram and got images from the internet. "Lawful Good are rare, just 4% of people," he said. He couldn't explain how he could observe I was a Lawful Good. I left with an interesting, abstract way of looking a personalities, and left.
Second time: At my farewell party I was taking photos with students from the past as he walked past the glass window next to us. He looked vaguely familiar and even looked at me putting his hand against the glass with a grin on he face. He came in, thrust a bag of durian and egg mooncakes into my hands and then left for the bar. After another thirty minutes, I sat down where he was to thank him and he jogged my memory who he was and where we'd met. He then wanted to talk about enneagrams, another thing I didn't know about and suddenly went to his bag to get a scrap of paper and started scribbling furiously, covering both sides linking vital organs, personality types, sexuality and handedness. "You're a reformer," he said, "Homo, left-handed reformers are geniuses. I only know one other reformer, Fernando Redondo." I didn't know Fernando and I mentioned I wasn't left-handed either, without wanting to touch on the topic of my sexuality. I thanked him for his interpretation and he stayed doing his own thing until he left. 

Tuesday is drawing to an end. I have sleep to have. Books to read when I rise. Life is good.