Monday morning I’m on the treadmill down in the fitness center. The speed is set to 7.4, which is nearly but not quite an eight-minute-mile. Which, for a flabby guy with an addiction to gummy worms and bratwurst, is pretty much flat out. Sweat soaks my shirt and stings my eyes as I pound away to the rockin’ beats of Moby. For some reason when I’m stressed, listening to alternative rock’s small, bald, likely-gay version of Barry Manilow really gets me going.
And I am stressed.
More accurately, I am pissed.
Why you ask? Why was I pissed? (Notice how I got that word in there twice in close succession? Read on to see how I later do the same with ‘wanker’.)
Why am I pissed? (Ha!). Because I’m being ignored. I’m being dissed. I’m not being appreciated. My true genius is being shoved aside for sub-standard thinking, the intellectual equivalent of that TV show back in the 90s about some mentally-impaired guy that eventually evolved into a series about Chad Lowe playing a quietly noble, long-suffering guy with AIDS and a girl-friend with glasses (because, you know, AIDS is bad, but having AIDS and a girlfriend with glasses? Good God, what next!?)
In retrospect, I’m guessing I’d had just a little bit too much caffeine, and am feeling a tad paranoid, but in reality, the job is becoming frustrating. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this was, but a few things probably factored in:
1) I was tossing out some fairly radical ideas of the massive paradigm shift variety.
2) They were just looking for a way to survive.
Or, to put it another way, they wanted a life jacket and I kept throwing them a Coast Guard Cruiser. (See, that’s a metaphor where what you’re supposed to picture is a drowning person in the water, waving their arms, and then suddenly this immense shadow appears above them and their eyes get wide, and—oh, never mind.)
Throw in the difficulties of operating in two different languages, and the fact that I know exactly six words in Cantonese, three of which can’t be mentioned in the company of children, and that my Hong Kong colleagues would walk on burning hot armadillos (yes, I said armadillos) rather than admit to not being able to understand something I’d said, and the situation is ripe for, well, a very flabby man running ruthlessly on a treadmill to burn off his anxieties.
Let’s put it this way: words were said that weren’t meant to harm, but I left a dinner with a colleague wondering what I’d just spent my last two weeks doing.
And it didn’t help that I’d spent the weekend with a few people who’d been brought into my institution on short-term contracts, and whose views of the school were proportionately cynical. Usually I’m immune to the sort of small-talk detritus this creates, but hit me when I’m down and I get—um—even downer. Or, fall downerer even furtherer. Or . . . end up on the treadmill on a Monday morning fantasizing scenarios where I’m in a meeting with colleagues and one of them says just one too many cautious things about how that that’s a nice idea but it won’t really work at this institution, and I get up and say something all Al Pacino-ish about how they should call me when they’re ready to stop wasting my time, and then stroll out of the room as cool as a cucumber salad, not even letting the door slam behind me.
Only I’m not cool now. I’m furious. So even though there’s a pretty good chance that my flubber-saturated heart is going to stop on me any minute now, I keep pounding away on the treadmill with the speed set at 7.4 and my iPod taking enough of a beating that Moby is starting to sound like something from H&R Puff’n’Stuff.
When they finally kick me out of the fitness room (apparently I was singing the theme song from Bourne Identity at the top of my lungs—but it really is true: There’s always room in life for this) I’m walking back to our flat when I run into Chris, our upstairs neighbor and the only other American faculty member on campus. Chris is shorter than me, but a big guy, with a chest like something you’d expect to see on Bigfoot after a weight-training course. He’s also a stunningly competent guy, well-versed in assessment and faculty development and 15 or 16 other things that I care about now that if you’d mentioned 20 years ago I would have asked if you were mixing your crack mixed with lighter-fluid. Anyhow, not only does Chris know about these things, he’s generally not phased by the vagaries of human nature. Which is to say, most of the time, he’s unflappable.
“How you doing?” he says to me, in his affable way.
“Well,” I reply, and vomit all over his shoes.
Okay, not really. But the verbal equivalent. Actually, I’m guessing he would have much preferred half-digested fish and stomach acid on the lower half of his khakis than me giving him an earful about me and my colleagues and how they didn’t appreciate my true genius and Jesus X Jehovah, what was with those cynical bastards at the party on Friday and the brunch on Sunday morning? And then I launch into my wonderfully self-pitying/self-aggrandizing scenario where I’m Al Pacino and Meryl Streep gets all teary-eyed playing my Asian counter-part as she realizes my true—have I mentioned this already?—genius.
Because let’s face it, if anyone could do the accent, it would be Meryl Streep.
Or Kate Winslet. Maybe. And actually, now that I think about it, Kate gets naked more, so maybe that would be better? Because, you know, naked . . .
Anyway, Chris handles it like a pro. “But you won’t say those things,” he says to me as we’re walking up the stairs to our flats and I’m waving my arms in the air, making sure he gets a clear sense of the huge impact of my stunningly brilliant but stinging imagined repartee.
“Oh, you just wait and see,” I say. “I can only be pushed so far.”
“Maybe so,” he says. “But you’re also not a jerk. And you’re not going to say anything like that.”
“Well, for one, you’re a professional. And for two, you know if you did, they’d make you pay for it in about 200 different ways that you can’t even imagine right now.”
I love that last statement, because it makes Hong Kong academics sound like the intellectual equivalents of some secret Kung Fu society. Which they’re not of course. Rather, they’re stunningly intelligent and hard working and patient, but only to the point that you show the you’re less interested in you than you are in working for the greater good. Which makes them, that watcha-call-it thing my old dean kept yacking about . . . oh yeah: professional.
Anyhow, talking to Chris helps burn off whatever immediate head of steam was left after the treadmill caught fire (did I mention the treadmill caught fire?). That afternoon, the Fulbright group gets together and meets with some of the General Education organizers at Hong Kong University, the oldest, richest, most prestigious school in the SAR (Special Administrative Region). HKU is a vertical campus, located on the side of one of the peaks of Hong Kong Island. All said, the campus has a geographic footprint the size of a large box of Saltine crackers, but it’s an impressive place nonetheless. They feed us on the fifteenth floor of some building I could never find again if I wanted to. The food is mediocre (thank you, Betty Taylor, for teaching me how to make a real Salad Nicoise) but the company is good and the conversation even better.
But man, the view—the view. I’ve never seen a view like this from a college campus in my life. We’re perched way up high on the side of a hill, so high that you can see not only the harbor, but Kowloon as well, and the New Territories, and something vaguely resembling Beijing. I find myself drifting in and out of the conversation, watching the cloud formations change over the harbor and the buildings drift in and out of sight as the sky darkens, lightens again, and then turns to a misty gray. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon—who ever heard of a place where buildings appear and disappear in a matter of minutes? Then Glenn, the program director, gets a call from his assistant who informs him that the T-3 signal has been hoisted. And they’re expecting the T-8 by six o’clock. And with a T-8, you can’t cross the harbor. So we pack up our stuff, say our goodbyes, wait 30 minutes for an elevator (The associate provost apologizes. “Between classes there’s no hope.”), and catch the only open cab on the whole island as rain starts to pour down in cold, steady streams.
The journey home is sticky and hot. The schools let out early, and schoolboys in white shirts, iPods plugged into their ears, crowd the trains. I get off at the University station and catch the shuttle to campus, a twenty-minute ride. When I get there, there’s a line a block long of students waiting to catch the return bus so they can get to their homes in the city before the storm. I stroll past them, through the clammy air, down the central corridor, an open-air passage way that stretches from one end of campus to the other. Just before the library, I meet another group of students, waiting quietly for a second bus the school has arranged. It’s almost like they have these storms regularly, and actually have a system for coping with them. Just like the state of Virginia when it snows.
Back at the flat, the kids are excited—school’s going to be cancelled and everyone knows it—but also a little subdued. By now the wind has picked up, and the sky is low and gray. I hate to use the word suffocating, but that’s what it is. The air is thick with humidity and something else that I’m sure Stephen King would describe as “daunting,” or “haunting,” or “clammy and vice-like, but not in a good way.” I’ll just stick with suffocating.
After we put the kids to bed, I step out in the hall. Our building slopes down the side of a mountain, so it’s terraced, with long open passages behind each row of flats. The main thing I can say about a typhoon—at least this one, and it only winged us—is that it’s loud. The wind rushing down the halls. The trees tossing to and fro. Gusts rattling windows and doors. Even inside you can hear it banging away. The college website is very specific: when a storm hits, even a T-3, bring in all your lawn furniture, your laundry lines, your plants and pots and mosquito lamps. Anything left outside will probably be in Kansas by sunrise—assuming the sun does rise.
I work a couple hours, going outside once or twice to try and catch the storm on dvd recorder, learning there’s no better way to get the wind to die down than to try and capture it to show your loved ones back in the States. Oh well. We crawl into bed and listen to the pounding of the wind. It’s true, it really does howl. You’d think, lying there in a foreign country, together in our bed in our secure flat with our three children asleep in the next room—you’d think we’d feel some sort of gratitude or some heart-warming sense of being safe and protected while a terrible storm rages—yes I did, I said “rages”—outside.
But we don’t. We just feel tired. So we go to sleep.