Wordcarpenter Books

From Visigoths in Tweed


A Letter From China 


            Reid was saturated after lectures all day and facing a big accounting assignment due tomorrow. He didn't feel like going to the study hall or being around anyone. Knowing Alex would be at the library because of the accounting assignment, and thinking Taylor would be out doing something because he usually did, he turned on the television and relaxed. On the coffee table there was a piece of paper with a phone number and something below it. He knew Taylor's writing. 


Shaken, he thought to himself; Christ Almighty, I've been in a blender ever since I came to university!

            Just then he heard the creaking of the wood floor.

            "McFetty!" Taylor had walked out from his bedroom with a grey herringbone tweed jacket over his arm and a letter in his other hand. With the colder weather, Taylor had started to wear a second-hand tweed, but he kept wearing his Birkenstock sandals with wool socks.

            "Very determined with those Birkenstocks," he said, as not meaning to verbalize his thought.

            "There is no other footwear better than Birkenstocks." Categorical truth. No discussion.

            "They're really sharp looking footwear." Taylor let it go because he did actually like the look of them.

            "God you watch a lot of TV." He didn't watch a lot of television but compared to Taylor everyone did. Thinking about it he couldn't remember once seeing him watch television, not even a hockey game. If he was reading in the living room and then one of them turned on the television, he would usually sit and talk for five minutes and then leave.

            "What's wrong with television?"

            "Whaddya mean what's wrong with television? It's a timestealer! It sucks away your prime!"

            "Gimme a break."

            "What? You don't think so? How many sitcoms do you watch a week? Ten? That's time lost man! Never get that time back ever. Think about it. Time is finite. It's a waste of time Reid, and you should read more. Reading is quickly becoming a forgotten art because television has replaced the novel. People are now suffering from classics malnourishment." His words were like an indirect punch. Reid couldn't remember the last time he read a novel. He spent his reading time memorizing his textbooks and repeating them on tests with boarding school discipline. And to escape this he watched television.

            "Why is television a waste of time Taylor? I'd like to know."

            "Because it's a means of mind control. You don't even see it do you?" He sat up on the couch in response to his question.

            "Yeah" he replied feebly, "sure I do Taylor."

            "People who where tweed don't watch T.V."

            "What's so special about tweed?" Reid thought his Harris Tweed jacket looked silly on him because his Mohawk was still growing in. Besides, tweed was something his grandfather wore, but he was 85 years old. And it looked good on him - very distinguished with his trim white moustache. But Taylor wasn't even twenty so why the hell was he wearing a tweed jacket, especially with Birkenstocks and wool socks?

            "What's so special about tweed? It's the original. One should wear a tweed jacket with pride."


            "Because it symbolizes the lost art of thinking." He put on his tweed jacket deliberately, like it was a trophy. The grey-blue colour of Taylor's herringbone tweed brought out the grey glimmer in his eyes. "And because it's pure form and function. They look sharp and they're warm. Tweed symbolizes the cultivation of the barbarian within."

            "Barbarian yes." Taylor looked victorious in the exchange so he handed him a letter.

            "My brother's finally arrived in Bangkok," he said, "after going travelling through China."

            "I thought China was closed to outsiders?"

            "It was until recently." Taylor pointed at the letter. "Go ahead, read this part." He took it from him and read the specified pages.

Yesterday I found myself held at knifepoint in a locked room in the ancient capital of China - a place called Xian. It all started when I accepted an invitation last night to stay with a Chinese couple overnight because I arrived after ten o'clock and all the hostels were closed. Everything here closes after nine. I looked forward to a good solid sleep in this one-room hut but that wasn't what happened. I went to asleep at 1:00am after the couple left me for another hut, but was awakened at around 2:30. Both the girl, Alleen, and her boyfriend slipped into the same bed with me. No problem because it was a huge bed and I was half asleep anyway. I actually had a feeling this might happen because they were peasant poor and this was their home. Fine, back to sleep in this room that was only about 20 by 20 feet with no windows with a low ceiling (at least for me). It was around 5:30ish that I was awakened by a wandering hand. This hand was very eager. Alleen had been friendly with me all night but I didn't think that she would make a move on me with her boyfriend right beside her. She was beside me and he was against the wall with his head at my feet. I wanted to sleep but she was persistent with her come-ons. Next thing I knew she took off her shirt and put my hand on her boobs - with her boyfriend right there! I told her no but she persisted. That's when her boyfriend woke up. He, to say the least, was upset!

He became violent. He hit her first then he punched my leg. He only hit me once but hit Alleen a half dozens times yelling in Chinese. Christ he was mad. I couldn't say anything in Chinese to deflate his temper. He got up, still cursing like a fiend, and went over to the corner to pick up a meat cleaver. Then he locked the door. Realizing the situation was not good, I got up and gestured that it was Alleen and not me who was at fault, and that I wanted to leave. He didn't like the idea. With the meat cleaver in his hand, his face was ghostly white. He actually stumbled because he was so wound up. She was silent. I thought he was going to hit one of us with the knife - her at first - then me. I became panicky when I remembered what I had learned in my psych 100 class about how a man who's white in the face is more dangerous than a man who's red in the face. He grabbed my hand and then, with the knife in his other hand, he threatened to chop off my fingers. Alarmed is too weak a word to describe how I felt at that moment. To think I was about to lose my fingers just because his sexually frustrated girlfriend had taken off her shirt and wanted to use me. The guy was so incredibly angry that it was futile to argue, especially since I hardly knew any Mandarin. So I decided to withdraw from a senseless challenge. If he wanted me in his bedroom, fine. I kneeled down and began reciting the Lord's Prayer out loud. I just didn't think he would chop me up when I had my back to him in front of Alleen. It worked. He was silent for a few seconds and then directed his anger at his girlfriend who was still on the bed. I stayed there like that, glancing at him now and then waiting until the red pallor came back to his face.

But it wasn't over yet. After a few minutes, he began yelling at me again, motioning to me that it was me who had fooled around with his girlfriend. He started demanding that I give him money. First he asked for 30 Yuan. I tried to explain that I didn't want this whole thing to happen, but then realized 30 Yuan was about seven dollars, and a fair price for lodging for a night. I gave him a 10 Yuan note but he ripped it up into little pieces and started demanding 300 Yuan, which was too much. He went a little crazy again but I knew that he wasn't as mad as before because of the colour in his face. That's when I put my hand on his shoulder and the tension seemed to dissipate. I gave him two more 10 Yuan notes instead of the three one-hundred Yuan notes he wanted. He acted insulted but I knew 30 Yuan was equivalent to two weeks pay in China. I said I was sorry that he had to rip up one of the notes, and then I walked to the door where I stood with resolute posture and single-minded determination until he came over and unlocked the door. I stepped out and never looked back...

It was strange when he put down the letter and looked around the room because he felt like he had been transported to China and was being held against his will with a meat cleaver waving in front of his face. When he heard the phoney laughter on the television it made him cringe. Taylor had a point God damn it. He did watch too much television.

            "Wow," was all he could muster.

            "He almost lost his hand. And she made a move on him! There's justice for ya." Taylor slouched in his chair and Reid leaned back on the threadbare couch with an image of an ivory-white-pallored Chinaman in his mind's eye. He could even feel the claustrophobia of being locked in a small room with no windows.

            "I can't believe he prayed." He handed back the letter.

            "See, that's living. That is what living life is. That's non-fiction baby! Not watching it on some electronic window. Going out there and doing it. That's life. That's what it's all about. Forget TV man. It'll suck your life away as quick as any drug."

            "Christ Taylor, you're so dramatic all the time."

            "My brother used to be like you - a television junkie."

            "I'm not a television junkie."

            "Now he's backpacking all over the globe. Wherever he goes there are backpackers like him with a common thirst for adventure." Accounting. I have to do my bloody accounting assignment, he thought to himself in an inner rush of restlessness. He regressed in inner strength to a level of feebleness that only he could feel but that he senses all could see.

            "Television junkie, ha!" he said, turning the television off with a flourish.

            "But films are art," he said grabbing Reid's arm. "And if you're in then check out the film tonight at the Princess Court." He didn't let go of Reid.

            "What film?"

            "It's a 1946 film called The Razor's Edge, with Tyrone Power. Trust me, you'll like it."

            "I don't know. Let me think about it. I have a heck of a lot of work to do."

            "I'm leaving the house at 9:10 sharp."



Note on the text 
Reid is drilled by his housemate Taylor for spending too much time watching television, so he shows Reid a letter he received from his brother who was travelling in China to highlight the difference between being there and watching through an electronic window, so that only through empirical data can one truly learn a culture of a place.   


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