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Me trying not to be a sorrowful pain in the arse

“Just breathe deeply,” said James, ironically lighting his third cigarette in a row. “Just breathe … deeply … ” he muttered, placing his hand on his solar plexus and breathing in, “because all you have got IS now”. Or words to that effect. I noticed how James’s heartfelt, life teachings were a simple as a glass of water and a slice of bread for breakfast. Painfully noticed what he was saying, because I “believed” in them strongly as well, but in my current time of personal failure and crisis (previous blog about suddenly being jobless etc ) I am hardly ever applying. Belief can only be belief when applied.

We were sitting in the overgrown garden outside the kindergarten building where, perforce, I am now teaching in Kunshan, which is somewhere between Shanghai and Suzhou. The garden is more tousled than Marion’s hair, bushes and grasses scampering up walls and through windows. The garden, aptly, has an Edenic feel to me, in this new, very raw, most uncertain, beginning. James is a Cockney, almost sixty, has been travelling the world (mostly India) for nearly twenty years since his divorce. He is a very easy-going, garrulous, wise bloke who has done me the world of good. I breathed in deeply, noticing how I “centred”, how I began to live just that much more in the precious ephemerality of each moment. James grinned, bald head glinting in the humid light, and started to natter on about stories of his beloved India, all the esoteric books he read there, self-invented gurus wandering around or living with him, the professional beggars who would invite you to a tea-house for biscuits and “cha” as they wished to practise their English, then suddenly disappear, leaving you with the bill for three rounds of tea and biscuits.

“Several years later when I went back to India I saw that bugger again and he tried to pull the same malarkey,” James chuckled. “He of course didn’t recognise me. I ordered four plates of biscuits, heaps of cha and then just buggered off meself.” Cackled. Strong suck on the last bit of cigarette which he tossed into a nearby drain hole strewn with overgrown grass and bushes.

Breathe. Breathe deeply.” For the current moment is all we have, as so many wise teachers have taught us, from Jesus and the Buddha to the current Eckhart Tolle. I noticed my ingratitude: the apartment we had in Suzhou was a palace compared to the hovel we live in now. The bathroom is barely larger than a phone booth; you have to remove towels and toilet paper when taking a shower whilst standing in a stained bath or they will get wet; dodge the odd cockroaches, which fortunately our cat is slowly killing off. Ingratitude: because (almost inevitably in China), the toilet ceased working on our third day in the apartment, and Marion was unable to boil eggs on the little gas stove in the tiny kitchen as that too had conked out. For virtually the first time in the recent (and long-term) crisis we have been though, I saw the tears in her eyes as she left for work unable to flush the toilet or have a little breakfast.

And I feel so responsible. Marion is one plucky, tough woman in her own, special, Marion-esque way. Everyone loves Marion. As cruel, as mean as our old company was to us, some of the staff members were just as sad and bewildered to see us go. (I mean, dear heaven, they made a point of taking videos of me teaching children to help new teachers.) On the day we left our palace of an apartment, May, a U-Learn Chinese secretary, arrived to take over the keys. May had helped us with all sorts of things, in our stay with U-Learn. So Marion, as is her wont when saying goodbye, burst into tears and gave May a hug and May also burst into tears. I held onto our cat Nangua, who wanted nothing to do with his cat box or the Chinese furniture removers, while women did womenly things.

“This is the bloody thing about loif,” said James. He meant life. It’s all up in the clouds, isn’t it? Pffff, one day you are about the richest bleeding man in the world (Steve Jobs came up in the conversation somewhere as did the recent Dark Knight Rising massacre and Tsunamis) and next, pffff, you’re gone. There is no security – ”

“Reminds me of a book I once read by Alan Watts,” I interrupted, preferring for once to do more of the talking. “The title says it all: The Wisdom of Insecurity.” Wish I had that wisdom.

“There you go, there you go,” James’s pale blue eyes flashed in agreement. “Everythink is in the process of becoming somethink else.”

“It’s like you always kind of say,” I said, “tomorrow I might get hit by a bus … ”

“Can easily ’appen in Choina,” James interjected — pffff — in a cloud of smoke, preferring to do most of the talking.

“It could very well happen,” I continued, “but worrying about it, as I seem to worry and freak about absolutely everything of late, is just so pointless. God, I wish I would stop, be more like you or Marion or even that cat of ours, Nangua: now there is a little orange, furry swami for you”.

The Gandalf-blue eyes sparked again. “You can’t be us. Just be yourself, and be good at it, just breeeathe, breathe it in,” James said again in a picturesque haze of smoke edged with that incongruity seemingly only apparent to me. Gratitude: we are busy surviving our crisis. Hopefully. I am lucky to have my plucky Marion who says I am a pain in the arse of late with all my worrying and woe is me. God, doesn’t she live in the “real” world? Our scant savings after a disaster called New Zealand? But we have a roof above our heads. Clothes. We have our health and I have started to believe (perforce!) in the power of prayer again. And both the gas stove and the toilet were fixed the same day, not to our cost. Synchronicity or “God” seemed to deliberately bring James “into my life” otherwise I would be moping and fretting on my own as the only foreigner at this kindergarten. I can speak intermediate Chinese, but that is nothing like having a tonic like Cockney James around, who I think of as a kind of bumpkin sage, a 60-year-old hippie. Pity he goes on holiday for a while in two weeks. Pfff!


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @