Dream of the Red Hat: Or, Asia’s Revenge

Dream of the Red Hat: Or, Asia’s Revenge March 2, 2012

Jeremy Lin is a consciousness-raiser. Jay Caspian Kang claims never to have seen “the Asian American community speak out with such unified force and coherence” as when ESPN headline dubbed Lin as “a Chink in the armor” of the New York Knicks. Why? Well, says Timothy Dalrymple, Asian Americans are sick of life in the cultural shade, in particular, of being thought “timid and unathletic, nerdy or effeminate or socially immature.”

Well, take it from someone of Jewish heritage, that’s no damn fun at all. But, fortunately or unfortunately, stereotypes comes in paired opposites. My people include both the dead of the Shoah and Ariel Sharon. It’s not that Sharon cuts a more endearing figure than, say, Anne Frank; but he does add balance. Whatever else he may have been, Sharon reminds us that we needn’t pretend to be Italian in order to throw our weight around.

Asian stereotypes have polarities of their own. Opposite the androgynous techie or ping-pong dilletante is the Yellow Peril, the Heathen Chinee, Triad gangsters, Viet Cong guerillas, Red Guardsmen who’d shoot their own parents if the Great Helmsman wished it.

This, in fact, was the China I went in search of at 22, when I signed a contract to teach two semesters of conversation ESOL at a middle school in a western provincial capital. I was of a romantic disposition, you might say. My honors history course on depictions of Asia in Western literature having whetted my appetite for White Rajahhood, I dreamed of carving out some kind of personal fiefdom, like the future General Gordon did during the Taiping War, like Brooke did in Borneo, or like Blackthorne did in James Clavell’s Shogun.

You need danger for that kind of thing. Besides, this was the heyday of the Lonely Planet Travelers’ Guide. Hip young Westerners were courting near-death experiences all over the developing world, their reward being a respectful hush among bar patrons as they told their stories.

But after ten months in China, those dreams were dead as dust. Forget about fiefdoms — I could barely get my 15-year-old students to shut up when I wanted them to. With no ear for the language (and textbooks with the wrong sort of characters), I’d learned barely 500 words. Worse, I was completely tone-deaf; coming from me, ma could just as easily mean “horse” or “to insult” as “mother.” I had no patience for karaoke, and could never quite figure out what besides that and mah-jong passed for fun with the locals. The beer was yak piss; the cigarettes stained my fingers and teeth the color of cherry wood.

My friend Doug Przybylski (Notre Dame, ’94), was adjusting better than I. After three months of courting a university student named Luo Yi Mei, he proposed marriage and she accepted. “You’re crazy,” I told him. “She’s in it for the visa. You can see it in her eyes.” Doug reasoned and pleaded with me, pricing the girl’s loyalty above jade and opium. One day, just as I sensed his resistance weakening, I showed up at his apartment and found Luo Yi Mei there with a woman she introduced as Liu Min.

It had, I realized, come to desperate measures. Liu Min had what I thought of as an American figure. The fact that her English was exactly as good as my Chinese created an unexpected sense of parity between us, so I took one for the team. We consummated our affair on Qingcheng, a mountain sacred to Daoists, in the middle of May Day weekend. Some hushed fumbling under a canopy of bamboo, within earshot of a dozen day trippers, and the deed was safely accomplished.

And here my adventures began. I shared news of my conquest with Dave Rosen, a 40-ish grad of Cal Arts who was completing his fifth year at our city’s school of traditional medicine. “She single?” He asked.

“Waiting for a divorce to come through.”

“Okay,” said Dave, nodding warily as he packed the hash pipe. As we were finishing the bowl, he added, “I really hope you’re right about this divorce thing.”

“How come?”

“Because in China, there’s a custom,” he said, the blue of his widening iris complementing the surrounding redness. “It’s called the Red Hat. When a man learns that his wife has betrayed him, he puts on a red hat, recites a curse, and kills her lover.”

Under the influence of the Kashgar hash, hard as pebbles and about as pure, I pictured Oddjob from Goldfinger in a red Homburg. “They can’t do shit to a foreigner here.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Dave, wagging a finger. “The Red Hat is a venerable tradition. Not even Mao dared to tamper with it. The courts are very lenient on a defendant who invokes the Red Hat. Of course, if he has any guang xi with the police, he never goes to trial in the first place. If a foreigner’s involved and there’s face at stake, they’ll just arrest some known petty criminal and execute him with plenty of ceremony — probably at halftime during a basketball game at the local middle school.”

“Meanwhile the real killer will be eating bao zi for breakfast and laughing?”

“You got it, champ.” Dave offered a Marlboro from a box with a Russian warning label. “One night, I was eating at a cafe outside a big hotel in Guangzhou. A minivan pulled up, and two guys tossed out something that looked like a garment bag. The hotel security guard opened it, took one look inside, and started throwing up. I got curious and walked over. What do you think I saw?”
I shook my head.

“I saw what looked like about 200 lbs of human pulp. Blood. Viscera. Bone fragments. Hair clumps. An old man standing next to me tut-tutted, shook his head, and said, ‘Hong mao zi!'”

“‘Red Hat?'”

Dave nodded. “The same. Later I found out all that goop in the bag had once been an American. I’m not sure whose wife he messed with, but brother, I hope she was worth it.”

Like many Chinese workplaces, the middle school where I was teaching was a walled compound. When I returned home from Dave’s, it occurred to me for the first time that the walls weren’t very high.

The next day at lunch break, I hunted up a female teacher I remember only by her nickname, Ping Guo, or “Apple.” She’d hooked up with the school’s other foreign teacher, and — he swore — told him, “Make me pregnant.” This made her the worldliest Chinese person I knew. “Have you ever heard of the Red Hat?” I asked. Ping Guo looked puzzled. “If a man’s wife, you know, sleeps with another man, does he put on a red hat — a hat that’s red?” I pantomimed stabbing, then shooting.

She laughed. “No, no. If a man is cornuto,” she said, using the Italian word and making horns out of her index and pinkie fingers, “we say he wears a green hat. That’s why a foreigner should never wear a green hat, like for the New York Jets. All Chinese people will laugh at him.”

I remembered hearing this before. “Okay, that’s the green hat. No red hat?” Ping Guo shook her head. “No red hat.” I thanked her and headed off toward my next class. As I looked back, I saw she was laughing loudly and looking straight at me. If her lower teeth were a little straighter, I thought, she could have modeled the Dragon Lady for Milton Caniff.

The days were getting longer. The clouds that had covered the city for months, blocked in the west by the Himalayas and reinforced by smoke from a mllion coal stoves, were finally breaking up enough to offer a glimpse of blue sky. After wrapping up my last lesson, I walked to the market, found the barber who did his business outdoors under a banana tree, and handed him enough to cover a shave and haircut. Lathered up in the bamboo chair, the bib tight around my neck, I found myself thinking, a little dreamily, how perfect an assassination scene this would make. One pass of a razor across my throat, and I’d make as grotesque and edifying a corpse as Albert Anastasia.

Just then, I felt the tip of the razor scratching the nape of my neck. This was not standard operating procedure for a shave. “Ni zuo shen me?” I asked. The barber shrugged, giggling, Tearing off the bib, I ran all the way back to the school, my taste for martyrdom spent.

In the yard, a group of the younger boys were playing soccer. Craving fellowship, even at the price of answering questions about bands like Mr. Big, I approached the sidelines where the second-stringers were standing. After fielding a few Chinese-inflected “Hellos,” I heard one of the boys squeal with laughter. “Hua hua gong zi!” He screamed, pointing at me. His friends started laughing. Within seconds, the hilarity was passing through the crowd like a virus.

A solemn boy who used the English name “Harry” explained the joke. Using the skin of my neck as rice paper and the tip of his razor as a brush, the barber had written the (simplified) Chinese characters for “hua hua gong zi” — “playboy.”

“That’s a new one on me,” Dave said that evening, examining the scratches in my neck. “‘Playboy’ as a precursor to the Red Hat treatment. I’ll have to make a note of it.”

Swigging on my 32-oz bottle of Tsingtao, I related my interview with Ping Guo. “She says it’s bullshit.”

“I’m sure she does,” said Dave. “But that itself might be bullshit. The last thing any Chinese person wants to do is make her country look barbarous in foreign eyes. Then there’s the possibility she’s led a sheltered life — everyone in this one-child generation has been spoiled absolutely rotten. The Red Hat may not exist in her experience. That doesn’t make it objectively unreal.”

I glanced at Doug, who rolled his eyes. “‘Playboy’ is a brand name over here,” he said. “It could have been a polo pony or an alligator or one of those Fred Perry wreaths. Besides, I checked with Luo Yi Mei. She said Liu Min’s marriage is definitely over.”

Dave raised his eyebrows, as if to say that Luo Yi Mei’s report on her friend’s conjugal situation was no more reliable than Xinhua News Agency reports on ethnic harmony in Tibet.

That night, I awoke to the sound of a minivan idling outside the guard shack. The guard — I knew from experience — was fast asleep, his cheek resting against his palm, the brim of his garrison cap pulled down around his mouth. Lying tangled in the mosquito netting that had melded with the bedclothes months ago, I reflected on the fragility of my existence.

At that particular moment, I had a legal and social status to be envied. I was an American serving in China as a foreign teacher, earning a monthly salary of 1,200 RMB. I lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment with carpeting, a flush toilet and a small courtyard. Compared to the dormitory where the native teachers lived, and even the bare, concrete cells of some engineers and doctors I’d gotten to know, it was a princely spread. I was almost above the law; I’d smoked hash in the streets. I’d had it off with a woman who, under normal circumstances, would have been far out of my league.

As the minivan went on idling, I remembered reading about how a Khmer Rouge remnant had hijacked a train traveling through Thailand. Finding several Westerners aboard, the guerillas had executed them on the spot. I remembered a story that had been making the rounds of the local longtime expats. In 1968, after two Red Guards factions fought a pitched battle just outside the city, the victors butchered their prisoners, boiled them in huo guo, and ate them with a dash of monosodium glutomate and a fine moutai.

Whatever I might be at the minute, I thought, my excitement mounting, I had plunged myself into currents of violence that could reduce me, in less time than it would have taken to cook a frozen pizza, into a heap of goo unrecognizable even to my own parents.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Kipling, I recalled, had penned this prediction in 1899, when the bearers of Western Civilization marched behind bayonets, or at worst, only slightly ahead of them. Those days were over — even the Sikh policemen in khaki I saw at the Hong Kong airport would soon be out of a job.

As the minivan rumbled off, I thought of Pyle in The Quiet American, a brave man betrayed by his own arrogance. I thought of Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction (a bootlegged tape of which had recently arrived in-country), another brave man done in by his own arrogance. I was still thinking of Vincent Vega, dead on the john, a copy of Modesty Blaise still in his hand, when I decided to quit the country.

My departure was easy to arrange. I had an open ticket home, and the smiling agents at Dragon Air found me a seat on a plane due to leave for Hong Kong the very next day. The disintegration of many of my clothes thanks to mud and harsh detergent streamlined the packing process. I said no good-byes, John Fowles’ Magus having reminded me what I’d learned from the barber — that spies could be lurking anywhere.

The cab driver put on a look of offended gentility when I tried to slip on my seat belt. For once, I didn’t argue. The thought of pulling away from the curb just as Liu Min’s husband and his men crashed through my door was comforting enough. The cab sped through the city streets, past bicyclists, bicycle rikshaws, men pulling carts laden with bricks, animal carcasses, and very occasionally, cisterns bubbling over with human shit from the public privvies.

Picking up an overpass, we turned onto the main road that led to the airport. New apartment buildings were sprouting on either side, for as far as the eye could see. All were hideous — gray blocks of poured concrete. China’s was not an exoticism of water buffalo or tranquil sunrises over virginal verdant mountains. It was an exoticism of kitsch; of street-cleaning vehicles that played Christmas music in August; of pop singers who sounded like Qing Dynasty eunuchs; of statues of Colonel Sanders, his features tweaked to resemble a Confucian sage’s. When I first arrived, well-wishers had taken me to visit the birthplace of Li Bai, the great poet. It turned out to be the site of a theme park with dragon bumper cars. I thought, suddenly, of how I’d miss it all.

After the driver set my bags on the curb, he shook my hand and said, “Manmande zou,” roughly, “Take it easy.” The sweet sincerity of his gesture shamed me. I was retreating in haste, showing the white feather, declaring my own defeat. I imagined the shame undoing me until I became, like Peachy Carnahan in “The Man Who Would Be King,” a haunted, babbling idiot. And yet, fear of the Red Hat, of turning up in a garment bag, pushed me through the airport doors and right up through the check-in line.

Waiting for my flight to board, I dipped into The Power and the Glory. The Whisky Priest, I forced myself to consider, never fled mortal danger. Conversely, nobody was going to make a hero out of Jeff, the teacher who’d hooked up with Ping Guo. During New Year break, he’d disappeared, leaving me his half of the apartment we were sharing. “I’m on a quest for high adventure,” Jeff’s note read. “I’m going to meet up wih my buddy in Vietnam and start a cobra farm.” A week later, the city’s education department tracked him down at his parents’ house in Scottsdale.

Over the loudspeakers came the boarding call for the plane that would take me to safety. Drunk on my own nobility, I rushed up to the gate agent and told her, “I’ve decided not to go.” Sputtering, she picked up the phone and called her manager, who hurried over and stared at me as she explained, in Chinese, that the foreigner did not wish to board after all. Shaking his head, he picked up his another phone and made another call.

“He says you have to find your own bag, and please be quick,” the gate agent said as the buzz from the people on line behind me rose.

The gate agent led me through a door and out onto the tarmac. A platoon of rampers was standing around the cargo bins, pointing. I looked in the aft bin — it was packed full. If my bag was there, I’d never be able to find it without displacing a hundred others. I looked in the forward bin — there, providentially, was my big, green duffel, topping a small stack that ended just before the hatch. I snatched it and waved at the rampers. “Fei chang gan xie,” I told them, beaming. “Thank you extraordinarily.”

The sunburned man I took to be the team lead said something I took to mean, “Get the fuck out of here.”

The man in the red hat never came, so I finished out the semester and left China on schedule. Even before that, I stopped hanging around Dave Rosen; after Dave began sending him florid mash notes, so did Doug. Doug married Luo Yi Mei, and stayed in China an extra year to teach English to the managers and foremen at her father’s factory. As soon as Luo Yi Mei obtained U.S. residency, she filed for divorce. Speaking of divorces, Liu Min’s went through as promised. After I’d been home a year, she contacted me, saying she’d landed a student visa, and hinting she wouldn’t mind rekindling our old flame. A little guiltily, I turned her down, and was relieved to learn she went on to marry a Chinese emigrant living in Vancouver. She is now a Canadian citizen.

But I can’t say with complete confidence that no such custom as the Red Hat exists, or ever existed. If it came straight from Dave Rosen’s imagination, I’d like to see it become a popular urban myth, or even — this being the Information Age — a meme. If I were Jeremy Lin, I’d find it helpful. It’d send the signal: “Beware. I am not some overachieving geek in a singlet. I am bad. I am styling. Whether I like it or not, I probably carry the genes of Genghis Khan and Manchu banner chieftains. So don’t trash-talk me, chump, and don’t guard me too closely, or I’ll get my Red Hat on.”

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