In the Basement: On Teaching in China While a Fellow American Goes on a Murderous Homophobic Rampage Back Home, Thus Shocking the World

Or not.

Turns out many people over here, in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (a province of China and not the country sometimes here referred to as Outer Mongolia) hadn’t heard immediately about the Orlando slaughter, some only when I tell them. I should be fair. People here might not think much of it, since killing each other violently, usually with guns and often en masse, is just one of the things we Americans lead the world in.

I’m teaching “Introduction to Fiction” in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

I first wrote this in the days following the attack, sitting alone in my hotel room on the other side of the world.  I’m posting it a year later for the first time, largely unchanged.

I hear the news about the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, alone in my hotel room, waiting for internet pages to slowly load, already feeling disconnected from my people back home.  Though there are ways to connect to Facebook in China, I’m happy to be away from it while here.

Or, I was.

True, I cannot escape its lure completely, and amuse myself by Instagramming a series of photographs I’m calling, “Scenes from a Hotel.” To channel a current insidious and omnipresent muse, I say to myself, “Believe me, I take the best scenes-from-a-hotel photographs. Everyone tells me so.”

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Or, maybe they don’t. I’m not on Facebook, you know.

At first, pictures of oddly colored, sad looking hotel chairs’re fun to post. This now feels stupid.

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I talk about Orlando the day after at school, but fellow professors haven’t heard of it.


That takes the shine off of the ol’ American Exceptionalist in me, boy-o. I say something trite: “Oh, well, it is sad.”

In America, everyone will be discussing it on social media. Except me.

I try to connect Orlando to our story, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk from Omelas”.

The first ten rows of students, those paying attention, haven’t heard of the latest from Orlando. Most of the rest of the 108 students, a lucky number I am told, wait patiently for me to explain the connection. I decide not to try, as the English language struggle these first-year university students are having with the story’s meaning is enough for us this day.

But I have an epiphany of sorts, one of those things I teach the students about, à la James Joyce.

In the flash of a beautiful Hohhot summer lightning storm, or, more properly, in the flash of a firefly, Nadine Gordimer explains it: “Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment.”(3)

“Yes, that will be on the test,” I tell the students.

Le Guin’s story is about the beautiful, fantastic city of Omelas. It’s the Festival of Summer. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s going to the Green Fields, serenaded by bells and flutes. The narrator struggles to explain: “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?”(4)

The narrator explains that “… to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” is not acceptable. For—and here I discuss “utopia” and “dystopia” with the students—somewhere in an Omelas basement lives a “feeble-minded” youth:

Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops.

Then, the kicker.

Everyone in Omelas knows about this basement.

But, were the child set free, they believe, “…in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.”

Some from Omelas can’t handle that. I act out the story’s ending. Disgusted to learn their society’s happiness depends on the basement child, I explain, some walk away (cue my giant strides across the dais) and never look back (I exit the classroom, slamming the door behind me).

Notably, walking away doesn’t help the youth. Righteousness doesn’t equal helpfulness.

Most people in Omelas, however, stay. They “be” happy, attend festivals, dance.

Orlando shakes me more than other recent senseless, hate-filled American mass murders. Because I am alone, far away? Or, because I know that this not-atypical violent American male will be immediately turned into our stereotypical terrorist, the Other.

But he was an American. Still is. And he went straight for the basement, attacking some of our society’s most othered. We cannot allow ourselves to avoid, again, this part of the killing. But we will. We always do. The NRA and their bought-off politicians, among others, demand this fealty of us. And mostly we oblige.

Multiple college students are killed at Pulse nightclub, a kind of “sanctuary,”(5) including seven from Valencia College.(6) Schools in the area engage.(7)

It is a long struggle, emptying this basement we’ve built over many years.

Fallout begins. Doubling down. Avoidance.

Ohio State pulls their mascot from the Columbus Gay Pride parade.(8) In Texas, home to the nation’s second highest public undergraduate student population, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick publishes a “reap what you sow” tweet (now retracted).(9) Days after the shooting, House Republicans block a non-discrimination proposal for federal contractors, because of sexual orientation and gender identification language.(10) Senator John McCain claims (then retracts) President Obama is “directly responsible” for the attack.(11) The AMA declares gun violence a “public health crisis”, but Congress continues to block gun violence research.(12)

The Orlando murderer is many things, simultaneously. A wannabe ISIS terrorist, sure, but he’s also just one more in a long line of hateful, insecure American males so enraged by an Other that he needed to murder and destroy.

We are even now learning that he may also have lived in this basement we keep.(13)

In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, we learn that “No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”(14)

I am filled with rage, too. At the carnage, yes. But also because I know that right now, across the Pacific, many, employing the same tired arguments, pretend this act is somehow un-American.

By second-classing our fellow LGBTQIA* citizens in a culture of toxic masculinity (choose your parameters or your statistics, but we all know modern mass killings usually involve male perpetrators) and a ready access to military-grade weapons, we spawned this latest killer.

It’s complicated and difficult, true. Congressman Jim Himes is right: “All I know is that regular moments of silence on the House floor do not honor the victims of violence. They are an affront.”(15)

Action is needed. Yesterday. But it looks like even this latest outrage can’t move the Senate to make even the smallest movement on our gun laws, so powerful is the gun lobby.(16)

In the meantime, I have 108 thesis statements that aren’t going to grade themselves. Tomorrow, in class, I’m going to again try to connect Le Guin’s story to Orlando for the students. I can’t just walk away, as in Omelas. I can’t accept the basement we allow to fester in our country, bringing us all down, killing some of us.

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On acting out stories. I learned so much of what I know about acting out stories in class, both for myself and what I ask of my students, from my colleagues and friends David Hlavsa (Theatre professor, Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, Washington State) and Nadezhda Krylova (English professor, Petrozavodsk State University, Russia).

Also. You may have noticed that in the last year, we elected with a minority of votes a new president. Thus, everything related to this story and these issues is now exponentially worse. trump’s tweet of this anniversary is a study in pretend caring, but is largely avoidance.  No mention of any action he might take to address this situation; no mention of the LGBTQIA*.  For a man so obsessed with terrorists, he makes it very clear, both in this tweet and throughout his presidency, that it is only a certain kind of terrorism that holds any interest for him. Everyone else be damned. Continue reading