In Which I have a real vacation, have a fight and see a friend
When I got back to the apartment Pan was furious with me. We had been having a pretty rocky time as is. It’s not that we cohabited that much, perhaps that was actually the problem. We could go for entire weeks without seeing each other. As a result, we both came to see the apartment as solely our own and the signs of the other person drove us both crazy. Pan could never remember to close the windows properly resulting in mosquitoes in our apartment, which didn’t bother Pan who closed her door at night, but feasted on me. I didn’t take out the trash until it was absolutely necessary, which meant that Pan, who couldn’t stand the pile-up, usually was the garbage remover by default. I didn’t like her ringing the doorbell to be let in. She didn’t like me leaving my shoes dropped on top of hers. It started out as both of us having problems with the other, but it quickly escalated to a one sided battle.
Told once, I was fairly methodical about adhering to Pan’s requests, but she could never remember to do what I asked of her. She became angry when I mentioned it more than once while expecting perfection from me, which I was unwilling to give, especially since my requests were met with such lukewarm responses. When I returned from Yuyao, Pan met me with a long list of my crimes, some of them just, such as the dirty floor, and some of them ludicrous, like a dropped scarf. She had this thing about the floor. She hated things that one used to touch one’s face to also touch the floor. She considered a towel I mopped the wet ground with unusable upon the human body, especially since it was too sullied to be placed in the washing machine. She grew upset when I put a canvas bag on her bed, because the sleeping space was sacred. She claimed this was the Chinese way. I’m not saying it’s not a Chinese way, because I strongly believe that it is and a very traditional one, but since I also have plenty of Chinese friends who could care less I wouldn’t call it something intuitive or set in stone.
I apologized for the complaints I thought fair and flat out refused to apologize for what I felt were unreasonable accusations. This half-victory did not mollify Pan and we ended by silently slinking off to our separate rooms. I felt sad about the experience, but I was determined not to let her walk all over me. She was an only child and didn’t understand the fine art of compromise. What she thought the origin of my behavior was, I do not know.
The next week that followed was odd. I was still on vacation, but the festival fury of the New Year was over. I had free time. It had been so long since I had relaxed that I didn’t even remember how. In the end, I went to some DVD shops to pick up things to watch. Every block in residential areas has at least three of them and most commercial areas also sport a few vendors. These are pirated DVDs in flimsy paper jackets that are meant to be slipped into the hard plastic case of a legal copy. Foreign films have reviews in both Chinese and the native language of the movie, sometimes even having a panned critic’s comments that someone copied and pasted off the internet. These places can be treasure troves of cinematic classics or graveyards of Holly Woods’ worst. They sell cheaply, even by Chinese standards, and are as common a purchase as soda pop in the U.S.
I made a routine of getting up, going to the park for a few hours, buying some dumplings as a snack, doing three hours of e-mailing and text messaging and then watching a movie. That’s how I occupied my afternoons, with a film of debatable quality blaring from our large TV. At the time most of them seemed great, though when I presented my treasures to my sisters back in the U.S. we could only conclude that I had suffered from temporary insanity. I watched Hong Kong claymation action flicks, pirated Hallmark Jack and the Beanstalk, Taiwanese Taoist cartons, Spiderman and whatever else I could get a hold of. In the evening I would cook myself dinner, take my nightly phone calls from the Yangs and then read a book in bed. Relaxing felt marvelous.
Right before the very end of vacation my friend Haggai came to visit. He was “renewing” his visa for Japan and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see each other. He was living in Japan on a three tourist visa and thus was forced to leave the country every three months to gain a new three month visa. He had planned to come for four days, but his super cheap tickets made it pretty much two, since he came in at night and left in the morning. Haggai was really bummed about that, but had been so determined to not miss a weekend in Japan (that’s when he had his big Iaido practice and very new big Kendo practice) that it had to be that way. I was a bit disappointed, but Er Yang was totally wound up about it. As I have mentioned previously, Er Yang lived to give me grief and today’s entire allotment of fault finding was consumed by a chastising about Haggai’s plans
“When is he coming? And when is he leaving? Aiyou, Yin Mu, you didn’t plan this well at all! I won’t be in Shanghai for those days. How could you let him do this? He’s your friend and now I won’t meet him!” He lectured me.
As Haggai said, it wasn’t me who had planned it at all, but Er Yang doesn’t think that way. Haggai is my friend, therefore any plans relating to his visit were my responsibility. The weather also did not plan well, because it rained the two days he was in town, which put a damper on morning park activities. I had a big debate with myself about where he should sleep. The living room made the most sense, but it was still very cold and was so cavernous that it was hard to heat properly. I had some misgivings at first about letting him sleep on the floor in my room, but I decided that it was OK, because he wasn’t a psychopath rapist, and even if he did try to put a move on me in the night I could always just beat him up and go back to bed.
Naturally there were no such troubles. He slept quite comfortably on the foam bed pads I’d bought for Mom and Dad’s visit and I remembered what I liked so much about sleepovers. It’s that exciting feeling of your friend being right there and being able to talk until you both drop off to sleep. There were so many interesting ideas to share that neither of us got to sleep much before ten o’clock.
This meant when we arose at five thirty the next morning we were both a little sleepy. But the park waits for no one and there were plenty of people waiting for us. We had cai bao for breakfast. These are fist sized steamed white buns filled with sautéed vegetables and sliced mushrooms. The good ones are steamed in natural bamboo baskets and sold about thirty seconds after they have been cooked. A bun older than five minutes is practically stale.
Armed with hearty morning breakfast goodness, I escorted Haggai to the place where the singing lady always stands. It is at an intersection in the park between three paths and a bridge. I think she likes this spot, because she gets optimum audience. We were greeted with all the graciousness I had come to expect of her, which quickly turned to horror as she noted my friend’s Tevas and lack of socks. Haggai was swarmed by a group of little old ladies, who barely came up to his ribcage all concerned for his well being.
“It’s very cold outside, you need to wear socks!”
“You need to wear closed shoes!”
“You’re going to catch a cold!”
“Aiyou, you silly foreigner, don’t you understand what you are doing is unhealthy?”
“Very cold outside, bundle up or you will catch a cold!” the singing lady added in her exacting English.
Haggai was un-phased by their words, though the sheer mass of people was a bit overwhelming. Eventually we escaped the mob and went to the dormant amusement park where I practice Shaolin. Haggai didn’t like the gunzi forms, too much hand sliding for his taste, but was very impressed with the spear form. Personally, I don’t like a lot of the moves, probably because I don’t understand how they work, but he thought the weapon itself just looked killer. Mr. Ego, who had conveniently “forgotten” the entire New Year’s incident, jeered at Haggai, the “Japanese Martial Arts master”, trying to annoy him into displaying some Japanese sword forms. Haggai wisely refused.
After that we went to do shisuo. Da Yang talked Haggai’s ear off even though he understood very little of what Da Yang said. Haggai had taken Chinese in college, but no text book can prepare you for Da Yang’s unique accent or elevated vocabulary. We tossed some of the small shisuo and quickly moved up to 40 jin. I wanted one that was heavy enough that Haggai had to be pulled by the momentum. The ground was soppy and every time one of us dropped the weight it sent up generous amounts of mud to coat our clothing. The stone itself was so dirty from years of use that the only clean part was the orange handle polished from years of people gripping it. Since Haggai was my tudi Da Yang just sat back and watched, letting me train my student myself.
Obviously our audience was bigger than just the one shifu. On bright days we would have a wall of people lined up along the perimeter of the entire fence, but today it was just the other shisuo guys. There was some man I didn’t know and had rarely seen before watching us with particular interest. His skin was very dark and he had one of those auras that is like a homing beacon. Soon he grew tired of just observing and came over to talk. He mostly ignored me, but had a lot to teach Haggai. I backed off and let the dark man lecture Haggai on proper wrist techniques, all of which I already knew. I was surprised when he moved onto breathing. Er Yang had taught me to breathe out on the throw and inhale while waiting for the next catch. The breathing the dark man taught Haggai was the opposite.
After the park we went back to the apartment. Poor Haggai saw hardly any of Shanghai, because there was too much to do at my place. We played Chess, Sockattrition ( a Bryn Mawr invention where you put socks in your waist band and try to steal the other person’s), looked at my pirate notebook, made delicious food and only ventured out for shopping. We didn’t get a lot, dry groceries he could take back to Japan and DVDs. Haggai was unemployed in Japan and always looking for cheap food. I can’t imagine ever skimping on groceries, but this was his way of keeping costs down. If he was short of cash, he ate as little as possible. My personal motto is I’d rather live in a cardboard box than have a growling stomach.
Er Yang came back the next day. I had an amazingly confusing phone conversation in which I believe Er Yang said that he couldn’t come over for dinner, because he had to be with his family. I resigned myself to the fact that my friend would not meet one of the most important people to me in China. Miraculously, as Haggai and I were leaving the apartment to pick up some groceries, the Yangs appeared! I was overjoyed to see them even though we weren’t prepared at all for company. In the end, I gave Da Yang the keys to the house and Haggai and I went to get vittles. Haggai was surprised that I let them tromp up like they owned the place, but they are my Chinese fathers after all.
Grocery stores in China are set up much the same way they are in the ‘states, but on a much smaller scale. Every district has a couple hypermarkets, but why take the bus to such an overwhelming place when most streets house a couple small stores? My street happened to have two, both of which were set up pretty much the same. In front was a woman to take your bags, because thieves are a major problem in China, so you can’t just walk into the store carrying a purse or backpack, and then two cashiers. One half of the store was made up of dry goods and the other consisted of anything needing refrigeration. There was always a surplus of staff, unaccountably of the female persuasion. I knew where everything was in the store and we quickly made our purchases without having to ask the wandering employees where anything was hiding.
When we got back to the apartment the Yangs were sitting in front of the TV watching a variety show and eating nuts they’d pilfered from the cabinet. Da Yang had swept the floor to his satisfaction and it looked like they had put water up to boil. I made scrambled eggs with fried tomatoes, packaged dumplings and heaps of rice. Er Yang first complained at the scanty fare and then pointed out that I had bought far too little huang jiu. I’m not a big drinker and perhaps my opinions comes out when I buy liquor for others, but I just couldn’t imagine how we could need more than two bottles.
The food was enough and I think the alcohol probably was too. I ate my tomato and eggs over the rice. Haggai was shocked, because in Japan this style of eating was a major faux pas.
“This is ok, isn’t it?” I consulted.
“keyi,keyi,” the Yangs replied.
We went through a whole series of eating mannerisms that would have a Japanese person in fits, but were hardly rude in China. When most of the food was consumed and etiquette questions exhausted we moved on to the task of drinking. Da Yang chugged his coke like a pro. I’d seen him drink alcohol once and that was enough to convince me that it was good he kept to soda. Anyone who can get tipsy on just one sip of Chinese beer shouldn’t touch huang jiu. Besides, as Pan had put it, he’s so talkative already, who would want to see how much he talked if he was drunk? Haggai liked whiskey and matched Er Yang gulp for gulp with the yellow wine. I drank a little and let Haggai be the recipient for the nagging. It was nice not to be the one under scrutiny. All four of us sat comfortably on the couch chatting about wushu, a favorite topic of everyone present.
Haggai and I had been debating the efficacy of martial arts for weeks and it was interesting to have the Yangs give their opinions. Er Yang flatly stated that what it all came down to was strength. If you were strong enough, you were practically invincible. Maybe one blow gets through, but as soon as the strong guy hits, the fight is over. Haggai was fascinated by his views.
Pan came home as things were finishing up. She had been very upset with me earlier. When we thought Haggai was going to be there for four days we had planned to eat dinner with her and her boyfriend, but I ended up canceling. Not only because Haggai was going to be here for just two days, but because I feared I would verbally roast Pan’s sweet heart. I had never met the guy, but I didn’t like him. He always teased little needs-to-gain-ten-pounds-to-be-thin Pan that she was a soggy around the middle. Anyone who would give a thin girl a weight complex is a complete bastard in my book.
Pan was ok with this until she found out I was inviting the Yangs. Then she had a bout of jealousy, accusing me of valuing them more than her. Well, I saw these men every single day. They brought me medicine when I was sick, cleaned my kitchen when I was tired, brought me roses when it was my birthday, hugged me when I was lonely and, in short, were always there for me. I hardly ever saw Pan. I was sorry that she felt jealous, but you reap what you sow.
Pan took a photo of us. It’s a funny picture, all four of us on the couch, a Yang on either side sandwiching me in with an arm draped around me proprietarily, our cheeks all rosy from good conversation. I suppose it illustrates how they felt about me.
I was sad to see Haggai go. I felt depressed as I always have when a good friend has gone back to their own world. It was sort of exciting that this time it was a male friend who was around my age. I thought I had finally found someone I would be interested in dating. But he didn’t return the affection, so that never went anywhere, but we remained friends.