I got back to Shanghai late, still had my cold and immediately went to bed, because I knew I had to get up at 5:30am the next morning and go to the park. I slept deep and dreamlessly, as seemed to be my habit in China. I didn’t dream the whole time I was there and it wasn’t till years later that in my sleep I would visit Shanghai. When the first gray streaks of dawn shone through my un-curtained windows my eyes opened automatically to greet the day. Because the area was so urban, it never got really dark, but the brightening of the sky heralding dawn was still distinct enough.
Everyone was glad to see me back and I got scolded about my cold. Er Yang had really started taking a liking to me and giving me grief had practically become a daily ritual. It had all started because one morning my hair was behaving properly for a change and Er Yang greeted me with
“Yin Mu, your hair looks so nice today.”
“It does?” I patted my pony tail self consciously.
“Yeah, it usually looks luan qi ba zao.”
My face was a mask of horror. Luan qi ba zao? I remember learning that phrase in class, it always brought to mind images of my little sister’s room, mountains of clothing in need of being put away, rubbish and drawings strewn everywhere, so much stuff that the room looked more in need of excavating than cleaning. That was how my hair looked? I thought I was doing so well, it was the first time in my life I’d ever grown my hair out past my chin. I brushed it thoroughly each morning and put it back in a pony tail. Sadly, my hair is just too fine to be kept confined by any sort of tie and there were always a few strands straggling out around my face.
Er Yang laughed heartily at my expression and from then on he would greet me every morning with a comment on my hair, usually that it looked a mess. This led to a list of my shortcomings including the neatness of my clothing, my choice of clothing, my lack of make-up, socks, proper shoes etc. Now it was my cold. Why hadn’t I worn more clothes? Now I was sick, wasn’t I ashamed?
I assured them that it was an inconsequential virus and nothing to worry about. That day followed the usual routine as did the next and the one after that. I focused on yin jing during my Shaolin practice and I was impressed by how strong my voice sounded. I felt relaxed and this was the first time I had made a sound approximating what proper yin jing was supposed to sound like. Instead of a high pitched yell, it was a deep belly roar that theoretically would make my assailants think twice before messing with me.
I came back on a Monday. Tuesday was the start of Chanukah. I had gone to the Jewish center to pick up some supplies. They had cheap tin menorahs and candles. They also had Chanukah gelt and dreidels. I snatched up a bunch of everything, my arms brimming with Chanukah goodies like the proverbial child let loose in the candy store. The woman there gave me everything at student prices, which was a relief since that stuff wasn’t too cheap. I wanted to pick up some yarmulkes too, but they refused to sell them to me, because I wanted gentiles to use them.
“Really I just don’t have enough. We loose about ten yarmulkes every Shabbat. People wear them and then just don’t give them back, but I don’t mind, because they are Jewish.”
I was ticked. My friends couldn’t have an authentic experience just because they weren’t Jewish? What sort of attitude was that? I suppose an Hassidic Jewish one. At least I had discovered that there was a bus that left from People’s Square and would drop me right outside of the center. This discovery not only made it more convenient to get to the Jewish center, but infinitely more affordable too. A taxi ride could cost me anywhere from 15-35 RMB depending one where I left from, while the bus only cost me 4. I used this pleasing knowledge to mollify my incensed temper on the way back to my apartment.
Wister and Annie were planning to attend the first night of Chanukah. Annie was Wister’s new girlfriend and a sweeter individual I had never met. She wasn’t pretty, but her personality glowed. Being around her made you want to burst out in smiles.
They came at seven, the earliest they could make it from long hours at work and longer commutes. I spent all evening making fake potato latkes out of mashed potatoes and onions. I ushered everyone to the table and served them more poor attempts at Jewish cooking. No one complained and we all cheerfully chatted. Well, I tried too, but…
“Marjorie, what happened to your voice?”
“I seem to be loosing it, too much shouting in class I suppose.”
“Why didn’t you tell us you were sick?” Asked Wister, “we would have picked up some medicine.”
I gave them that so American shrug that Chinese people can’t read. It had never occurred to me to ask for help. I was sort of enjoying the way my voice cracked. It was a novel experience and I assumed it would return on the next day.
After we finished our dinner, I told the story of Chanukah in English and then again in halting Chinese with a lot of help from Pan’s dictionary. We lit the four flimsy metal menorahs and I then handed out the little presents I had bought for everyone. Pan wanted to give me presents for all eight nights, since I would be doing that for her. I told her not to spend more than 5 or 10 kuai a piece, because that was my budget and I didn’t want this to be a burden on anyone. I learned to be a great bargain shopper from mom, sadly Pan had not, but I politely accepted my glass swizzle stick with a bright smile.
We admired the candles before playing dreidel. The first night is a very modest display. Despite our wealth of menorahs, we were poor in candles, as the first night only sports two candles per menorah, one to represent the first night and one as the shamus. I told them the eighth night was the prettiest. I watched this information register on their faces.
“We want to come back for the eighth night,” Annie stated.
“It’s also my birthday,” volunteered Wister.
“Well then you two have to come back for the eighth night. We’ll make it a particularly special celebration.” I replied.
My voice wasn’t better the next day. In fact, when I woke up in the middle of the night it was so bad I texted my boss Lorne to ask him what to do. He texted back immediately, the man keeps strange hours, and said I could come over anytime to pick up the voice medicine he had, even right at that moment.
I had a nine am class, so I went to his house at seven. His kind offer for me to come the middle of the night seemed scary, and besides I’m cheap and didn’t want to pay the cab fare. Lorne lived near the office in pudong. The medicine in question was a tea consisting of dried cicada shells, nuts that swelled into a gelatinous substance resembling a brain when placed in hot water called pangdahai and garlic peels. He said it was sure to bring back anyone’s voice within in minutes. Since I was already there, he showed me around his opulent apartment. It was furnished in elaborate Western furniture and even had an oven. Ovens are rare in a country where everyone does stovetop cooking and a appliance I had hitherto not seen in China. He was only renting it. I asked why he didn’t buy, but he explained that he was in the middle of a messy divorce and didn’t want to gain assets that could be split. Obviously he didn’t regret the divorce, as he was quick to show me pictures on his computer of his new girl friend. She was younger than me.
I think it’s gross to date someone old enough to be your parent/young enough to be your child. However since Lorne didn’t talk about his girlfriend as a sex object, but instead talked about what a good old fashioned girl she was, I set my morals on the shelf. That’s something I was really starting to learn in China. Back in college, I tended to think of leaving personal morals at the door as something I should do only when reading books, but the more people I met the more I began to think that one shouldn’t go forcing her morals on other people’s behavior. You want to date someone half your age? Ok, just don’t hit on me. Want to smoke your lungs black? Fine, just don’t do it where I have to breathe it in too. And thus I have learned to happily coexist and even be friends with people I would otherwise hold in contempt.
Lorne made me a grilled cheese sandwich, because I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. I hadn’t seen bread or cheese for months. It was good in a sort of mushy, chemical air bread kind of way. I told him I could tell that he was a parent by his cooking skills. He didn’t like that. Maybe it made him feel old, but he was in his forties, even if he hadn’t been a parent of two, which he was, he was certainly old enough to be.
The tea worked well enough. It at least gave me a broken voice to speak with. I drank five or six cups of the stuff everyday. It fortified me enough to teach class and continue to celebrate Chanukah at night.
The second night Xiao Zhang came over. I had met him in the park. He was my youngest friend and in some ways my best, even though I’d only socialized with him half a dozen times. He had been watching our Shaolin practice one morning and I’d offered to teach him. He wasn’t that interested and I wasn’t really interested in him, but he came back the next day and in the course of conversation I discovered he did shuai jiao and Judo. I’d heard of shuai jiao from my empty hand teacher Randal.
During the last martial arts class I attended before I left for China, Randal had given me a long list of recommendations for gongfu to look for in China
“There’s a lot of good bagua there and southern crane. You should try to find one of those, oh and if they’d let you do shuai jiao you’d really enjoy it. It’s traditionally only guys who do it. It’s like wrestling, only there’s no mats. They just slam you onto the floor and you’re supposed to eat it. The only reason I even suggest it is that you’re a girl and hopefully they’d go easy on you.”
And here was someone who practiced shuia jiao! Would he teach me? No, but he’d let me check out his Judo class. He did too. Sadly I didn’t like it at all. They separated it by gender with the girls taking up one half of the gym and the guys the other half. Those boys looked like they were having a great time rolling around on the floor, while the girls were too busy fixing their hair and adjusting their clothes to do anything of the sort. Not my thing. Besides the lady teacher had a washboard stomach! No way I’m doing something where they expect me to be that ripped. I like tossing shisuo, but I’m no bodybuilder.
We became fast friends, Xiao Zhang and I. We both liked to play Chinese chess and since he was a bad player, we were fairly evenly matched. We had fun exchanging ideas on martial arts philosophy, talking about books, language and comparing the social structure of our respective cultures. He had a complex about his height, being only as tall as me, which I found sort of cute along with this high pitched lilt in his voice.
When Xiao Zhang rang the door bell I was surprised at how fat he had become. He was thin last time I saw him and now he was positively chubby. I felt it would be rude to say anything though, so I just ushered him in the door. He was surprised to be the only guest, but with eight nights, I had to stretch people out pretty thin. I made lamb with onions for dinner and he helped me cook them by adding liberal doses of oil to the mix. Usually I made that dish dry, because the lamb fat is enough to keep it from sticking to the pan, but people in Shanghai like to cook with lots of oil.
We did the whole Chanukah thing and he had even brought a present for me! I told everyone not to bother, because my parents had sent me stuff, however the gesture was highly appreciated. Pan was supposed to come, but she was late at work and appeared only after all the ceremony and eating was done. I was hurt at her late arrival, but pleased that she came before my guest had left. This was the first time she had met Xiao Zhang. She treated him totally different than my older friends. She was almost flirtatious, though she later told me it was because he was 18 and she didn’t feel she had to be serious with him.
I had invited Er Yang for a night and told him to bring his friend Da Yang too. But Da Yang begged off, because he had a prior engagement. Er Yang was beside himself with joy that he got to come over to my house. He and Da Yang had followed me home a few days before, so that they would know how to get to my house. I think it was an act of curiosity more than anything. Anyway, he came almost an hour earlier than I had planned. I had dinner prepared, but he insisted we go out to buy some more dishes.
His ancient bike in tow, he took me to the grocery store where he picked out a few cold dishes and a bottle of cheap huang jiu. I’d never had Chinese alcohol before. Over dinner, I ate my foreign food and he ate his Chinese food, but we both had a glass of wine. Drinking together makes Chinese people feel bonded, though honestly I think that could be said about any culture, certainly that’s true in America as well, though at the time I had no experience with such adult rituals. However, I think maybe it’s an even deeper bonding experience in China. The act of consuming alcohol means you are friends and is a time to confide your true feelings. As soon as the meal got under way Er Yang turned to me and said
“You’re the first foreign friend I’ve ever had.”
“zhen de ma?”
“Really, I see foreigners on the train sometimes, but you’re the first
one who has ever spoken Chinese.”
I felt terribly flattered, but suddenly worried “Er Yang, am I very rude?”
“You said I’m your first foreign friend and there are so many times I don’t understand what’s going on. My Chinese isn’t that good yet, so I’m afraid that I must say rude things all the time.”
Er Yang laughed “Don’t be silly. We all know you’re from away. We expect you to make mistakes. We come from different cultures, if there is a problem we have to talk it out. Otherwise how will we understand? You come from America. We are Chinese. We need to talk to understand each other’s culture.”
It was such a nice thing to say I wanted to jump up and hug him, though of course I didn’t.
“You know my daughter is your age. I wanted you to teach her English, but she is so busy looking for a job that she just doesn’t have the time.”
“That’s ok,” I replied dismissing the situation out of hand. I’m happy to teach, but I won’t think badly of someone who doesn’t have the time to learn.
“You know, everyone keeps asking if you have a boyfriend.”
“I don’t.” I answered automatically.
“But I don’t tell them that. They come up when you are practicing and ask me if you are single. I just tell them that I don’t know, but I assume a pretty young maiden like you must be attached.”
“Wait, wait, who keeps asking about me?”
“All the men that pass through the park.”
Ew, most of those men were like in their forties. Thank you Er Yang for looking out for me!
After our quiet meal was finished we moved on to the Chanukah ceremony. Er Yang loved it. He thought very carefully about his choice of candle color and placement, he even chanted the prayer with me. Well, he tried to, at least, Hebrew is not a language that came naturally to him, so the words came out as a garbled string of nonsense. He was flattered to receive presents. You would have thought the Chanukah gelt were real gold coins and that the chopsticks were real silver. What he loved most was the dreidel game. He refused to use his lovely chocolate coins, so I had to get out nuts to use as pieces instead. We played endless rounds of it. He never got bored and quickly memorized the Hebrew characters meanings if not names, but eventually Pan got home and relieved me of the repetitive game.
She was late again and I was disappointed again. Pan had promised that she was going to tell her boss that she had evening engagements all week, but when push came to shove she had not. Today was her first encounter with Er Yang. Since Pan was my roommate he was more than pleased to meet her. When he found out that she worked in PR, the first words out his mouth were a request to help his daughter. She never liked him much after that, it seemed so rude to her.
The other days of Chanukah did not go so well. Pan never came home in time for the ceremony and all the other people I had invited never showed. Lei ping shifu and his wife did not want to venture that far from home, the guys I met on the bus said they were coming and never showed, our landlords begged off because they were too busy, Pan had friends she wanted to invite who were too busy and the last people on my list also never showed.
Those last people in question were Stephen and Julia, whom I had met down in People’s square one day after work. I had been eating an early dinner of refried spring rolls that I had bought from a street vendor. Two people walked through the park gate, a man and a woman. When they saw me sitting there, they ceased their conversation and approached me.
“Excuse me, why are you eating that?” the man asked in slightly British accented English. His tones suggested that no one in their right mind would eat such trash.
“It was cheap, tasty and convenient,” I’d answered simply.
“Ah,” he’d exclaimed in excitement, “I wondered what possessed a foreigner to eat street food.” He then turned to his companion and said something about me in Chinese. I responded to his comment in the same language. He was pleased, but preferred to use English. Our inconsequential conversation continued for a few minutes more interspersed with one insistent question.
“Are you cold?”
“No,” I continuously answered until finally…
“Well I am cold. Would you like to come have dinner with us? I am Stephen and she is Julia.”
Here again was something I would never contemplate doing in the United States, but I felt more comfortable in curious, no private space China. I agreed and we crossed the street to the big department building Raffles, which housed numerous restaurants. I have no idea where we went, I’ve never been back, and we ordered a lot of unfamiliar food. Stephen turned out to hate Japan and spent much time wanting to test his Chinese gongfu to the Japanese karate he was convinced I must practice. He also turned out to be an old Chinese teacher and spent a lot of time correcting my tones or berating me for my lack of listening comprehension.
“It’s not chi bao le. It’s chi bao le. You are using the wrong tone. Furthermore You don’t really understand what we are saying. You are just making assumptions based on the context of the sentence. You are guessing, don’t do that. (worst advice ever, by the way)
“You see Julia is studying English and you are studying Chinese. I am away most of the time, so I can’t teach her all the time. You two should become language partners. You will help Julia with her English and she shall help you with your Chinese. How about it?”
“Ok, how about next Sunday?” I replied complacently
The language lessons didn’t work out so well for Julia. We met at the gates to People’s park and she treated me to a street food lunch. Whenever I went out with either of them they always insisted on paying. We talked a lot, but she was shy about using her English and much more inclined to let me practice my Chinese. Since I really didn’t need to practice English I was fine with this, but it wasn’t helping her improve. She was a nice person, albeit a little dull. We met once more, but when I said I was tired of her canceling plans and suggested that we just make a set time to meet every week she dropped off the face of the earth.
Stephen arranged one more dinner, down on Huanghe road. It is the old restaurant street in People’s Square, each restaurant is housed in a gorgeous building from the 1930’s comprising multiple floors with interior decorations intact, but despite the splendid setting the scenario was pretty much the same as the last time, a lot of food I wasn’t used to and conversation that was difficult to follow punctuated by lectures on my lack of Chinese ability. I remember he was writing out characters for me and I didn’t recognize one. He airily told me in was the traditional version and I must only know simplified. Actually, I was only taught traditional characters in school. I had to learn simplified all on my own and I know for a fact that that was not the traditional character for ren in renshi no matter what he claimed
So that was the last I saw of them. They canceled the Chanukah dinner and I was all alone for four of those nights. I can’t remember if I cried. I was hurt that Pan had promised to spend it with me and hadn’t come through. It was one of the first times I was ever homesick, to be in the midst of such a meaningful holiday and yet so far from all my loved ones, it just didn’t seem right.