In Which the School Year Ends, I go to a concert, have marriage proposed to me and learn how to stave off unwanted company.
The school year came to a close. I tested all the students, was pleased to find out how much some of them had learned and shocked at how little others had absorbed. Such is probably the lot of most teachers. The tests were oral. I called the students into the teacher’s lounge in groups of three and asked each one the typical questions we had in class: What is your name? How old are you? What color is this? Is this long or short? How many rooms are in your house? What do you like to do?
I took pictures of some of my favorite pupils. I had one kid who refused to talk. I discovered from a teacher that he was British and thus had perfect English. I suspected he didn’t want to talk in my class, because he didn’t want the other kids to tease him for being a brainiac, so when it came time to test him I gave him questions he could answer with nods, shakes and hand shapes. I had a favorite little girl, who wanted to win the candy prize for best group quite fervently. Her strategy was to bop her rebellious male partners on the heads when they acted out of line. She was so bossy, so determined and such a good student. I never had to discipline her group.
Picking up my pay check was hard. I was leaving for Japan, soon after classes finished. Pay day was supposed to be nearly a week before I left, but they said they were having trouble with the banks and wanted to push it back a few days. I was less than pleased. They owed me a lot of money and I wanted it safely in my account. In the end I walked to the bank, watched the man with his insanely long comb-over withdraw the money and took it from him then and there. Corneil just wasn’t as good a company as the other one. The other company gave me a sheet of paper showing the time I’d put in, the amount of money I was getting and had me sign. They then would run the money through a counting machine to show that they were paying me fairly. Corneil just handed me the wad of pink bills and let me do the calculating. And they took taxes! This was the first time I’d ever been taxed directly. The other company paid my taxes for me. I was not happy about any of it, but at least it was over, I had a wad of eight hundred 100 yuan bills tucked into my belt and I no longer had anything to do with that company, between the taxes and all those silly clauses in the contract about ways they could dock my pay, I wasn’t sure I had as much as they owed me. However I had a considerable amount, enough to tide me over until work started again in a couple months and I was through with them, this was satisfying in itself.
A few more things of note happened before I hopped a plane to the island country of the rising sun. One was that Da Yang took me to a senior citizens performance as soon I stopped teaching at Corneil. We met at the park as per usual; I’d forgotten that the performance was that morning. I didn’t have time to go back and change, so I ended up wearing my white gongfu shirt and the threadbare dance tights I had been wearing under my matching gongfu pants. Da Yang said I looked fine. This was, of course, after he had buttoned and re-buttoned my coat until it suited his taste. I had long ago gotten used to Chinese male hands absently thwacking my bosom for emphasis or buttoning clasps in places Western men would think it rude to put their hands.
We took a taxi using my magic transport card. Da Yang seemed to be under the misimpression that it was my company that paid for the transportation card, and in his mind company money was free money. We ended up somewhere near Xinzha road. I stopped for a snack and Da Yang was horrified that I paid for it myself. He always took my transport card, so that it looked like he was the one paying and never let me hand cash to anyone. Chivalry must be upheld.
They were handing out free oats at the theatre. Da Yang picked up two bundles of them, all of which he gave to me. He liked showing me off to the people there as his star tudi. I remember one woman looked at me and said “So you’re Yin Mu? I thought you were a boy!” This is what I get for doing a man’s martial arts and having a genderless name.
The concert consisted of everything I saw in the park everyday, only practiced and thus naturally better. I saw some of my buddies from the park, who were thrilled at my presence. The seats were narrow, so that Da Yang was practically sitting on top of me and could easily whack my arm for emphasis as he talked. He talked through most of the performance and old friends would come up to chat with us during the show. The performers were pretty good, though I didn’t care for the long and onerous speeches before each piece. Happily we spent little time paying attention to the stage.
The oats turned out to be more memorable than the performance. I was making oat pancakes all the way through May. Pancakes were about the easiest thing I could make without an oven. Other dishes, with meat and vegetables, required a lot of time chopping and washing. In the end the meals always ended being more expensive than eating out. Pancakes however merely required me buying a small carton of milk and eggs and mixing the ingredients up in a bowl, relatively little hassle and little money. The oats gave it more volume than just flour.
The second event of note was New Year’s. Not Chinese New Year’s, but the Western one. Chinese people like New Year’s and pretty much start celebrating it from December 31st on. Lei Ping shifu called me up on that very auspicious day. I didn’t realize he even still had my phone number. I’d given him a name card way back when, but as he’d professed to being illiterate I had thought he’d thrown it away. I knew he was inviting me over that day, but was confused about the time. He wouldn’t give me a specific hour, just something vague about lunch time. I ended up appearing at noon, which by Western standards seemed logical enough.
I came laden with a couple of big grape fruits and was surprised to see his tiny house teaming with people. They had set up a big round table in the small back room, which was now packed with human beings, who I were given to understand were his children. The little guy from the park was there as well. I had stopped thinking of him as the Short Guy a while ago and starting thinking of him as Mr. Ego. It had become clear to me that he picked on the lesser students because he was insecure and drew confidence from other people’s lack of ability.
Lei Ping shifu’s children all had smooth unlined faces. Here I had thought it was Lei Ping shifu’s gongfu that kept him young, when, no, it was actually just good genes. It made a lot more sense. I had never been impressed with his skill and the idea that he didn’t have hidden powers, but was simply gifted with a young looking body was fitting.
Everyone was very chatty that day, probably due to the amount of wine flowing. I was only beginning to fully calibrate my Chinese to the Southern accents and accustom myself to all the new vocabulary, which made conversation halting, but doable. I ate my food slowly as I listened to the buzz around me and answered questions to the best of my ability.
The food was a lot better than the stuff I’d had at homes before, I think because Lei ping shifu’s family was from the mid-west, not Shanghai. They even had real spring rolls, which I suddenly realized were called that because you eat them on Spring Festival. Mr. Ego, didn’t like the food. He said he didn’t enjoy meat, and proceeded to simply pick at the vegetable dishes and drink copious amounts of bai jiu. I had a shot glass of the stuff in front of me. It wasn’t as bad as Western alcohols, but it sure wasn’t good either. It was candy sweet and burned its way down my throat. I sipped it only when I had to.
The family was welcoming and Lei ping shifu showed his gratitude for my Chanukah gifts by using the chopsticks and bowl I had given him. Lei Ping shifu drank enough to drown a moderately sized water buffalo, but Mr. Ego merrily imbibed enough to drown an elephant of healthy proportions. No one was surprised that he became boisterously drunk. Though I was taken aback that I became the object of his tipsy attentions.
“Yin Mu, you are my shimei and I am your shixiong. Do you know what that means? You are my meimei, little sister, and I am your gege, big brother, because Lei shifu is our father in common. We are siblings and our bond is very important. You need to promise to do anything you can to help your big brother.” He informed me with drunken seriousness.
“I will do anything I can,” I answered cautiously.
Mr. Ego laughed and proceeded to spill out his life story He was the youngest brother of a big family in the southwest, Yunan I thought at the time, though now now it was Guangxi. The parents were both educators and all the other children had grown up to be very successful. Mr. Ego was the dumb one. He hadn’t done well in school. In the end he ran away and came to the big city where he was employed as a cook. The pay was terrible. He wanted to go to America where the streets were paved with gold and the skies rained manna from heaven.
The meal came to a close and people switched to drinking tea. Not Mr. Ego though, he liked his booze and was proud of how well he supposedly held it. Most of the children started clearing out of the room, until suddenly I found myself alone, sitting on the bed we’d been using as a bench, next to Mr. Ego.
“You’re my shimei and should do anything you can for me.” He repeated.
“I want to go to America.”
“If I marry an American, Lei shifu says I can live in America.”
“You have an older sister right? Why don’t you let me marry her?”
“Uh, Zheng Qing, I don’t think that would work out.”
“She doesn’t want to get married.”
“Because she doesn’t like men.”
“Because she thinks they are hen mafan.”
“We’re not mafan!” He bellows in an obnoxious way that pretty much defines mafan.
“It just wouldn’t work out.”
“Well, do you have any cousins?”
“Yeah,” I answered honestly, my life would be much easier if I was good at lying. “But they are all much older than me. Most of them are in their thirties or forties.”
“Oh, well that doesn’t work. What about your friends?”
“I have lots, but none of them speak Chinese.”
“Actually three of them speak Chinese.”
He started to perk up.
“But one of them is fat, another doesn’t speak so well, but the third is really good.”
He started to get excited and I panicked.
“But she’s ugly, you wouldn’t like her, she looks like a boy.”
I felt a bit bad maligning Trish’s character, but I knew she didn’t want a mail order husband. Later when I related the incident to her, she told me I had permission to say she was ugly as a monkey’s ass if it was effective.
He lost all interest in Trish after that.
“What about a servant for your family? I could be the family cook. I clean too.”
“Zheng Qing, we’re not that rich.”
“How about hiring me as a gongfu teacher? You’ll get married soon and then I could teach your sons martial arts.”
Ok, could he get anymore insulting?
“Are you sure your sister wouldn’t be interested?” I gave an emphatic nod. “Well, I suppose I could always marry you and then we could get it annulled after a little time.”
Hey, am I that unattractive? Ok, so he doesn’t like strong women and I wouldn’t want to marry him anyway, but still!
“I don’t think that would work.”
“Let me marry your sister!”
This refrain went on for quite some time. I kept saying no. He would insist that since I was his shimei I should do this for him and I kept shrugging my shoulders. He had no idea what it meant, but it was the only gesture I could think to make.
Some family members came back to check on how our little tete a tete was going. I was furious by this point. Lei ping shifu had already tried to set me up with Mr. Ego and I had already said I wasn’t interested. Mr. Ego must have felt the same way and so Lei ping shifu told him about the green card. What a conniving, manipulative trick
to pull. I was going home!
But a young lady can’t depart without an escort. Last time I’d been over at the house it was a surly grandson who saw me down the block, this time it was drunken Mr. Ego who staggered with me down the street. I was so cold I wasn’t walking so good myself. My feet were frozen into little ice blocks due to the unheated basement conditions of Lei Ping Shifu’s home. I wasn’t sure where he lived, but we decided to take a short cut through the park to the newly opened metro station. It was a big deal that now the subway ran all the way out to our neighborhood. It cut my travel time to People’s Square down to fifteen minutes.
Mr. Ego turned out to be a tenacious fellow, that’s probably why his martial arts are so good. He kept asking why he couldn’t marry my big sister or become a family servant. At one point he decided to prove to me his martial prowess by beating up some poor guy walking down the street. I pulled him off the confused stranger and bodily hauled him away. I apologized profusely, explaining that my companion was drunk. I had a three o’clock appointment with Rahul down town, but he called me to say that something else came up. I said that was fine, because I was currently in a predicament myself. I got Mr. Ego down the marble steps into the glossy new subway, but I couldn’t get him to buy a ticket or go through the turnstile. I was at a loss. Lei Ping shifu had given Mr. Ego my phone number and he started ringing it to see if the number was correct, watching my face intently to see if I’d pick up my ringing cell. In the end, I just left him there sprawled on the polished floor by the orderly new ticket windows and went home.