I ran into the handsome guy from the bus again. He lived in the same neighborhood as me after all, so it wasn’t that surprising. I got out a pad of paper to tell him I was mute. He read my quickly scrawled characters and said something to the effect of “oh”. After this astoundingly unexciting response, he made a hurried good bye, ran off, and never contacted me again. Maybe he thought muteness was contagious. I wasn’t sad to see the last of him.
The weather had turned bitterly cold all of a sudden. Shanghai is southerly located and according to the thermometer, it never gets very cold, rarely even gets below freezing, but because it is essentially built over marshland, it is very humid. The moisture clings to your skin like a wet cloak and the temperature feels more extreme than you would expect. I’m from Maine and I had never felt such cold. The padded Chinese jackets I had bought at the market were warm, but not enough. My recent illness was attributed to my lack of warm clothing, so Er Yang one morning brought me an entire bag of his daughter’s cast offs and dressed me right there in the park. I ended up every day wearing a pair of thermal underwear, a pair of dance tights, heavy pants, a skirt, a turtle neck, a heavy duty woolen vest and a Chinese padded jacket. When I went outside, yes that was for in the house, I added a jacket, two layers of socks, fingerless gloves, a scarf and a hat. The schools where I taught were unheated and kept the windows open. The temperature dropped so low that it snowed one day and despite my precautions I caught a series of viruses. I spent the whole month of December sick.
The people in the park berated me for not wearing enough clothes and I tried to explain to them that I just wasn’t used to Chinese germs. They didn’t seem to understand the concept of germs. It always ended in a stalemate of “Are you saying China is very dirty?” Well, it is, but no, I’m talking about minuscule viruses that are specific to every region. You know, like the white men conquered the new world, because the current inhabitants were not accustomed to the new germs brought by the foreigners. The concept went right over their heads, but I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised from a country where everyone spits on the street and doesn’t realize the correlation between that and illness.
Pan was always busy with work and I hardly saw her at all. At night I was sometimes feverish, or chilled, or suffering from other cold symptoms. I would huddle under the covers wishing my family was there. It was the first time in my life I had ever been sick and there was no one there to take care of me. I could have picked up my phone at any time and called Er Yang, but it never did occur to me. I just curled up, a small pile of misery, and waited it out.
Eventually life got better. My voice slowly returned and my health improved. It took three weeks instead of one. I had to refill the medicine that looked like little yellow balls a couple times before I was healed. Lorne swore by it. He said his girlfriend was a professional singer and could go from no voice to concert singing in five days on that stuff. It took me much longer, but I really had done a number on my vocal cords.
I took Rahul, the Indian guy who was supposed to go to Hangzhou with me, and his aunt shopping in Shanghai’s biggest bargaining market when I was still only half healed. The aunt was like Rahul, very easy going and funny. I loved going bargaining. It wasn’t so much about the cheap stuff, it was about getting to argue and having a prize at the end. I’ve always enjoyed a good debate. I won my third padded jacket, a deep blue one in a silk-cotton blend that had signs of longevity all over it. Initially the guys in the park liked it, approving of the price and material, but after a bit they changed their mind and decided that they hated it, especially Er Yang. He said the dark color made me look like an old lady. He was right in a way, all the old ladies I saw in the park wore dark padded Chinese jackets. As a young maiden, I was supposed to wear bright colors like red. Not that Er Yang liked my red jacket either. It had cuffed sleeves and a big dragon on it, the symbol of masculine power. He wished I would wear something more feminine. I didn’t really get it, but after having met his daughter I can understand why.
On the third time Pan came to the park with me, Er Yang invited us to his house for lunch. We agreed, though first went home to pick up some fruit. You can’t go to someone’s house empty handed. It is rude beyond words, to some degree that concept is universal.
Er Yang met us at the back gate to the park and walked us to his house. It was quite a hike, especially for Pan who was wearing a silly pair of heels to make her look taller. She was always self conscious about her body. We used to both hop on the scale, her excited if she lost weight and me relieved if I had maintained my weight. With the amount of exercise I was doing, I was afraid of loosing weight and considering I was already pretty slim, I didn’t think that would be healthy.
On the way to his house I got distracted by a street vendor with manga translated into Chinese, I quickly picked up a set of six for five kuai. Er Yang looked at the books at my hand.
“When did you buy those?”
“Did you bargain for them?”
My mouth flapped open a few times as I tried to think how to answer.
“You should have told me you wanted to buy books. You surely paid too much for them. Sa gua!”
I smiled so wide I thought my mouth would split. Being called a fool by him somehow felt like a big compliment. We were good enough friends now that he would comfortably insult me just like anyone else in the park. Sha gua and yatou were two of their favorite disparaging appellations.
While Er Yang and I may have been on good terms, his wife didn’t seem to like me much. She wasn’t particularly talkative, ignoring me aside from the occasional sour glance, but I hardly noticed as Er Yang occupied my whole attention. His daughter was there and her fiancé. She had on dark glasses, because she’d just had an operation on her eyes. I wasn’t surprised, Er Yang was always ragging on me to wear contacts, so it makes sense that he would save up the money to correct his daughter’s vision. The boyfriend looked like the quintessential dork with his high necked preppy sweater, round face and glasses. I was given to understand he came from money. They had already bought an apartment with his savings. An apartment in China is like a wedding ring in the ‘states.
The only Chinese homes I had ever been in before were Lei Ping shifu’s and Pan’s. Lei Ping shifu had invited me to his house for breakfast back on a rainy day in October, when I tried to keep practicing and they all quit on account of weather. His place was a two room cement affaire, with a narrow gauge railroad kitchen in front next to a closet bathroom. The second room was smaller and lower than the first, housing a bed and a Buddhist family shrine. The bigger room had a table, a bed, a TV and a wall of cupboards. Not only was it small, but the entire place was cement and dirty plaster. There was no color or decoration, unless you counted the various practice weapons tied with frayed string to the walls.
Er Yang’s house was nicer. It was on the first floor like Lei Ping shifu’s, but it had a mud room before the kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen was a little larger and the bathroom, while not having a shower, was large enough that it looked like you could sit down to take your sponge bath. Through the kitchen was the daughter’s room, complete with TV, computer and decent sized glass topped table. Through that was a bigger room, with a bed, couch, second TV and more shelves/closets. Past that was a tiny porch. The walls were painted white and had simple crown moldings. The floors were scuffed wood and there was linoleum in the kitchen.
We all crowded around the table, daughter and fiancé sitting on the bed, Pan, Er Yang and I upon chairs. Under the table’s glass top were various pictures of Er Yang. I mistakenly thought the ones of him with black hair were from when he was younger, though it turned out he had just dyed his hair. I was very curious to see what he had looked like when he was my age. There was a shisuo picture from a couple years before I came, everyone sitting on a big shidan in white pants and red tank tops. Er Yang, at my request, took me into the master bedroom to show me his wedding photo, the only picture he had from when he was young. For someone who was such a handsome older man, he had not been an attractive younger one. The photograph was shot when he was thirty and his face was ridiculously narrow. His teeth were big and bucked, his beautiful almond eyes looked so large as to be buggy and his ebony hair made his skin look overly pale. He definitely was someone who looked better as he aged. I could not say the same for his wife. In the photograph she was round faced and smiley, a far cry from the drawn, sour, woman who had greeted me at the door.
Lunch was a feast of things too strange for me to want to eat. I liked restaurant food, but I wasn’t so sure about the home cooking. Shanghai food is sweet and often very bland, this combined with the fact that most of the dishes were cold from having sat out a long time, did not make my mouth water with anticipation. Er Yang was in host mode, which meant he spent most of his time plopping tidbits down on my plate. I was used to this and took it as the sign of affection that it was. His daughter was horrified, she told her father that I was American and surely would be offended. My dad puts food on my plate all the time, as I often told Pan, I’m not American, I’m Jewish. I come from a culture where there’s a special word for two people sleeping in a bed so small that they have to put their feet by the other person’s head. I love touching and sitting close. People scolding me to eat is par for the course. Personal questions don’t bother me, what do I have to hide? Announcing one’s business in the bathroom is instinctual. I’ve always maintained Chinese and Jewish cultures are quite similar.
I kept telling the daughter that I didn’t mind, I actually liked it. Er Yang mostly ignored his daughter anyway. Pan just sat back and enjoyed the show. I ended up shouting at Er Yang that I was full full full. His response, prompted by Pan, was that if I had chi bao le, I had yet to he bao le. In other words if I had eaten my fill, I certainly hadn’t drunk it yet. At which point I gave up and drank some chicken foot soup. He also served me mulled huang jiu, which tastes even better than room temperature yellow wine. In general, I far prefer Chinese wine, because its alcohol content is minimal and thus the taste is smoother.
I wanted to take advantage of Pan’s presence to pick Er Yang’s brain. I had known him for a few months now and I wanted confirmation that he had thought I was crazy when he first met me. She said no, but after more badgering I realized that Er Yang didn’t even remember me prior to that first day he brought me to the shisuo grounds.
After four hours the meal concluded and Er Yang escorted us to the door. We took a cab home to save our aching bodies and spinning heads the trial of walking back to our apartment. It was so cold in his house that my feet had frozen to the point of insensitivity.
When we got home Pan asked me
“Who do you think is better looking Er Yang or Da Yang?”
“Da Yang.” I said without thinking.
“Really? Chinese people think Er Yang is better looking. He looks like an aristocrat while Da Yang looks like a farmer with his dark skin and flat nose.”
“Yeah, but Da Yang has his own teeth,” albeit crooked and yellowed, “Er Yang has no teeth. How can a man be handsome with no teeth?”
“But he has a nice figure, well both of them do really.”
I can’t believe we were discussing men the age of our fathers in such ways, but I assumed maybe Chinese people don’t consider looks to be as sexualized as the U.S. I still really can’t answer that.
“But when they open their mouths they’re like opposites.” Pan continued. “Da Yang sounds so intelligent and Er Yang sounds very coarse.”
She had a point, poor slightly cross-eyed Da Yang could be the poster boy for Chinese peasant, but he spoke like Shakespeare while Er Yang had the face of royalty and the speech patterns of a thug. It was sometimes hard to believe that these two men were best friends. Er Yang was Mr. Emotional and Da Yang was Mr. Tough Guy. On the other hand it was a great combination of personalities to have for teachers.