Chapter 12: In Which I return, join a drinking party, hold a birthday party and get sick.
When I got back to Shanghai everyone was very excited to see me, most of all my house plants. This isn’t to say other people were uninterested in my return, rather it should relay to you the dire state that my plants were in. I found every potted plant wilted in its bed. The dirt was bone dry, so I quickly added water to each pot. When I asked Pan why the pots hadn’t been watered, she looked startled and said “What plants?” I am not the paramount of vegetable care myself, but at least I realized we had plants. Da Yang had given us a poinsettia for the winter season. His next gift was a spritzer bottle so that we might keep it well watered. When that died he gave us an aloe vera plant, purportedly because their pulp was good for young ladies’ fair complexion, but I suspect more because they are nigh indestructible. After all I had proven myself to be an unfit plant caretaker over that break!
When I returned to the park for the first time after my trip I was met with a shower of smiles and cheers. People shook my hand and patted my back in greeting.
“It’s so good to have you back,” Lao Wang immediately told me. “While you were gone Er Yang had no energy. He and Da Yang had asked every single day when you were coming home. Er Yang hasn’t tossed a thing since you left.”
“It was just like before you came to Shanghai,” Lao He commented.
“What?” I said, startled.
“He was depressed. He barely ever threw a shisuo.” Lao Wang volunteered.
“That first day you came to the shisuo park was the first time I’d tossed 70 jin in months.” Er Yang laughed.
Proving that my presence gave him energy, he made me toss 50 jin with him that day. I was well rested after Japan, no sore muscles or residual colds, and I managed it with little trouble. Ok, a lot of grunting, sweating and grimacing, but as easy as tossing something at the edge of your ability gets.
Since the cold weather had set in, I’d begun wearing fingerless gloves to touch the cold stone. I didn’t have impervious sandpaper hands like Er Yang and the frigid stone was painful. By this point the cheap gold cotton had worn away into perfect holes placed over each callus on my palm. I’m glad skin regenerates, because I’d hate to think of holes being worn into my actual hands. I had to replace them with a new fuzzy green angora pair that the guys all said I should make the Yangs pay for. It was their fault I had the calluses after all.
They asked me if I was free the next day. I couldn’t quite understand what the occasion was, but they wanted me back at the shisuo hut around noon. Following my general policy for when I didn’t understand what exactly was being asked, I said “hao de” and figured I would see what happen. So the next day after I had changed out of my muddy park clothes and put on a more attractive outer layer, sent off my obligatory e-mails and made my daily phone calls home, I returned to the park. Da Yang was there, Er Yang, Lao He and two other people who I didn’t readily recognize beyond the general appellation of shixiong were also present. I thought one of them might have been the guy who’d escorted me to the post office. There was a little feast laid out on our stained tea table. Boiled swan, peanuts, cold beef and other similar treats were spread out amidst a forest of alcohol. I spied huang, bai and putao jiu. Being the foreigner, they served me the red wine, which was hardly alcoholic and tasted as nasty as grape juice. Most of them drank yellow wine, except Da Yang who stuck strictly to Pepsi. He had suffered from a seizure a few years ago and could no longer process alcohol.
The meal went as all meals in China do, a lot of chatting, laughing, teasing and eating. The difference today was that instead of everyone insisting I eat an insane amount of food, they wanted me to drink myself silly instead. I had professed to having never been drunk and they seemed to feel that this was a good time for me try it. I’m rather proud of having never been intoxicated and it has always offended me that other people question my ability to know my own limits, so I had no intentions of getting soused that day.
“Don’t worry, we’ll walk you home!” they kept telling me.
“I don’t want to get drunk!” I emphatically told them.
“Sing for us!”
“You don’t want to hear me sing. I sing horribly.”
They foolishly seemed to believe that if they got me to drink enough I would sing for them. Yeah right. Even Da Yang, who usually warned me about the evils of alcohol was cheering for the other team. Everyone wanted to hear an American song and everyone knows Americans sing when drunk. After all it must be true, they had seen it on television.
I wasn’t stupid. I realized I had to lift the glass to my lips every time we toasted, but I didn’t have to gulp down the contents. Most times I simply wetted my lips. That said, we were there for so long I actually consumed the entire small bottle of nasty red wine through my china doll sipping. I had hoped when the red wine was gone they would cease their antics, but they simply filled my glass with huang jiu, which I happily managed to knock over. Everyone gave me a lot of grief about that.
“But I knock over my tea cup all the time!” I protested.
“That’s tea this is wine. Tea is cheap, it’s just water. We paid money for this stuff.” Er Yang lectured me.
Ooops, and here it seemed like such a perfect solution to not wanting to drink it. Lao He managed to get himself totally tipsy in his endeavors to get me inebriated. He commented on the fact with his funny little halting laugh that he usually trotted out for self deprecating comments about his age. Lao He hardly ever practices. He just sits there and drinks tea. I tease him about it quite frequently.
“I’m too old.” He always answers.
“55 is not old!” I counter, but he never seems to believe me.
While they never managed to get me drunk, they did get me to sing a little. One of them was butchering the tune of Yankee Doodle so badly that I thought I should show them how it goes. If you know me, you’re laughing now, because I can hardly carry a tune myself. They listened solemnly to my child’s refrain before I gave up in embarrassment.
The Yangs walked me part of the way home until I assured them that I truly wasn’t drunk and could make it up to my apartment on my own. We were becoming good enough friends that these important, but rather exhausting courtesies were no longer becoming necessary. Er Yang swatted me on the butt and they both wished me well. I trotted off thinking that Er Yang had drunk more than I suspected.
Soon after our luncheon decadence it was time for my birthday party. My birthday is on February 9th, which in the year 2005 was the first day of Spring Festival. It was very cool to have my 24th birthday, on the first day of Chinese new year’s, because that year was my year. However as magical a coincidence as it may have been, it did create a problem in terms of celebrating. I couldn’t hold a birthday party during chun jie, because everyone would be too wrapped up in their family traditions to attend, so the only solution was to have it at a different time. I decided to have it earlier. I picked a date in late January. I wanted to make it at time that everyone could make, but Pan had to be away on business and if I pushed the date back further then Er Yang couldn’t make it and it was less convenient for others. I promised Pan I’d hold another party a little later. After all there were other people who couldn’t make it to the first party. I played around with a rather large list of people, but in the end I invited Er Yang, Da Yang, Rahul, Xiao Zhang, Wister and his girlfriend. Yang Ling and the friend of the guy I met on the bus were added to the list, but neither of them could make it. Annie, Wister’s girlfriend, couldn’t make it either, so it was an all male party. Da Yang and Xiao Zhang came over early to help me cook. Too many cooks in the kitchen makes Yin Mu feel hostile and claustrophobic, so I set Da Yang up with a movie and let Xiao Zhang help in the kitchen. Er Yang appeared and I also plunked him down in front of the TV to watch Gongfu Hustle. I have a low opinion of Hong Kong films, but it’d been in the theaters and anything with fighting tended to make them happy. Besides it was dubbed in the appropriate dialect. Da Yang is a fast reader, but Er Yang is barely literate, so all my Chinese subtitled movies were out.
I made two kinds of rice with ground meat, some noodle dishes and fried sweet potatoes. I finished the cooking earlier than expected and the movie had ended, so Er Yang suggested we play more Dreidel. Da Yang was a stick in the mud when it came to games and only watched the three of us play. When we grew bored of Dreidel we moved on to Pickup Sticks. Er Yang was incredibly steady and put Xiao Zhang and I to shame. The games came to an end as my cell phone started ringing.
Wister called to say that he was on his way. Rahul called to say he couldn’t come and then rang the bell. Not my favorite kind of joke, but at least he appeared. It was a strange gathering, half old, half young, all male, mostly Chinese, but foreign enough to make conversation halting. Rahul didn’t speak any Chinese, so I was his personal window to all conversation. We gave him the Chinese name Lao Hu, since it sounded like his Hindi name and meant tiger. I had provided no alcohol, which Er Yang found very remiss and brought down some moonshine he had given me when I was first sick. He drank some and gave poor Rahul a shot too. I didn’t blame the poor boy for making a face. That stuff had been sitting on my shelf for months, mainly because it puts new meaning to the word “rotgut”, 60 proof and redolent, the nasty taste of home brewed bai jiu.
I received a motley assortment of presents, fruit from Er Yang, flowers from Da Yang, really expensive chocolates from Rahul (Chocolates in China are mostly imported and grocery stores literally keep them under lock and key), a restaurant guide from Wister and a toy Doreamon from Xiao Zhang.
The noodles went mostly untouched, though they inhaled the rice dishes. The cake was chestnut flavored and really not to my taste. I’m not sure it was that good, because no one seemed to eat overly much of it. On the other hand, while Shanghai people love sweet things, they aren’t big Western pastry fans. Fun was had by all and as the clock ticked past 9pm everyone departed. I felt like I was starting to come down with another damn cold and hunkered off to bed without even cleaning up.
The next morning I was both exhausted and sick. When I made my appearance in the park both Yangs were horrified. They were so used to me now that they could just watch the way I walked down the path and know if I was in good health. My lethargic movements must have been quite the dramatic contrast to the bouncing gait I usually affected. When I admitted that I still hadn’t dealt with the remains of last night’s party, they insisted on coming over and making my house right.
I was practically in tears, I was so grateful to them. In a whirlwind of efficiency they swept my floors, cleaned the dishes, scrubbed pots, took out the trash and made everything perfect. They told me how good the rice dishes had been and how tasteless the noodles were. I was a bit concerned by that, but mostly just relieved by their help. They told me they were finished cleaning my house and that now it was time that I got lots of sleep. As they changed back into their outdoor shoes I said to them,
“In America, when you are really grateful to someone you give them a hug. May I hug you too?”
Da Yang, for the first time ever in our acquaintance was speechless. Er Yang took the reigns.
“Yeah, well when we’re in America, you can hug us.”
It was his way of saying when hell froze over. Neither of them believed my promises that I would save up money so that they could have a trip to my home country. And that appeared to be all there was to say on the subject.
At least in Er Yang’s mind, Da Yang kept bringing it up. In the park the next day everyone was teasing him about it. I’m not sure why he’d even told them.
“Come on, the foreigner wants to hug you. Let her hug you!” They heckled.
“I can’t let her do that,” he protested then turning to me. “In China hugging is very sexual. It is something that only lovers do. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to hug you. You’re my daughter.”
The other men laughed and jeered away. Like light being brought abruptly to a hitherto undisturbed patch of deep forest it dawned on me what the problem was. But I had more to think about than glaring social faux pas; Spring Festival was coming.