Chapter 13: In which I attend many New Year’s feasts
Pan told me not to expect to be invited anywhere. Spring Festival was a very important family event and not one that people invite random friends to. I think she had underestimated the strength of the bonds I had formed. Er Yang had started planning weeks before that I should go to his house for New Year’s. Lei Ping shifu had also invited me back to his place. The couple I had met in Hangzhou wanted me to visit during the holiday and I expected that Da Yang would also extend his hospitality.
In the end I almost had to choose between Pan and Er Yang, because they wanted me over on the same night. I was inclined to go with Er Yang, though my parents told me that Pan’s was the older friendship and thus the more important one, though I felt that Er Yang’s was the deeper one. In the end, I didn’t have to choose, because Er Yang had mixed up his dates. He didn’t want me there for New Year’s Eve, but the first full day of it, the 9th not the 8th. So it all worked out.
Going to Pan’s house for the evening was ok. I don’t like her mother’s cooking, but I had spent the Full Moon festival there too and so was familiar with the surroundings. We ate, talked, rested a bit and then I went home. Pan had been at her parents for a few days and intended to stay there a bit longer, so I returned to our apartment alone.
At noon the next day I went to Er Yang’s house. I had put on my best shirt, the hot pink one with the gold trim, floral boarders and unusual cut. I had had it made at the tailor, it cost a fortune, over 300 kuai, but everyone loved it and it was unique. I had modeled it after an old photograph I had seen at Lei Ping shifu’s house, but not knowing enough about how traditional clothes worked, had failed to mention the clasp system. The tailor attached weak snaps, which came undone when under stress. The little kids loved it when the teacher’s clothing came unpinned during class, but it was hardly appropriate and distracting to boot. We had added a Chinese button to the bottom, but if I had known better, I would have insisted on three plain pink frogs running down the left side instead of just the one at the bottom. Since I couldn’t very well run around in a shirt and nothing else, I had on my long pink and red skirt that Er Yang disparagingly said made me look like some Chinese ethnic minority, the lipstick I only trotted out for special occasions and freshly brushed hair, not that it even stayed neat long enough for me to get to my destination.
I liked the effect of the lipstick, it didn’t just emphasize my full lips, it brought out the natural roses in my cheeks and the dark lashes that frame my eyes, however it didn’t last very long and I’m not the sort of female who will run to the bathroom all the time to primp. At least it lasted just long enough for Er Yang to comment on before fading away.
I took a cab, because I didn’t think I could retrace the route. The whole family was home plus a neighbor from upstairs. Er Yang had told me that his wife didn’t like me because I didn’t call her aiyi. Of course I hadn’t, I had no idea what was polite to call her and since in post-communist China spouses don’t have the same last name ‘Mrs. Yang’ wasn’t going to cut it. I still wasn’t positive I was supposed to be calling Er Yang Er Yang, so I asked him about these polite appellations when he informed me of my rudeness. He said he should be shushu and his wife aiyi. Pan laughed when I told her this and said he was too old for that, though I can’t imagine calling him yeye. He was far closer in age to my uncles than my grandfather.
When I finished wrestling off my shoes in the minuscule mud room, Er Yang gave me a significant look. It’s now that I should call his wife aiyi, but my voice caught in my throat and I simply flapped my jaws like a fish out of water. I did manage to call her that all important name sometime over dinner and she seemed mildly pleased, though my timing was obviously far from perfect. I noticed that the table now sported as many pictures with me in them as anyone else. Er Yang had placed the shot I took of us tossing shisuo, the one Pan had snapped at Chanukah and the one from the outing in Hongkou all under the glass table top. The present I had given him for Chanukah resided in a place of honor on the bookshelf. Over his bed was a drawing I had crafted out of some rough colored pencils and a piece of old stationary, depicting a young woman dancing in moonlit water to show him that I really could draw. The guys in the park were always doubting the abilities I claimed I had, but had not actually shown them.
Er Yang’s daughter looked much better this time. Her eyes were totally healed from the operation and her face was freed from its sunglass prison. Now she was in her tight trendy clothes with her tinted brown hair coifed perfectly. What a contrast we made, her the quintessential mainstream beauty and me in my shapeless old fashioned jacket, mainly unpainted face and flyaway hair. I was a far cry from his real daughter who he seemed to be constantly comparing me to, on the other hand, I was the daughter who did gongfu. A perfect lady would never endanger her hands by engaging in such rough work. And so I thought perhaps there was an advantage to being a tomboy after all.
The day’s feast was even grander than the one I had partaken of on my last visit. Most of the food was unidentifiable except for the cucumber salad, sticky stuffed lotus root and traditional chicken soup complete with chicken head lolling over the side. I ate enough to be full, but not enough to satisfy Er Yang. He kept telling I practiced gongfu, I was expected to eat a lot and drink a lot.
There were days when I felt like I was in Water Margin, the classic Chinese epic about martial artists who live on the edge of society, killing the foolish and defending the wise. That book is all about drinking, eating and displaying martial prowess. It has sometimes been referred to as China’s Robin Hood, though I think that only applies if Robin Hood spent have his time with a hangover. I didn’t agree with the morals of Water Margin, but it seemed exemplify the Chinese gongfu stereotype. Besides I was using a dadao in the park now. That was the weapon of choice in Water margin. I wasn’t about to go out and fight tigers barehanded on two jugs of baijiu, but I did feel pretty cool.
After the main feasting was over I talked with Er Yang’s neighbor a bit. I got the usual “You’re Yin Mu, I thought you were a boy!” response. We chatted a lot about internal martial arts. He practiced Shinyi. I was learning that all Chinese men over the age of fifty have probably practiced some sort of martial art. Even the man who worked at the book rental shop next to my house had done something when he was young. It must have seemed important at the time when the world was so unstable. Now everyone studied English. Parents weren’t worried about their children being inadequate fighters, but ones who could not succeed in a global economy.
Sometimes the knowledge that all these men could do gongfu scared me. I remember one time Pan and I had tried to go to a Beijing duck restaurant. I’d had a craving for it ever since I got back from the North. She found a place that was supposed to be part of a chain of the most famous restaurants in Beijing. It was near the train station, which was convenient. Pan worked late and got there a half hour after our planned meeting time. That was ok. The amazingly long amount of time it took us to get our food was not. Pan complained that this was the problem with a no tipping system. Waitresses had no incentive to be good. When the duck came it was over cooked, greasy and dry, not to mention expensive. We ate our less than excellent meal and caught a cab back to our apartment.
That was when everything went seriously wrong. We were happily chatting until I realized that we really should have been home by then. The taxi was trying to rip us off. We grew quiet and watched it circle our neighborhood three times. We should have said something, but instead we were curious to see how much he was going to try to scam us for. It was 25 kuai, more than a ride from down town should cost us. We called the cab driver on it when he finally stopped at our house. We told him we would give him15, which was a fair price.
Up until this moment, I think he had assumed we were a couple of foreign tourists. Pan always spoke English with me and she preferred to use Common tongue instead of Shanghai hua when conversing in Chinese, so it was logical to assume we were from away. When our cab driver realized we had no intention of paying the number on the meter, he started shouting dirty words at us in the local dialect. I wanted to run. If we were in a seedy part of New York this would be the point where he pulled out a gun and shot us. Pan was unafraid, she shouted obscenities right back, or at least defended our honor, I can’t remember anymore. I started dragging on her arm.
“Pan this is not a good idea. That guy probably knows gongfu, he’s over fifty.”
“So what, you can toss 40 join. You could take him.”
Strength is a funny thing that way. It gives one such an illusion of safety, however I’ve always been a practical soul. I know that no matter how strong I get there will always be someone stronger. Most of my buddies in the park could toss over 70. Besides, power is only good if you know how to wield it and 3 years of martial arts makes me no expert. I checked the locks twice on the door that night.
To return to the New Years, I finished up my day at Er Yang’s with picture taking and then made my way home. I was freezing again. Nobody used the heat in their houses. If you waited too long to drink your tea, there would practically be a sheen of ice on it. The general theory was that if it was above freezing then you could take it. This is why they claim Northerner’s are weaker than Southerner’s, because while the temperatures are more extreme in the north, they heat their houses.