“When a friend comes from afar, is that not delightful?” – Confucius
有 朋 自 远 方 来， 不 亦 乐 乎?
We met in the small air-conditioned lobby of the hotel that afternoon. You could see the look of surprise on his face as he stepped forward to awkwardly shake my hand as we posed for the obligatory photo. He didn’t smile. He struck me as a shy boy, someone who probably spoke very little in normal circumstances. The fact that I was a girl just made the silence all the more complete. I was ushered to the red family Nisan and ceremoniously placed in the back seat, my belongings carried for me and placed gingerly in the trunk. His mother (I called her A-yi) slid into the front seat and pulled into traffic in what seemed like a single motion. Already exhausted from the display in the lobby and the morning’s full day of Chinese lessons, I was glad to have the backseat to myself. I stared out the window as we weaved in and out of traffic, dodging bicyclists and the crazy Chinese on motorcycles. (This may imply that she was a poor driver but I am more referring to the flow of Chinese big city traffic. Stop lights are only a suggestion and apparently they don’t apply to everyone.) Like this:
There were occasional bursts of unintelligible chatter from the front seat as the boy and his mother exchanged words. In hindsight I think that A-yi was encouraging the boy to talk to me, but he didn’t yield and finally, in parental exasperation (a special kind, I’m told), she switched on the radio. It was mostly a steady stream of undistinguishable pop songs. A commercial repeated at almost every commercial break gave a phone number and I was proud of myself for finally being able to distinguish words from what before sounded like an old garbled TV set. Líng, èr, san, ba, qì, liù…. I made the hand motions to myself as the woman shouted at me from the speaker in the door.
We exited the highway and pulled down a small side street, making a left into a gated neighborhood. The paradox of the view with the implied wealth of the gate struck me. The dozens of high rises looked old and dingy. Like many construction projects in China, they seemed half-finished, the bare bones assembled and then abandoned for the next nondescript utilitarian rectangle. I was busy taking in the details as A-yi honked at the mothers with strollers walking down the narrow streets, their toddlers waddling beside them with giant holes in their pants, asses bare. (Instead of using disposable diapers, young children simply wear crotchless pants so that they may defecate anywhere. Apparently this is common practice and, if you ask me, super gross.)
We parked in an area I was sure we weren’t supposed to next to the building they lived in and walked inside. The motion-censored light on the ground floor was broken and once the heavy metal door slammed shut behind us, the only source of light was a thin rectangular window. The smell of urine was unmistakable as it confronted me when the elevator doors dinged open. We stepped inside; my hand involuntarily covered my mouth as A-yi pressed 25 and all eyes in the elevator turned to look at me. A short, round, bald man in a loose-fitting, stained, sleeveless white shirt took particular interest in me, quizzing A-yi about me. Alternatively he would fire off rapid Chinese, getting steadily louder as each floor dinged past, his tone difficult to read and then become silent. At each break as my A-yi answered, he would turn to look at me and smile, utterly unable to communicate. It’s an unsettling thing to be the clear topic of conversation in a discussion had right in front of you. Even more strange is the feeling of this man (and many others in China since) that it is perfectly acceptable to hold an open discussion about a person who is present without including them or trying to hide your evaluations. It was utterly mind-blowing to a Westerner.
The door mercifully threw itself open at the 25th floor and I stepped off without exchanging anymore awkward smiles with the passengers onto higher floors. I felt I could breath again, even in the polluted city of Shijiazhuang and inhaled the stale air, trying to replace the stench of a public toilet in my nostrils. I held my breath again as I was steered towards the apartment door, thinking the only comparable thing I’d ever seen to this place in the United States was the projects… and at least that was from far away. Imagine my surprise when the door opened to this:
I’ve since learned that apartments in China are simply sold as the bare bones and then outfitted by their owners. There are no floors or fixtures to begin with and so everything here was a reflection of this family. Where in the United States common areas are often looked after by a maintenance man or a janitorial staff, the Chinese often choose not to pay for any area outside of their own rectangular slice of space in the sky.
I changed into the plastic flip-flops offered to me (to keep the floors pristine), and was shown to the first room on the left, my host aunt’s room. I put my things down and took a few photos, resolving to sit awkwardly on the couch though no one spoke to me. At one point A-yi handed me a freshly washed peach, but said nothing to me as she bustled around the apartment doing this or that small thing. I tried a few times to make conversation with the boy as he shuffled past me but he rarely understood, or pretended not to. After a long respite in his own room, he came to retrieve me from the couch and took me into his room. With the help of the Chinese version of Google translate, he asked me, “Can you ride a bicycle?” I told him that I could, but hadn’t in a very long time. All he seemed to hear in my reply was “yes” and so he set about getting out the bicycles. I was nervous but held on to the hope that maybe he only wanted to take me around the gated neighborhood where there were few cars and some pedestrians. We worked in silence, maneuvering the bicycles to the door and into the elevator as A-yi watched and smiled, never saying a word to me.
Once downstairs, I fumbled through the dark to the door, steering the bicycle outside, recalling my Dad’s voice in my head saying I should really be wearing “more intelligent shoes.” (It was such a common refrain from my high school days it was as if he was there with me.) Once downstairs and in the sunshine, the boy broke out his favorite phrase of my entire stay: “Let’s go!” I followed him for a little while before yelling ahead “Where are we going?” He was able to turn and shout back, “The park!” I asked if it was close or far away, using some version of mime language to get my meaning across. “Far,” he grinned back at me, turning back around to peddle faster. I kept close to him, dodging taxis and gutsy pedestrians. It took all of my concentration, but I started to find a rhythm in the movements and soon the bike ride was actually a lot of fun. On the way he pointed out his school and, after risking our lives across a few particularly busy intersections, we arrived at the park.
There were hundreds of bikes and scooters across an open square and I wondered what could be so special about this park that everyone wanted to go there. As we began walking around, I understood. It was a kind of open amusement park. First, I went on the roller coaster, enjoying the rush as I flew across the track, trying not to think about how unsafe this probably was. My host brother, after he had already bought my ticket, proclaimed through adamant body language that he wasn’t going with me. He broke out his other favorite phrase of my visit: “I don’t like this.” So I climbed on alone and talked about San Francisco with a young Chinese girl, maybe 14 or 15, who was almost fluent, before we both broke into delighted screams, hanging upside down.
When it was over I thanked my host brother and urged him to choose something he wanted to do. He led me purposefully through the park though I often lagged behind and took photos. Random people shouted “Hello!” to me as I passed and I tried to respond to every one. You could tell the really brave ones when they would add “Howareyou?,” proclaimed as a single triumphant word, having one-upped all the other poor fools who could only say “hello” to the foreigner. My host brother settled on a game of pool. I stood there sweating in the heat, trying not to embarrass myself too terribly at a game I can’t even play well at home. He beat me squarely within the space of 30 minutes or so (I made it difficult by taking ample time to set up every shot that I subsequently missed) and we moved on to the bumper cars.
In America, the bumper cars were never my favorite but in China they have been the best thing I’ve done so far. Nothing was really different about them except that you didn’t need to talk with anyone to make it happen. I got into my own little car and just tried to hit other people. No communication necessary. It was glorious. The shrill laughs of the younger children made me enjoy the experience all the more and I couldn’t help but giggle myself at the sullen looking teenager that drove around a blue bumper car, never making any expression as he collided with the other cars. He barely even managed to look bored, his hair draped neatly over one eye. I guess “emo” came late to China.
Once the magnetic hum of the bumper cars was switched off, my host brother and I made our way to the exit, our hands covered in black dirt. I thanked him and told him I was having fun. He smiled, understanding my meaning if not my exact words, and said again, “Let’s go!” We retrieved our bicycles from the massive square and began to peddle home. I was thinking to myself how lucky it was that he had remembered where we locked up our bikes because the square of bicycles was as intimidating to me as trying to find your car in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Saturday.
After the long ride home, I held out my blackened hands to A-yi. She led me to the bathroom and handed me a small hand towel. The soap smelled like lilac. Now I learned that the boy’s aunt was home and so I used my minuscule amount of spoken Chinese to say a polite hello to her. I wandered to my room to put the towel down. The excited chatter among the my three hosts reached a fever pitch as they gathered in the boy’s bedroom. I sat patiently on the couch until the boy reappeared. “Dinner,” he said. I nodded, smiling. I was starving. His aunt appeared a moment later with a photo of her suggestion. I told them I would try anything. “Spicy! Spicy!” she started to say, pointing at the picture. “Spicy! Spicy!” my host brother echoed. A-yi didn’t try to pronounce the English word but instead fanned her open mouth, just to make sure I got the point. “I like spicy,” I said. In unison, they gave a kind of shout, and we were out the door.
This time the aunt drove, singing along to the pop song’s I’d heard before. A-yi sat in the back with me and I looked out the window at what looked like a new city, lit up in the twilight. We were driving along when suddenly the aunt made a quick left onto the sidewalk, and parked there as if it were completely normal. I will never get used to Chinese driving. We disembarked on an open square where a few dozen short tables were lined up in rows and the smell of spice and cooked meat permeated even the furthest corner. The family ordered everything: a giant bowl of spicy crawfish, peanuts in the shell, cucumbers in some kind of vinegar sauce, bread on a stick, meat on a stick, fish bacon on a stick. I tried it all. When I reached for my first cucumber with the wooden chopsticks, my entire host family stopped to watch and broke into spontaneous applause as I lifted the specimen to my mouth. I almost spit it out I was laughing so hard. Though they showed me how to get the tail of the crawfish, I apparently wasn’t performing the extraction quickly enough because A-yi and my host aunt started pealing them for me and putting the best parts of the meat on my plate. I tried to remember all of my etiquette training as I tried to send a clear message that I was grateful but full. It didn’t work. I think I ate more that night than I did in the first 3 days combined.
Thinking that I couldn’t eat another bite and was ready for bed, my host aunt whipped out her cell phone and began typing furiously. After a moment she help it up to me. The translation read: “Now we will take a shower and see the show.” I nodded, thinking we would go back to the apartment and perhaps see a movie. This was already more than I had anticipated and I felt glad my Mom had helped me pick out so many nice gifts for them in the states. It would have been painfully embarrassing to give them a bad present after this treatment. After a short drive, we pulled into what looked like a very fancy hotel. I was more than a little bit confused, especially since I couldn’t ask anyone anything so I just followed. We checked our shoes at a big marble counter, said goodbye to the boy as he walked another direction, and descended an escalator to God-only-knew-where.
The more I thought about it on the seemingly endless ride downward, it didn’t really make sense to get a hotel room just to take a shower. We stepped off the escalator and turned right, walking under a giant archway that opened into a large locker room. Rows of wooden lockers lined the left wall while vanities with swiveling velvet chairs and huge mirrors lined the right. It reminded me of a really fancy gym and so when a short woman in yellow ran up to me, took the key off of my wrist and pulled me towards a particular locker, I just followed, my default by this point in the night. I stood confusedly in front of the locker until A-yi appeared without a stitch on. She made it clear I should be similarly disrobed and then we were off to the showers. I won’t go into too much other detail here except to say that a lot of lines were crossed for me that night. We make fun of it in conversation but the truth is the puritan roots of American history have left their mark on me and I didn’t feel even remotely comfortable walking around naked. In my mind, bathing is an obviously private experience and had I not been plied with alcohol at dinner, I may even have described this event as traumatizing. People stared at me enough when I was clothed. This was almost unbearable.
When we were finished, we put on these kind of silk pajamas and took an elevator upstairs to a kind of ballroom. The outer area was buzzing with activity but we walked right through a set of big double doors into a room that reminded me of what I thought an old-fashioned gentleman’s club should be. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and tables with plush high-backed chairs made odd formations around a short stage. We reunited with my host brother and A-yi dragged us around the room, looking for the best seats that weren’t either reserved or occupied. I was still confused as to what was going on. After being forced to move a few times, A-yi ripped a blue reserved time off of a table and stuffed it under the table, sitting down gracefully as if she hadn’t just done that. The final scenes of Titanic played on the screen behind the stage. Rose and Jack made their way through flooded corridors and I was relieved to have the sound of English in my ears. I asked my host brother if he knew the movie and he shook his head “no.” “Titanic” I said, making a boat mime with my hands. He didn’t recognize but his aunt did, suddenly watching intently. As the lights went down, I still wasn’t sure what to expect.
Suddenly the lights went dim and the night’s MC appeared on stage, saying more things I couldn’t understand. I was pretty much resigned to this reality as I waited for more to happen. First there was a choreographed drumming performance with women in sparkly outfits reminiscent of Vegas. A female singer followed them. Supposedly she sang partially in English but it wasn’t any English I’ve ever heard. Next a man came on stage and did some stunts with strength and electricity. I was starting to think maybe it was a variety show but when the lights dimmed again, A-yi was so excited she tugged on my sleeve, pointing at a picture of a man on her large yellow ticket; The headliner, I guessed.
He was very pleasant to listen to after his amateur opening acts and I have found that I occasionally get this song stuck in my head even though I have no idea what he is saying. During his performance, audience members would rush onto the stage with huge and elaborate bouquets, posing for a picture with the singer while he was still singing. I didn’t get any of those on film, unfortunately, but it was the most bizarre practice I have ever seen. It’s as if buying the flowers was their method of ensuring a photo opportunity. Groups of mostly men in the front row had offered the previous performers beer, which they held through their performances, and chugged afterwards. When a man tried to do the same with the headliner, he was escorted off the stage by uniformed policemen. He managed to make it back to the edge of the stage a few more times during the performance, only to be detained or thwarted in his efforts to beer the performer by fellow audience members, all the while dodging the police officer. Entertaining as it was, I was exhausted, and when the lights came up, I felt relief. I’ve never slept so well on a piece of wood.