Turning Down A Job Een Zerr China

Even before my name, most people ask me if I am here to teach or study. Not work, but teach. It is common knowledge that, should a foreigner end up in a backwater* like Hefei, then the person is undoubtedly either at Anhui University studying, or teaching English and earning pots of cash. A consequence of this is that everyone assumes that you want to tutor their child in English, whether or not their child, or you, wants it.

Sarah and I had agreed to meet with a friend of mine, whom I call World Piano. She has her own little English tutoring school, and invited Sarah and me to sit in on one of her summer classes. The sun was brutal, and we walked the whole way to the little school under a sunbrella. The sweltering room was covered in posters showing schedules and crayon-drawn images of superheros and bunnies. At the front of the room, World Piano stood, wearing an impossibly frilly dress, grinning like a maniac and leading the children who sat at miniscule desks in an exercise to do possibly with plurals or maybe nationalities. Despite the small room, World Piano was wearing a microphone headset, her sqeaky voice booming from speakers around the room. “Are your friendsssss Norwegian?”

The children responded in unison: “No! Our friendssssss are Estonian!”

Sarah and I sat down on toddler-sized chairs at the back of the room, discreetly holding hands. Several of the children got very distracted from the lesson and started grinning and squealing and waving at us. World Piano tottered towards us on high heels and introduced us to her “lovely little friends” before returning to a chant of “How many blouses do you have?”

At this point a self conscious looking woman came into the room, smiled in strained fashion at me, and sat down next to me. The usual conversation started:

“Are you American? So, are you teaching or studying at Anhui University? Do you teach children?” I answered as best I could, trying not to die of boredom, while Sarah alternately practiced her “I’m-really-lovely-I-just-don’t-understand-a-word-of-what-you’re-saying” smile and watched the lesson.

Pretty soon the lesson ended, and the children started leaving. They waved at us enthusiastically, shouldering Barbie and Spiderman backpacks, their parents straightening pigtails and brushing dust of of the little emperorsss’ shirts.

The woman grabbed her son on his way outside to roughhouse with the other little boys. He was buzz-cut, mildly bucktoothed and distinctly unenthusiastic. “These two ladies are Americans. You should practice your English with them. Talk to them. Now.” Her awkward mild demeanor didn’t quite hide the passive aggressive energy in her words. The boy shuffled awkwardly.

Sarah leaned forward, smiling kindly, “Hello! My…name…is…Sarah!” she beamed, “What…is…your…name?”

He shot his mother a half-exasperated, half-terrified look, before mumbling, “My… name…Li Shu Yi”.

“Say something more!” his mother prompted, but he couldn’t. She turned to me, held out a piece of paper. “Give me your phone number.” I was a little intimidated and still don’t know how to refuse someone in Chinese, so I gave it to her. World Piano came over, grinning madly and pulling on a frilly white jacket, frilly yellow gloves and a frilly pink sunhat with a frilly bonnet over the top, and picking up her frilly sunbrella. She chatted for a while with the woman before whisking Sarah and me off for a bowl of noodles and a slightly manic chat.

That afternoon, I got a call. “Ummmmm… Do you remember me? Well… I want you to teach my son.” I did my best to explain that I wasn’t a professional, and maybe not the best person to teach her son. “Well, what about the girl with you?” I explained that in the next week Sarah would be leaving. To the woman, this meant that I was agreeing to tutor her son. I tried to disabuse her of the notion, explaining that I would be extremely busy during the school year and that I already had several job offers. She wouldn’t hear any of it. “Why don’t you want to tutor my son? You speak English, just talk with him, all I want is someone to talk with him, why are you doing this?” So, cowed by her plaintive tone, I agreed to meet with her in the week after Sarah had gone.

I wasn’t quite sure why I had been refusing, I just had a bad feeling about the whole thing, so when I got the inevitably awkward phone call the next week, I dragged my feet on the way there. They lived in an apartment above World Piano’s English school, and I looked around the courtyard, waiting for some sign of the woman. She called my phone to inform me that she would “send her son down.”

Sure enough, Li Shu Yi arrived bobbing up and down awkwardly as only a 12 year old boy can. He shook my hand limply, mumbled something, and silently showed me up to the apartment. It was spotless, glittering, and bare. The mother was there, smiling strainedly, and supervised her son and me as we swapped our shoes for slippers.

The boy’s room was equally barren. The desk was occupied only by a small glass of pencils. There weren’t even any textbooks. He sat down in front of me, and, to my horror, his mother brought in a chair, and sat down next to him. “So,” she said, looking at me, trying to smile. “So… teach my son.” And she stared at me.

I had not been expected to have the mother sitting in on this. I hadn’t been entirely sure what I was going to do, how I was going to teach, as I had no idea of the child’s level of English. But the mum’s participation made this ten times more of a problem.

I cleared my throat, and began in Chinese. “So, Shu Yi, I don’t know your level of English yet, so I just want to figure that out first, yeah?” He nodded. “Okay, so, how long have you been studying English and-”

His mother cut in. “Excuse me, why aren’t you speaking in English? That’s why you are here.”

I smiled nervously and repeated myself, only now in English. The boy responded with a halfhearted “Yes,” which hadn’t been what I was going for, so I tried something simpler: “You…have…studied…English…how…long?”

The boy turned to his mother, and made a groaning noise. I started chewing my pen nervously. Clearly I wasn’t making much of an impression, so I tried to change tack. Maybe he would understand if I asked him how old he was? Very slowly? But there’s not a lot of places you can take the “How old are you?” conversation apart from “so…you are 12… and…last year you were 11?” So I tried to get him talking about what he liked to do. This was more successful.

“I…like…read…comic book.” Okay, we were getting somewhere. But his favorite ones were all in Chinese, so we hit a dead end. Apparently they were about Kung Fu, and I tried to tell him about my roommate Owen who does Kung Fu. But he started groaning, and all the while, the boy’s mother was staring directly at me. My pen was getting subtly nibbled to death from nerves. I tried to get a conversation going about food. What…was…his…favorite…food? Again the groaning noise. Then he made a huffing noise, and looked at his mother and whined, “Mommmmm! She’s using complicated English, I don’t understaaaaand! It’s so formal!” I couldn’t see what was hard about what his favorite food was, but apparently his mother could. She sat up straight and said, “I brought you hear to speak simple English with my son! Talk to him! Talk to him! Simply! What are you doing, being formal?”

I heard a noise and looked to the doorway, where a man, presumably the boy’s father, stood. “What’s all this?” He demanded. “We brought you here to chat with our son. Don’t talk about food! Talk about movies and cars and social stuff!” He clucked his tongue at me, and repeated: “Social topics. Social English. Understand? Cars. Movies.”

As the father stormed off, I made one last ditch effort to talk about pets, but when I tried to explain what a cat was, in Chinese, the mother yet again took offense. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t have to stay, and in a city of more than 6 million people, it was very unlikely that I would ever see them again. I didn’t have to sit here letting out my terror and frustration on my poor little pen (which says, “Crazy Shit! Wow! I Love Crazy Shit!” on the side).

I sat up straighter and looked at the mother in the eye. “Look, this isn’t going anywhere. I honestly don’t think I’m the appropriate tutor for your son. You should get someone professional.” The mother looked shocked. She just stared at me. “I teach college-level students, and that is what I have experience doing. Your son’s level of English is not one which I can easily teach, so I think you would be better served by someone with the right qualifications.”

“But we’ve made him study for four years!” The mother blurted out, panicked. “We want you to talk with him! Just talk! Simple English! Simple English!”

“Ma’am, have you looked into professional tutoring services? English after school programs? There are plenty in this city. I wouldn’t call myself the best choice.”

The mother looked sheepish, “Well…no. But why can’t it be YOU? Why can’t you teach our son your language?”

I leveled my gravest stare at her, “I really think you should find someone professional. Actually do some research. You know? Now if you will excuse me, I will be leaving.”

I smiled and left the room. As I was putting on my shoes, the mother ran in along with the boy, “How much do you want? How much money?”

“I haven’t really taught your son anything, Ma’am. I would not take your money, it would be unfair, now thank you and goodbye.”

As I went down the elevator and out into the fresh air, I felt my shoulders start to relax, but also a sense of loss. I had turned down my first job here. Shouldn’t I have kept it? I could have made money doing it, certainly. But as I began to worry, my phone rang.

“Hello, Archi! This is Teacher Wu speaking!”
“Hey! What’s up?”
“Well, if you were interested, there’s a course that needs a teacher here at the University…”

That cleared that problem up. I had not dropped an opportunity, I had escaped.

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Tian Long in Photos

I had, since my first time there, been desperate to bring Sarah to “Sky Dragon,” Hefei’s gay bar. I think the pictures will say all that I need to say. The show includes tons of drag, a sexy dance to Rihanna’s SM song, and a transgender singer called “BaoBao,” which means “treasure.” The strange little crabs are “long xia”—Ali got confused and translated them as “Hefei Helicopter.” You rip them in half and then pull the meat out of their little bottoms, dip it in spicy-oil and eat it. Not the cleanest, but pretty yumsome. I think I’ll just let the photos do the talking.

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The Aquarium Restaurant, and Other Stories: Part Two

Part 2: The Aquarium Restaurant

Sarah and I arrived exhausted in Hangzhou, dragging massive bags. We had decided to wing it, with regards to accommodation, and payed for it. As soon as we got out of the station, we were literally swarmed by old men (about fifteen of them), all smoking and trying to stroke us and yelling that they wanted a hundred kuai to take us in their unregistered taxis. I don’t take well to being swarmed by fondly old men, nor does Sarah, so we tried to bull our way through them to the only taxi driver in his (registered) taxi who was not being an obnoxious creep. I was panicking at this point, my heart racing as we tried to bat off men, while demanding that the taxi driver take us to a certain hotel. He declined, for some reason, and I batted a path to the next best option: the silent taxi driver standing by his vehicle, smoking.

Sarah was silent, white-faced, clutching her suitcase and trying to avoid the groping hands of the men, while I yelled at the top of my lungs for them to leave us alone. But they kept on at it. “100 kuai! 100 kuai, pretty girls! I’ll take you in my car! My car, over there! 100 kuai!”. I made it to the green taxi, clutching Sarah, and slung our bags into the trunk. The driver, a tall elegant man crushed out his cigarette, and helped me. It was then that one man slapped my shoulder and yelled into my face, “Pretty girl! Don’t go with him! Go with me! I’m better, I’ll give you a deal! 100 kuai, beautiful!” His breath stank of bai jiu and a cigarette hung limply from his lips. I glared at him. I didn’t want him anywhere near me, and certainly nowhere near Sarah. I just wanted out. I haggled this driver down to 80, which was still a crime, but I just wanted to get us away.

As Sarah and I dove into the backseat, the baijiu smelling man ran at our driver, and yelled, “Why are they going with you? Why not me?” Our driver leaned into him, and said, “Because I am white and pretty, and you are black and ugly,” before leaping into the car and driving off. As he started the engine, several other drivers started banging on the car with their fists, and as we took off, someone unlatched the trunk, swinging it open in an attempt to make him stop and close it. Sarah and I were shaking a little, but pleased to have gotten away. We drove about five minutes,  before stopping at the side of the road to close the trunk.

Sarah and I asked him to take us to a hostel, somewhere decent. The journey, all told, took about ten minutes, maybe a ten kuai journey, but we had agreed on the price, so I paid up. It turned out that the place he had taken us to was next to the biomedical waste storage unit of the local hospital, so we decided to go somewhere else.

It took us ages to find another taxi, and then the hostel which I chose at random from a brochure turned out not to exist, but the taxi driver made good conversation and the drive was beautiful. About an hour later we finally arrived at what looked to be a lovely little hotel next to the lake which HangZhou surrounds. The hotel looked to be a nice one, so we checked in, exhausted, but our room turned out to be windowless. And there was a pair of old panties lying on the floor. But it had a bed and toilet, and was quite cute, once you got past the lack of windows.

It was then that we realized that we were hungry. Ravenous, actually, so we set off in search of somewhere nice to eat. Next to our hotel was what looked like an aquarium, but after a minute we realized it was a restaurant. An aquatic-things restaurant. I am prejudiced against most aquatic lifeforms, having been raised kosher, and being a mountain person, not a beach person, but Sarah looked enthused.

“Shall we try it?”

“I dunno… it’s seafood. I don’t like it.”

“Come on, Archi!” Sarah rolled her eyes, grinning in that way which means I am being adorably annoying. “Have you ever really tried seafood?”

“Well… noooo… But… it’s scary!”

“It won’t be scary! Clams don’t have any teeth or any tentacles and no weird feelers on the tops of their heads, so just try them, okay?”

I shuffled around a bit, looking at my shoes, “…Okay… I’ll try it.” So Sarah led me in.

The interior was dark, with photos of the dishes backlit, much like an aquarium, and in a corner was a brightly lit display of all of the fish on the menu. Piles of clams bubbled in tanks, alongside giant rubbery lipped fish, and bright blue lobsters with blue and yellow spots all over. It was rather astonishing. As we gaped, a white-clad chef came out with a giant net, and scooped up a flapping fish before returning to the kitchen. The food was that fresh. If there was anywhere to try aquatic lifeforms, it would be here. Sarah and I walked up the stairs to our table, next to a screen of seaweedy-looking plants. The lighting was sultry and elegant, and the plates shaped and painted like seashells.

We leaned back in our chairs, still giggling about the hellish taxi ride. Well, Sarah was giggling. I was still slightly wound up. We opened the menu, and, not knowing how to read the characters for “crab” or “clam” or “rainbow lobster sashimi” we simply pointed. We ordered cucumbers with hoisin sauce, a platter of steamed spiced baby clams, and splashed out on a giant crab. Sarah chose the food, as I was still busy being squeamish.

But then the food arrived, and it arrived with two mugs of rose tea. As in each mug had several rose blossoms in it. The cucumbers were refreshing, and the hoisin sauce lovely. It’s remarkably difficult to pick up massive lumps of cucumber one handed with a pair of sticks, but we managed. Next to arrive were the clams. I was unsure about them, despite their delicately patterned shells and the steam rising off of them. Sarah plucked one up with her chopsticks, separated the meat easily, and popped it into her mouth. Her eyes closed and a look of bliss came over her face.

I dropped one onto my plate, and looked at it. I had been expecting it to look more like the dead chicken foetuses which I had eaten once upon a time. Shouldn’t a bottom feeder from the slimey sea-weedy ocean look more… I dunno… gross? It looked oddly edible, and came out of the shell with surprising ease. I squared my shoulders and ate it.

The meat was soft, and delicate. And there was a delicate spiciness to it, with a lively delicate creamy taste underneath the spice. It was delicious. Sarah and I gobbled them up, smiling and piling the shells high, and before we knew it, the shells were all empty.

And then there was the crab. A luminous red shell on a bed of curried rice-noodles. This was scarier by far than a bunch of clams. It had pinchers and eyes, and you lifted off the top shell, and ripped out chunks of meat and sucked at the spiny claws. Could I really bring myself to suck on a crab?! Really? But, like the clam, it was delicious, curried, and soft (I always assumed that seafood would be rubbery, like imitation crab). The sucking, crunching, and juice dribbling was oddly sensual, or more likely Sarah is gorgeous, and I could watch her do anything and love it.

We spent the night strolling around the lake, gazing at the pagodas outlined in moonlight, and feeling little fishies nibbling our toes in the water, but we waited until we had brushed our teeth before kissing.

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The Aquarium Restaurant, and Other Stories: Part One

Part 1: The Other Stories

Sarah and I have spent the past several weeks together in China. We thought, at first, that our trip would consist of lots of sight-seeing and running around doing stuff, punctuated both by romantic and the occasional not-so-romantic dinner. As it turns out, the trip ended up consisting of remarkable meals, with the occasional visit to a museum or bird-market. We’re quite the foodies, as it happens, and have consequently sampled some of the best and worst food in China.

It’s not every day that you eat chicken and truffle soup dumplings in a packed mall. Nor every day that you sit down across from a sunset setting behind a pagoda on a lake, to a plate of rather pungent whole onions and chunks of steamed toadflesh, with a glass of unfortunately sour Great Wall wine. Many of our breakfasts, bought down side streets smelling of horses, far outstripped other dinners in fancy restaurants with glossy menus and glass chandeliers.

Steamed Dumplings Down The Sidestreet

Every morning, while in Shanghai, Sarah and I would head down a side street near our hostel. It was one of those classically Chinese streets, smelling of sewage and lined with noodle shops and convenience stores. Despite the smell, though, there was a little treasure midway down the street.

The little steamed dumpling shop was essentially a kitchen and an outdoor counter piled high with three foot wide steamers in stacks. The owners were a young couple, originally from Anhui Province, with their young son, who ran around being adorable. Their steamed buns were all delicious. Sarah and I began every day with a bottle of tea from the nearby convenience store and a bag of puffy white buns, filled with glass noodles in sauce, or spicy meat or green vegetables and Chinese shitakes. The best, though, were the soy-sauce-rice-chewies (I don’t know what they are called) which are sticky rice with soy sauce, steamed in a dumpling wrapper. These toothsome little bundles of starch and salt were the perfect way to start any day.

Bird on a Stick with Chengjun

One of my best friends was, coincidentally, interning in Shanghai while Sarah and I were there. We pootled around Shanghai, I bought a Qi Pao, and Sarah some lovely shoes. We visited the Shanghai Museum (lovely overview of the One Official Chinese History) and eventually found ourselves hungry. Not knowing where to go, the three of us ducked into a crowded restaurant professing to sell soup dumplings. Our previous experience with soup dumplings had been good. This was decidedly less so.

The “soup dumplings” turned out to be massive steamed buns full of oily fishy soup, which you sucked out with a straw, rather dissapointing. But the crowning glory of the food we bought was a brace of some form of small bird, with a barbeque skewer up it’s bottom and coming out of its beak. It was charred and oily, presumably deep fried for several hours. It was actually quite fun to eat, and we were with the lovely adorable Cheng Jun, so while everything was oily and horrid, it was an adventure.

Glass Museum with Cheng Jun

Several days later, we went out with Cheng Jun* again. She knew Sarah and my interest in glassblowing of all kinds, so we went to the Shanghai Glass Museum. It was incredible, set in the middle of an industrial sector full of welding shops and dusty roads, and filled with amazingly lit artwork by Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, and a goodly number of cast glass pieces by Chinese artists. China has a long history of glass casting, or “liuli,” and is now getting more and more glass blowers in the art scene**. The section on the history of glass in both China and “The West” was extensive and extremely beautiful, as was the glassblowing demonstration*^.

*Cheng Jun is really badass. She’s adorably tomboy, and changed her name from the “chengjun” meaning “will become frilly and demure” to the “chengjun” which means “will become a warrior.” She’s my favorite.

**Many Western institutions such as the Corning Museum of Glass and Diablo Glass School in Boston (my awesome former employer) to name a few, have reached out to glass art institutions in China, so that there is more and more artistic cross pollination. CMOG is partnered with the Shanghai Glass Museum and Diablo has an exchange program for teachers with Guang Dong U.

*^ Chinese glassblowing techniques are really interesting. Instead of the ubiquitous “Chihuly Wave Bowl Demo” or glass horse demo which you get in the United States, we were treated to a sculpted glass fish, and a mold blown textured vase. Instead of having a separate furnace to reheat the glass, there was a torch right next to the glassblowing bench, to reheat specific parts of the work, and the vase was made by blowing a bubble of glass into a mold, and then slicing open the lip when the glass was cold, as is done in the vast majority of glass factories. It was just interesting seeing the difference in techniques.


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Truffles in the Shopping Mall, Among Other Things

It’s not every day that you get to slurp light, miniature dumplings filled with soup. It’s not every day that you eat truffles, either, which made my first meal with my girlfriend in Shanghai all the more amazing. My plans to bring Sarah back to the lovely romantic hotel room with a view of the bund had been somewhat foiled by surly staff, the absence of decent wine, and the fact that I accidentally blocked the toilet as soon as we got home. Time which should have been better spent was filled with listening to the plumber and cleaning lady arguing loudly in heavily accented Chinese about whether or not there was a blockage, or if the toilet was in fact broken.

It took me a long time to recover from the shame, but once I did, we resolved to have a romantic dinner to make up for it. We headed out for a fancy little soup-dumpling restaurant, which Sarah’s guidebook had recommended. It turned out to be in the middle of a shopping mall. There was a stone courtyard outside the mall, with several restaurants (all packed) along the way to the front gate. One of them even had a fountain.

We found the restaurant easily enough, it looked out over the courtyard from the second floor, though there was a line. We were given a number, and told to come back in 20 minutes. Neither of us was dying of hunger, so we decided to see just what comprised a Shanghai mall. The mall in Hefei is gleaming, bright, and mostly taken up by a massive supermarket (Jia Le Fu). The upper floors are full of the fanciest Chinese restaurants, and the ground floor is full of fairly expensive clothing stores. The New Heaven and Earth Shopping Center in which Sarah and I found ourselves was similarly gleaming, but many times the size, but more interesting was how many of the stores were international. There were multiple sushi restaurants, and many Western name brand stores, in addition to Chinese ones. Sarah and I wandered in and out of stores, all trying desperately to be hip and fashionable, continually shocked by price-tags for six thousand yuan shirts made from torn burlap sacks and the like. I had always thought of malls as culture vacuums in the US, but in Shanghai in particular, they are bastions of the conspicuous consumption which defines the growing “middle class” (i.e. super-rich, let’s get real) of China. (Think movies like “Go, Lala, Go!”)

We returned, somewhat shellshocked, to the restaurant, which was a well lit, surgically clean series of tables separated by partitions. Through a glass wall, we could see armies of chefs (all men) making dumplings. The waitresses (all very beautiful, all women) emerged periodically from some sort of elevator, bearing steamers of dumplings.

We sat down at our table, ordered a glass of hard Chinese cider apiece and looked at the menu. I inhaled sharply. I had spent the previous several months eating 3-yuan fried-egg and meat sandwiches from roadside stands, and slurping five yuan noodles from grubby restaurants, so the price-tag of 50 yuan for five little dumplings was a bit of a shock, but then I looked at the words next to the prices: Truffle and chicken dumplings, steamed morning-glory, sticky rice-cakes. It was gonna be soooooo worth it! The last time I had eaten truffles was possibly never, and I didn’t even know morning glory was edible. We ordered both, and several steamers of chicken and vegetable soup-dumplings.
Sarah and I sat, making lovey-dovey talk and holding hands. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a fancy-looking Chinese family was staring at us, but that didn’t matter. Sarah was here, and we would be eating truffles in a few minutes. The cider was slightly tart, and sweet with lovely thickness in the texture. It was delicious, and we had to pace ourselves.

The best thing about eating with chopsticks is that you can hold hands across the table. Sarah’s eyes are beautiful light brown, with a hint of green around the edges. The morning-glory was almost buttery, and laced with thinly sliced red pepper, and the chicken-spinach dumplings were light but filling. The soup was rich and sweet, and the meat filling was chewy and delicious. I showed Sarah how to bite off the top of the wrapper and suck out the soup before eating the dumpling itself.

The last steamer arrived. We lifted the lid, and looked in, hearts pounding. Inside the massive steamer were five tiny dumplings, spaced widely apart. We each set one on a spoon, and bit the tops off, chewing the al-dente wrappers, and watching the steam rise. Then we sucked out the soup. It was heavenly. The thick liquid was rich and suffused with the earthy taste of truffles, and gently nestled into each wrapper was a hefty slice of truffle. Not a single shaving of a dried truffle. Not a single drop of truffle oil. A hefty chunk of dark, fragrant mushroom, next to the chicken filling. We took as long as we possibly could with each bite, savoring the taste and texture and warmth, gazing into each others eyes as we had simultaneous mouthgasms.

As we left the restaurant, we held hands. We had a date with my classmates at a massive gay club called “Obama,” which took forever to find. It was a cavernous, circular place, not unlike some kind of baroque cathedral with spotlights and laser lights swooping around and booming yet not overpowering oddly lyrical techno music. The golden walls had ten foot high relief imprints of naked torsos, and the outer ring of the room was full of couches, tables and gogo dancing platforms. The center of the room was sunk below street level, a giant dance floor surrounding a stage where shirtless muscled men gyrated. There were hundred upon hundreds upon hundreds of gay men, all circling around the outer arcade, with still hundreds more below packed onto the dance floor.

Sarah and I downed something alcoholic, and swam through the sea of music-washed testosterone-bodies, down into the dance floor. The room was steamy, and we both started to sweat a little. Sarah flipped her reddish blonde hair out of her eyes, and took me in her arms. She had taken off my glasses, so everything was a swaying colorful blurr, everything except her. She was glittering. She held me tight and we swayed together for hours, drinking each other in. I laid my head on her shoulder. She smelled like truffles.

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Being Straight For Auntie

There were maybe 8 or 9 people, most of them men in their late 20s, among them my best round-faced friend, Ali. He ushered my two friends and me into the private room, out of the smoky bustle of the restaurant. We had spent the evening running around, trying to find a certain Hefei Lobster restaurant which the others thought they knew how to find. They didn’t. But in our darkest moment, Ali had telephoned to invite us to the restaurant where he was celebrating a best friend’s birthday. We had hopped into a taxi, and arrived at the restaurant utterly famished and ready to tuck into a Chinese birthday meal.

But the dishes were empty. I say empty, but what I mean is that there were only two dishes left: Some kind of peppery shredded meat, and what looked suspiciously like collapsed something gross. Ali hugged me in greeting. As his arms enfolded me, he whispered in my ear, “You are my wife, okay?”

The world froze around me. I hadn’t expected to have the question popped on me any time soon, especially not now, and not by a gay, lisping, fey Chinese dress salesman. I stammered, “U-uh…WH-what?! Ali! But you are gay!”

He smiled his round mischievous smile, “I am, but you see there?” He pointed surreptitiously towards the oldest member of the party, an ancient woman with dyed orange hair fluffed out around her head, and a cigarette hanging from her mouth as she simultaneously took a drag and downed a glass of TsingTao beer. “She is my auntie? She not know I am gay? So, I tell her you are my wife, yes? My fianthee? Okay?” He held up his hand, forefinger and thumb making a ring, the other fingers sticking out, “Okay? You will tonight? My wife?… As jook? You already have riiiiing…”

I relaxed. Somewhat. It could be a high risk joke between us, and yes, I did have a ring already. Sarah had given it to me as a simple, very relaxed promise ring. In the company of creepy old men, it transformed into a magical engagement or marriage ring of protection + 5. It had worked, so far. My picture of my imaginary six-foot tall bearded and jolly husband (my high school buddy, Walker) was also getting more time out of my wallet of late.

So I was to be Ali’s fianthee. I had heard of the legendary lighting marriages of the Chinese gay community, where lezzie and gay friends marry to shut their parents up, so I was a little curious about how this would play out. But also terrified. Marriage is not something I’ve done before.
“Okay dear, but…um… how long have we been together? Where did we meet? Do we live together? We have to get our story straight, if people will think we are straight.” I had absolutely no clue how on earth anyone would think my husband was straight. He flutters around like a butterfly, frequenting gay bars and selling pretty dresses online. But I didn’t have any time to think, as Ali grabbed me, and pulled me over to my seat next to him at the table. The aunt at the end of the table picked up her beer, and stumbled to her feet. Blinking imperiously, she bellowed, “Is this your girl, then, Ali?” Ali nodded, and I made something between a bow, a curtsy, and a nod. “Hmmmmmmm…” Auntie swayed, still clutching her beer. “I like her! Congratulations! I will drink with her!” She nudged the man sitting next to her, presumably her son and the birthday boy, “How do I say “drink” in English?” He mumbled something and she turned to me, yelling, “DLEEN’ WEEZ … ME! AH!”

I assumed this to mean something along the lines of “drink with me,” and accepted a flimsy plastic cup of beer from Ali. I placed the tips of the fingers of my left hand on the bottom of the glass, raised it towards Auntie, bowed slightly. “Gan Bei!” we cried, and downed our glasses in one, then bowed to each other showing our empty glasses. This happened several more times, with various members around the table. By the time I sat down, everything was spinning slightly.

Auntie was even farther into her cups by now. “You know, Ali? She’s a good catch. I wish you happiness together. She’s a lot prettier than in the photograph you showed me.” I was startled, and stared at Ali, who was grinning roundly. When on earth had he gotten a photograph from me? And how long had this charade been going on? Ali placed his hand on my thigh, and we did our best to smile romantically at each other. My heart was in my mouth. I was terrified that I wasn’t doing the whole in-love-straight-girl thing convincingly. Auntie was clearly drunk, but the constant eyes on me made me nervous, and I had no idea what he had and hadn’t told everyone.

Auntie suddenly exclaimed, “Beautifurr! BEAUTIFURR!” waving her glass at myself and Annie and Anya, my companions, who had, until now been very quiet, picking at the cold dish of peppers and chopped meat. I hadn’t eaten all day, so was utterly ravenous, and tucked in, listening as the conversation turned to Annie’s beautiful western nose. It seems that a lot of Chinese people covet Western-style noses, and “nose jobs” are very popular here in China, along with eyelid surgery to give girls a “Western Style Fold” in their lids. Annie does have a very nice nose, and Auntie let it be known how much she liked it by repeatedly toasting her.

A man in his late 20s, very clean cut, and with a slight mischievous grin leaned towards me and Ali, “So… You are Ali’s girlfriend?” I tried to look honest, to keep a straight face as I lied through my teeth, “Um… Yes. We’ve been together for…” I looked at Ali, who said that we had had our one year “Aniverthary” recently. He winked at me.

Our interrogators all leaned forward. “So, you like him? Think he is… handsome?”

I surveyed Ali. He was certainly cute, and in his fluttery social butterfly way was really lovely, but I would never even think of kissing him. But he was my fiancee tonight. I hoped kissing wouldn’t be on the menu. I stroked his thigh and nodded, then looked into his eyes dreamily, for good measure.

“And what about me?” the young man asked, smirking. My usual response to this kind of question (usually a test by gay men to see if I was a straight girl out for a night of not getting fondled by men) was “Maybe? I dunno? You’re nice, but I like girls.” But clearly that wouldn’t work here. Nobodeeeeh know we aaare geh, as Ali had put it. I turned to my inquisitor. “Uh… yes. You are very handsome… yes.”

“And him?” the interrogator nodded towards his companion. I looked him up and down for a long time, smirking, before shrugging. “Meh.” The table exploded with laughter, and I was saved from further interrogation. To make sure I was appearing as straight as possible, I put my head on Ali’s shoulder.

In the lull, Auntie again found her voice, and her feet. Stumbling around the table, clutching at the backs of chairs of support, she shook the tips of a pack of cigarettes out, and shook the box in my and Ali’s faces (my head was still on his shoulder, so she could shake in both of our faces with one motion. Quite convenient, really). Ali took one, as he is a man and the vast majority of Chinese men smoke. Then he took one for me. It is often impolite to refuse your host’s offerings, and so the cigarette was placed in my hand, as was a lighter.

The last time I tried a cigarette was in 2007, in France. The chocolate flavored thing had left me rasping for days after one puff, so I was nervous about having to smoke it, knowing that I would embarrass myself by hacking and coughing. I did. At first I didn’t know that one is supposed to inhale while lighting, so it took me five tries, and then my eyes watered and I coughed for a good few minutes, trying to clear my throat with beer. Ali leaned back, and inhaled in an almost professional manner, his arm conspicuously around my shoulder. I nuzzled into his shoulder, trying to look amorous, nested the cigarette in the plastic ashtray in front of me. I was delighted to find that those funny little notches on the side are sized to hold a cigarette out of the ashes. I let it burn away in the tray, while Auntie piled my plate high with what seemed to be pig’s noses in goo. I tried to tuck in, gulping the rubbery tasteless things down (better to vomit up pig’s snouts all over Ali than to get cancer), while everyone else chatted and drank beer.

Everyone (including myself) was much drunker now. Many were zzzzzzhhhrunk, and Auntie was sloshed. The same fellow who had asked me whether he was attractive . “Yoooouuuu and Ali are… in love?”

I hitched up my in-love smile. It had drooped somewhat when Ali told me I was gagging down pig-noses out of politeness. “Yes, we are. In love… Veeeeery…” I tried to be alluring for my husband.

“And… you will…married?” Someone burped.

“Whennnnwillyoooouuuu be married?” Auntie chimed in, trying to focus on me, her head clearly swimming.

Ali leaned into me and whispered, “A year.” and I repeated it to the table at large. Auntie clasped her hands as if in prayer, and shook them in my direction, whatever that meant. She was smiling though, so I did the same thing, and we toasted each other again. Auntie’s frizzy orange hair was even frizzier, and she dribbled some of the beer down her chin.

“I want you to kiss!” said one man. Suddenly all eyes were on us. He looked at me and said, “If you guys are getting married, you can kiss for us!”

I looked at Ali, who shrugged. Man-kissed was on the menu, then, along with boiled pig snouts. The thigh stroking and nuzzling were alright, as was the interrogation, but I had not expected to have to kiss him. I tried to give him a gooey look, but it might have carried a hint too much of “oh, jesus, you bastard what have you gotten me into?”. I tried to imagine that he was Sarah*, and leaned in. It was softer than I was expecting, given that Chinese guys are lacking in the facial hair department, but we broke apart as soon as we could.

We left shortly thereafter, not knowing what else we might have to do for our hosts. Kissing each other had been more than enough. There was much congratulating us about our impending marriage, and plenty of hugging and hand shaking and nodding and saying, “ah!”. As we hurried away, I could not have been more glad to get away. Ali whispered to me, “I’m sorry about that, it’s what we have to do. So, dinner then gay bar? Tonight is hairy bears and tiny twinks night! They have a show where young sexy guys dress up like catwoman and anime characters and dance erotic dances, you’ll like it!”

He winked, I grinned, and no longer husband and wife we headed down the street, hand in hand.

*Who would be coming soon to Shanghai! Woohoo!

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Ladies Behind Forks

I used to be surprised and a little offended whenever anyone offered me a fork, especially when they used English. In my snobbishly anti-waiguoren (other-country-person) way, I found it an insult to my perceived integration into Chinese society. I was often quite baffled, not understanding quite how anyone would have gotten it into their heads that all Americans were stereotypical tourists. I mean, I met German tourists (Ve aaah going to ze hong tsun or somsink. Ve are not pleased vis ze locals, noooo, nor are ve speaking ze Chinese langvich) and American English teachers who couldn’t speak Chinese, but could still use chopsticks and loved a hefty bowl of noodles. But never the kind of person who would ask in English for a fork, so I never quite understood how Americans got such a bad wrap.

But today I found just such people. I had seen them before, Super-sized and badly dressed, sweltering in the Hefei summer, but never talked to them. I would just half smile, or gooseneck, staring at them all the way down the street thinking, “Holy shit! Real foreigners, just like in the movies!”. I’ll spare you the gorey details of our conversation, and just leave you with several choice phrases which led me to understand why it is, exactly, that so many Americans, and foreigners, get offered forks in China: 

“Heyya Guys! Are you guys Americans? Boy, am I glad to see some Americans around here!”

“So, you guys are studying Chinese? Yeah, I can say ‘nee-how’ and that other one… shay shay!”

“Yeah, we went to a few of the American restaurants, but it’s just not the same…”

“I dunno, I used to think that it took a lot of effort to become an English teacher here, but honestly, people are just slow learners in China, and people can’t even speak English when they get an English degree, are they stupid or something, y’know?” 

These people are why you get given forks.

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