A Tuesday Night Out
“Helleeeeu!” some guy on a bicycle shouts in my general direction as he rides by. “Hello there,” I call back, prompting a big smile on his face. He giggles as he rides on; thankfully returning his attention to what he is doing, before swerving any further out into the traffic. I smile to myself as I cross the street with many a glance over my left shoulder. The traffic here is murder! The ‘right-on-red’ concept for one seems out of control; used frequently as it is and with no apparent regard for us pedestrians. I’ve decided to walk even though it’s a bit nippy. Partly because I’m short on cash for a taxi (and I don’t know which bus to take,) but mostly because I want to familiarize myself with my neighborhood.
It’s about seven-thirty PM but all the shops are open and showing no sign of closing anytime soon. I pass a few that appear to sell lamps and soon notice that all the shops on this street (on both sides) are in fact selling lamps. There’s a signpost with Latin letters and I try to pronounce the name of the street. I try and I fail. I’ve found the language frustratingly hard to learn and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve all but given up. In the beginning I thought I would have to learn Chinese, but I’ve found that I can get by using body language and drawing little pictures in my sketchbook. It’s not convenient though, to draw a map of my entire neighborhood every time I need to ask for directions, so I look at the sign for a few more seconds hoping for a flash of inspiration. It’s no use of course and I decide on ‘Lamp Street’ marking it between ‘Bicycle Street’ and ‘Barbecue Street’ on my mental map of the city. I’m getting to know my new home very well.
It’s getting dark quickly, which means there are fewer drive-by greetings and quizzical stares coming my way. I generally like the dark and the anonymity it offers. As gratifying as all the attention can be, it does become a little overwhelming at times. I remember a wedding that I attended where the toastmaster seemed more preoccupied with the fact that there was a foreigner present than with celebrating the newly-weds. It got so bad that I felt I had to leave early. I was never very fond of attention in the past but I guess I’m learning to cope with it and even enjoy it at times. When I tell my friends at home how I’m singing at parties and posing in Tang Dynasty clothes for TV cameras they never seem to believe me. I guess I’ve changed since I came here–China will do that to you.
I walk for about ten minutes and then reach the crossroad joining ‘Lamp Street’ and ‘Street with Many Lights.’ I make a quick left turn and walk calmly in the middle of the street for a few seconds, between two lanes of moving traffic, before making it to the other side with an orchestra of horns playing behind me. “Just like a local” I congratulate myself. I look around as I stand on the corner, but Pascal is not here. I was supposed to meet a French acquaintance of mine at seven-forty-five, but I guess I’m a little early. The ‘Street with Many Lights’ has a number of clothes stores though and I get the chance to do a little window shopping as I wait. Most of the brands I don’t know, but I’ve been here long enough to know that this is one of the more expensive shopping areas. I read the facades: K-Boxing, September Wolves, Playboy. I wasn’t aware that Hugh Hefner had a line of clothes and I wonder briefly if Hugh Hefner himself is aware that he has a line of clothes or if it’s a Chinese thing. My wondering is interrupted however, as I notice the sales girl in the shop beaming a blushing smile through the window. I notice my reflection; the lights in this street illuminate my face rather drastically, the fluorescence making it even paler than normal. I smile back at her, causing more blushing, but then hear an English voice calling my name from behind. I turn away and leave the girl to her work.
Pascal greets me in that overly friendly way of his and we start talking about this and that as we walk down the street. The weather, families, Christmas – it’s the kind of conversation that you can have with any number of complete strangers and is always completely uninteresting. It’s not that I don’t like Pascal–he’s the ‘enthusiastic youngster out to see the world with an open mind,’ doing something that I wish I’d done myself when I was twenty. He’s young though, and naïve and it makes me wonder why we hang out. I guess the answer is obvious–we’re living in the same city and we’ve both got white skin. Saying it out loud makes it sound really stupid, but at the same time I know it’s a quite common thing. I remember having a big discussion about this a few years ago when I was touring America with some friends. Every time we met some people from Denmark there seemed to be this unspoken agreement that we should all be instant friends. It didn’t matter if we had nothing in common, or if we wouldn’t care one bit about each other if we were at home, as long as we could all claim to be ‘Danish’ it was a given that we’d be good friends and discuss uninteresting topics for hours. When I came to China I was determined to get to know the Chinese, but here I am in the company of a Frenchman going to meet a Russian and an American.
“It’s just that when they get through the whole development stage these guys will be way too powerful and I don’t trust them not to use it.” I look at Pascal a little embarrassed as I realize I haven’t been paying attention to the conversation, but at the same time am pleased that he seems to have touched down on a topic of actual interest.
“Like Japan,” he continues, “there’s just so much hatred against the Japanese. It could easily end up in war if they ever feel like they are strong enough.” I catch his meaning and recall an experience at school. I’d asked my students some questions about Japan and they had become a little agitated. There was some talk of the inevitability of a future war at that time too, but after they had delivered a few clichés (obviously memorized from political speeches and inspired by 1960’s rhetoric) the students found they had no real antipathy and that several of them even had ambitions of studying Japanese and going to school there.
“I know what you mean,” I say, “but I don’t think there’s any deep hatred of the Japanese. It’s one thing for the students to repeat what they heard on CCTV1 the night before, but I know for a fact that the Japanese teacher in my school is one of the most respected.” Pascal smiles casually and shrugs it off.
“Well, obviously if they have a personal relationship with a Japanese person they’ll be more open-minded,” he pauses briefly to nod and smile at a couple of passing ‘gazers,’ “but most of them don’t know any Japanese people apart from the ones that they see on TV, and they always see that footage of the Japanese Prime Minister visiting that war memorial.” I think about it quietly as he goes on, but I’m not convinced. China can be aggressive in rhetoric certainly, but it seems to me that people generally are pretty defensive by nature. Then again ‘defensive’ can quickly become ‘touchy’ and from there it’s a small step to conflict. We talk about this for a few minutes, but as we reach the restaurant he’s still convinced that there will be some sort of conflict in the near future and I’m still not sure.
Our destination, the ‘Dumpling Place with the Red Façade,’ is one of the classier budget places in this district; ‘classy’ in the sense that they have no cockroaches crawling on the walls and that they like to present the food in an artistic way. I take the four steps up to the door in one stride, anxious to get in from the rapidly cooling evening air. Two greeting-girls come out to hold the door for us. It’s a normal Tuesday night, but the place is packed. People generally like to go out for dinner if they can afford it and with the prices out here I guess most people can. We make our way past the other tables under intense scrutiny and eventually make it through, after shaking the hands of two complete strangers. I thought they might be friends of Pascal’s, but he denies knowing them at all. The rest of our party is sitting at the center table and are ordering a fruit plate and a round of beers as we sit down. As usual, four foreigners sitting at a table having a snack is quite a spectacle and we all feel a little on display.
“I’ve been here eight months and I’ve been to this restaurant God knows how many times. You would think they’d be used to seeing a white man by now,” Pascal comments. I nod. Although I have only been here a few months myself I’ve had the same thought a number of times.
“I don’t mind this kind of attention though,” I say. “It’s pretty harmless, but you can’t help feeling a little weirded out when they give you that really long, intense stare. Like when you’re walking down the street and someone on a bike or something follows your every move with that look of utter disbelief on his face.”
“Ah! The ‘perpetual stare,’” Tess the American girl says while pouring me a cup of tea, “that can be real creepy, but have you succeeded in making someone hurt themselves yet?”
“Yeah, one guy fell down a few stairs a couple of weeks ago,” I say with a smile. “Don’t think he hurt himself though.”
“I knooow”–Tess’ accent always becomes stronger when she’s feeling sorry for someone or getting mad about something–“It’s like every time I see someone fallin’, I wanna ask them ‘what can I do to keep you from hurtin’ you’self like that?’ It’s really oor’ful.”
As we wait for our order, we talk for a while about how the locals never take their eyes off Westerners. I find myself wondering what they will actually bring, since none of us speak the language and they had to use some picture-cards of Dimitri’s to make the waitress understand. After a few minutes four of them come up to our table, one bringing four bottles of beer, the rest of them just there to back her up I guess. They bring the imported variety instead of the local brew that everyone else is having. We’re all on a budget though, pending the monthly payday, so Pascal quickly stops them before they can open the bottles. He escorts all four waitresses back to the bar and points out the normal, regular brand.
“That’s another thing,” Tess says. “They’re always bringing us the most expensive stuff they have. Like they assume we’re really rich and won’t have what they’re having.”
“Well, compared to them we are rich,” Dimitri says. “We make maybe three or four times as much as a local teacher.”
“I don’t.” Tess responds. There’s no hint of surprise in her voice on hearing what Dimitri makes. No jealousy either. I quite like her I decide. Dimitri looks like he doesn’t believe her.
“You certainly make more than they do,” he insists. “Most people here are just ordinary workers.” As always there’s something ‘absolute’ in Dimitri’s statement. Some hint of authority that could be mistaken for strength if his physical form, not to mention his voice and demeanor in general, had been of the same quality. Unfortunately, compared to the stereotype of a strong, stoic, Russian man he falls short.
Pascal returns with one of the waitresses and a round of the local beer before Tess can respond to his claim. It’s only three Quai per bottle at a restaurant like this and it tastes pretty good. I like the label too. The symbol for alcohol–it looks like a man throwing up–always makes me smile. Tess is pouring us all a glass of beer and we toast.
“Bottoms up,” Pascal offers with a grin, but Tess and I both have early morning classes and are not out to get hammered tonight. Dimitri doesn’t drink alcohol at all, undermining another perfectly good stereotype. Pascal accepts with a shrug.
“That ‘morning-class’ excuse wouldn’t work if we were with some of my colleagues from my school,” he says. “They would have forced you to drink no matter how early you had to get up.”
“I know,” I say, thinking back to a lunch I had last weekend with some senior people from my own school’s administration. “And they would have us drinking that liquor of theirs. Not beer.” Tess nods emphatically.
“Oh yeeeah and if you don’t drink you’re ‘refusing their hospitality’ or something like that. I feel so bad when they look all hurt.” Pascal grins.
“‘If we are good friends you should drink all of it,’” he quotes, “‘but if we are just so-so friends you can just drink a little.’” We all laugh. His imitation is spot-on.
“You can get away with it though,” I say looking at Tess. “Chinese women don’t drink all that much.” Dimitri and Pascal both nod. “Or,” I continue with a smile, “you could just claim to be pregnant. That always works.”
“I don’t think so though,” Tess says, “they never talk about being pregnant. Or at least they never volunteer that kind of information to me.” I think about that for a moment, then remember an email I got before I left home and realize she’s right.
“You know that’s true,” I try to remember the wording of the email, “before I came here I had some correspondence with one of the staffers at my school here. Only there was a week when she didn’t reply. Then I got a mail from one of the other teachers apologizing and saying that ‘Shirley’s not well these days as she just got married.’” Tess nods knowingly and the guys look confused.
“I bet she was pregnant,” I say, “she just had morning sickness or something and this is how they talk about these things to strangers.” I smile to myself as I remember some of the rather filthy jokes I shared with my friends over the wording of that email.
The fruit platter arrives and I must say I am impressed. It is beautifully arranged with apple, pineapple, banana and grapes made to look like a little landscape-scene with a swan and everything. They do know how to make it look good.
“Oh that reminds me,” I say. “I finally remembered to bring my camera. I want a picture of this.” We try to convince one of the waitresses to take a photo of the four of us. As usual she refuses at first, looking at the camera like it’s some extremely advanced piece of technology that she couldn’t possibly operate. She finally agrees though, and after a two minute course on how to ‘push the button’ she succeeds. I still haven’t figured out why women here seem so intimidated by technology. I take a picture of the fruit platter myself.
“How long do you suppose it takes to make a platter like that?” I ask as I browse through the pictures stored in my camera.
“Well, they probably started right away after we ordered,” Pascal responds. “So I guess about twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, only we don’t know how many people were working on it,” Tess says, while expertly picking up a piece of pineapple with her chopsticks. “They might have a little fruit platter assembly line back there.” Pascal take a sip of his beer in that particular way that French people do things when they aren’t conscious about being observed–experiencing, appreciating, judging and forgetting, all in one sweeping facial expression.
“I don’t think so. It looks good I agree, but I think one person could do it alone. They probably make these often you know?” Dimitri nods as he tries (unsuccessfully) to operate his chopsticks.
“It is like the cakes,” he says–then makes a pregnant pause like the statement should be self-explanatory–but then continues. “They have those really nice cakes in the pastry shops, with layers and glazing and sculptures and everything and it costs maybe two hundred Yuan. They must spend hours making them and they are so cheap. In Russia a cake like that would cost maybe fifty American Dollars.”
“How much is this gonna cost us?” Tess asks Pascal.
“About thirty Quai,” he replies. ”So that’s ninety Quai an hour for the girl who made the platter. Only she won’t get that money of course. I guess she makes about five an hour.” Thinking about my own wages I shake my head in disbelief. At home most people wouldn’t bother to pick up a fiver if they found it lying on the street.
“That’s what I really like about it here,” Dimitri says looking very animated all of a sudden. “You can get a lot of nice things for very little money.”
“Sure,” I reply, “but you and I are paid good salaries. As you said yourself, most locals can’t afford too much of this stuff.”
“Yes but I don’t mind,” he says shaking his head, “I get paid good money and so I can get nice things. I’ll get that motorcycle I told you about next month. In Russia it would take me years to earn enough for that.”
“Yeah but that’s only because the guy making it gets five Quai an hour,” Pascal argues with a smile. “So you’re getting nice things out of his labor.” I get the feeling that Pascal doesn’t really care that much either way. It seems like he’s angling for something. Dimitri bites.
“I don’t care,” he repeats. “I get my bike so I am happy.”
“That’s a little harsh though,” Tess says. “Do you really mean that?” I look at Pascal. That was a setup if I ever saw one. I smile to myself. Apparently our French friend enjoys a good argument. Dimitri smiles weakly.
“Now I will get in trouble I know, because you are not like me. I think I get paid for my job, and the people who make the bikes get paid for their job. It’s not my problem that they get paid less.” I have no major problem with what Dimitri is saying, though I’m not quite the mercenary that he is. I sense however, that he’s about to embark on one of his elaborate and unnecessary explanations and I feel quite sure that the whole thing will be both embarrassing and uninteresting. I remember vividly how Tess and Dimitri had an argument a few days earlier. We were in a taxi and Dimitri had made a veiled comment about a girl he didn’t feel like meeting and Tess had gotten curious. Dimitri’s reasons for not wanting to meet her were less than honorable, but instead of brushing the matter off with a smile and a joke he went ahead and explained the whole matter in way too much detail. Sitting between the two of them I couldn’t really avoid the line of fire. This time however, I am determined not to be associated with whatever he has to say.
I quite consciously distance myself as I turn away from the conversation and take a good long look around the place. The restaurant has been remodeled recently, everything done in that bright red color that the Chinese are so very fond of. I look to the neighboring table and see a kid of eight or nine looking directly back at me. I’m sure he must have been staring at me for some time but when I look at him he blushes and looks down at his plate. I smile at his parents and they smile back, nudging their kid insistently, encouraging him to come and speak to me. I’ve seen this before. Very few adults speak English, but there is a constantly growing awareness of the importance of language skills, so most parents see foreigners as a way for their kid to practice English. Sure enough, after a few seconds the kid comes over and asks the three basic questions in rapid succession: ‘What is your name?’, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Do you like Chinese food?’ I go through the motions and find that he can also understand me pretty well, which is unusual. All in all he’s not bad–good pronunciation and decent grammar too. Most times the kids don’t really listen to the answers I give them. I guess that his parents are quite well off and have had enough extra money to send their boy to one of the private schools, which means foreign teachers. I dig into my pocket and produce a key-ring with a picture of the Little Mermaid. I have a whole bag of the damn things that I bought in a souvenir shop back home and I usually bring a couple with me for situations like this. The kid breaks out a big smile and returns to his table showing the thing to his proud parents.
I turn back to my own table and the discussion. Perfect timing it seems as Dimitri shrugs and concedes the argument, if not the point:
“I know you don’t agree with me, but it’s ok. You are different from me you know? That’s why you came here in the first place?”
I seize the opportunity.
“Why did you come here Tess? I don’t think you told us yet.” Dimitri answers on her behalf.
“She’s here to save the world.” There’s a pause in the conversation as I’m confused and so is Pascal judging from his expression. Tess, judging from her accent, is getting pissed.
“Wadda ya mean,” she asks, looking at Dimitri still smiling though, sweetly as ever. Dimitri starts explaining again. His eyes are darting around the table as he continues:
“You know… you are here to, to… to help the poor,” he’s obviously trying to get out of the spotlight, but for some reason he is unwilling to just laugh it off. Tess tries to let him off the hook:
“How about the next time, you just let me speak for myself?” she asks, apparently only a little annoyed.
“No! I will speak for you!” I close my eyes and mentally shake my head. The problem with Dimitri’s humor is that sometimes it is hard to detect, and even if you do it is seldom funny.
“You. Are. A. Nun!” he says, emphasizing pretty much every word. Tess looks briefly at me and Pascal, then skewers a piece of apple with her chopstick and asks me:
“Why are you here Martin?” I silently thank her for a timely end to a pointless argument and start explaining the coincidences that led to my ending up in China. Dimitri is not listening. Partly because he already knows, but also because he’s replaying the last few minutes in his head.
As I finish my story, I try to come up with a new topic. Preferably one that will include everyone and not cause more pointless arguing. Before I can do so, we are interrupted by a group of people coming up to our table. They are led by a smiling lady, who looks to be in her late forties and a younger woman, whom I guess to be her daughter. They start talking very rapidly in Chinese, apparently oblivious to the fact that none of us have a clue as to what they are talking about. The smiling lady seems especially interested in Tess, beaming at her while she strokes her hair. Tess is obviously uncomfortable, but suffers the admiration in silence. The young woman says something, which makes her mother nod emphatically–she expertly guides her daughter’s hand through the novel experience of touching American hair.
“Do we know these people?” I ask with a smile.
“NO!” Tess responds quickly as she stands up and smiles apologetically to the two strangers. “Sorry guys, I’m gonna go hide in the restroom for a little while.” The smiling woman lingers by our table for a while longer as she looks expectantly towards the ladies’ room and fires an occasional salvo of Chinese in our direction. After a few minutes however she appears to lose patience and decides to leave. Her smile becomes wider than ever and she speaks a few more words at a slower pace. Still none of us understand, but we guess the meaning and see them off with a couple of smiles and a “bye bye.” Tess comes back to our table–apparently she could see our table through a crack in the door of the ladies’ room.
“I try to be polite,” she says, “but I really hate it when people I don’t know are touching me like that.” She smiles at me and raises her glass. “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a thing I have.” We have another toast and Tess starts telling stories about people ‘petting her.’
We finish our fruit platter and since Tess and I have to get up early, we call it a night. The waitresses seem confused as we split the bill four ways, but they all smile and seem very pleased as they see us out. One of them even manages a few words of farewell in English. Outside we split up–Tess grabs a waiting cab, Dimitri and Pascal head off to find a bar, while I walk away in another direction.
I’m feeling a little sleepy as I head for home, but the cold air is invigorating and I decide to make a detour to take some pictures of Baotou by night. There’s a square nearby I know, which is supposed to be really beautiful at night–something about a water fountain and a lot of illumination. I always hear my Chinese friends talking about the squares of the city. “Baotou has forty-something squares,” they say, like it’s some kind of mantra. I get the sense that the squares are supposed to be a sort of municipal symbol. I smile to myself. People here are very proud of the city, which is OK, I guess it’s their home after all, but even though the place is developing fast and getting wealthier year by year, it still has that provincial feel about it. The streets are pretty much deserted after nine o’clock and the whole place seems to fall asleep–a few people here and there hurrying home to watch their TV series while most of the taxis are parked near the railroad station waiting for the night train from Beijing. Part of it I’m sure, has to do with the fact that Chinese people don’t ‘go out’ the way we do it at home. People will meet for dinner and get really, really drunk in a very short time and then maybe head for the karaoke bar across the street and sing a few songs. You don’t really meet new people unless you’re in the same party and the bars often seem empty because most people prefer to do their singing in private rooms. It’s hard to find a ‘normal’ pub. Just a place to get a beer and meet some people would be nice, but whenever I find one it’s always much too hip and overpriced. There’s no decent liquor either. I remember seeing a bottle of Bombay Gin at a place a few days ago, but it turned to just be a bottle of water. The manager had thought the blue glass was pretty. People tell me it’s different in the summer, so I guess I have something to look forward to.
Some of the shops still haven’t closed up for the night. I see some small convenience stores, a pharmacy and a string of hairdressers–all of them open, although they don’t appear to have a lot of business. Some of the hairdressers are acting a little funny and I remember that this particular occupation often provides other late night services. As I smile back to the ‘ladies’ I hear loud talking and laughter coming from a small shop wedged in between two hairdressers and I take peek in the window. The place is packed–maybe about twenty-five people sitting in a smoke-filled room around small square tables playing Mahjong. Most of them are men, but I see a few women standing close to the walls–no doubt there to keep an eye on their husbands’ use of this month’s rent. The talking dies out at the tables closest to the window as they see me looking in, so I leave them to their game and walk on by. I have never really understood the fascination with Mahjong, but I guess it’s a matter of taste. The game is pretty simple to play, although it takes some effort to memorize the Chinese symbols on the pieces. It seems to me that the game is mostly dependent on luck. There’s a burst of applause coming from behind me–someone won a big pot I guess and I remind myself that most money-games appear to be based on luck if you only know the rules.
I finally arrive at the park, which is good as I’m getting kind of cold, but I quickly see that it’s a bit of a letdown–a big patch of darkness, backlit by a new hotel on the far side. The place might be attractive in summer, but right now it is just depressing. I stride over the ankle-high fence and cross the lawn to the fountain. There is no water though. I guess I should have known better as it has been freezing both night and day for two months now. The fountain would be an ice-sculpture in a matter of hours unless they found some way to circulate boiling water. I involuntarily chuckle out loud as I realize that they probably do have some contingency plan for that, in case a dignitary from Beijing should make a visit to Inner Mongolia. As I walk further into the deserted park I decide I like it anyway; it’s completely dark and the silence is soothing in a certain way. I spend a few minutes there taking some pictures of the stars and then just as I’m about to leave I see movement in the darkness. I’m a little startled at first, but then realize that I’ve stumbled upon a young couple taking a walk. I’m guessing they are school kids, maybe eighteen or nineteen and I almost smirk as I pass them. The guy looks a bit annoyed and the girl is hiding her face as they hurry out of sight. I find it oddly comforting. I’m half-way round the world, but teenagers are teenagers.
I leave the park through the pompous-looking gate and head home. I guess I should take a cab as the cold is numbing my feet by now, but I walked this far so I decide to tough it out. I haven’t walked more than a few hundred meters though when a bright red KFC sign makes me a welcome offer of warm coffee and I accept it wholeheartedly. It’s one of only three KFCs in the city and for the first time ever I find that it’s not completely full. I’ve never known the place to have many free tables. Around lunch and dinner time people are eating their chicken burgers standing up. It’s a little weird that fast food is so popular here. It’s extremely expensive compared to the local restaurants and most people I talk to seem well aware of the effects on their health. But then again, they’re also smoking like chimneys and laughing it all off. The place is sleepy now and I can actually get a cup of coffee and some snacks without standing in line. I sit down at a table by the window, but since nothing much is going on outside I turn my attention to the other customers. Most people in here are alone like myself–a little old man in a huge overcoat, a guy talking to one of the waitresses, and a policeman who I guess is supposed to be on duty. The most animated people in here are three guys sitting at a table near the door. They are talking quite loudly, laughing and having a good time from what I can tell. It looks odd though as two of them are wearing flashy suits, while the third is dressed in what can best be described as rags. I look more closely and even from a distance I can see that the latter is also missing several teeth and appears pretty dirty. They seem very close though, laughing at each other’s stories and patting each other on the back. I sip my coffee slowly as I wonder how they fit together. After a few minutes they finish up and leave. Through the window I see them hailing a cab and driving off together.
I feel warm and comfortable again as I finish my coffee and decide to get going too. One of the waiters calls out a “goodbye” in English as I leave, so I half turn and give him a wave through the glass door. It’s a mistake. I fail to notice a small dog sitting in front of the door and stumble trying to avoid stepping on it. Luckily the KFC people keep their entrance ice-free and I stay on my feet while the dog (jumping around) makes some sounds halfway between a threat and plea. It’s much too small to command respect, but I throw it my last chicken nuggets and leave as it happily devours my leftovers.
I’m tired now, more tired than I ought to be at nine-thirty and my mind wanders as I walk the last stretch at a brisk pace. I think about my morning class and about the essays that I’ll be correcting all next week. I think about that nice Chinese girl I met at a dinner last week. I think about giving her a call, then I think about home.
I can see my apartment block now. It’s black and gloomy-looking and seems about fifty years old, but in fact the place was built less than twenty years ago. The harsh climate of Inner Mongolia is making itself felt on bricks and concrete as well as on flesh and skin it seems. It’s also substandard construction though and I’m sure the place was as drafty when they built it as it is now. My apartment in Denmark is more than a hundred years old, but it will probably stand for a lot longer than this one. It is getting better however, I’ve seen some of the new constructions up close and the quality of housing is definitely improving along with the general development. I wonder what Baotou looked like twenty years ago. I wonder what it will look like twenty years from now.
I carefully cross the street one last time as a caravan of heavy trucks drives by. I see a hole in their lineup and jog through it to the other side towards my gate. I’m just about to enter when I suddenly hear a truck breaking hard behind me and a horn blasting through the night air. I stop in front of the open gate, startled, and look back trying to figure out if I’m somehow responsible for all the commotion. Then I hear a few barks over the noise of breaking trucks and see the small dog again. It navigates its way through the maze of stopped trucks with a happy look on its face, completely oblivious to the trouble it has caused and heads straight for me. Smiling, I shake my head and close the gate in front of the hopeful dog. I hear a few disappointed barks, but then the sounds of the trucks drown out the noise and I’m home.
Once inside I go through my evening routine: check my e-mail, browse through the news from home and then go to bed. Suddenly I’m not really tired and I lie in bed for some time thinking about this and that. Something tells me that this is going be one of those nights where I just won’t be able to fall asleep. Then my phone beeps in that loud and insistent tone that I don’t know how to change—an SMS.
“MET THE FILIPINOS ON THE WAY HOME. WE’RE GOING DRINKING!!! SCREW YOUR CLASSES TOMORROW! COME TO THE BAR BY THE HARBOR NOW!”
I think about it, but not for long. I don’t feel like sleeping anymore. I’m quickly dressed and down at the bar. There are a lot of people there, more than I would have expected for a Tuesday night. I find my friends and we start drinking quickly. I find that I can drink more than usual, keeping pace with the best of them. We talk and I find myself at the center of attention. I’m not sure what we’re discussing, but everyone seems to agree with me. We dance. I can’t remember ever dancing like that before. I meet a girl, then another one and another. All of them beautiful, all of them smiling, laughing, dancing and kissing. Everything is working out. Everybody is happy. Everybody is taking part in the fun, and everybody seems to know everybody else.
I see some of the Filipinos sitting alone by a table in the corner. I join them and we start talking like old friends. We talk about teaching, about traveling, about East and West. I sense that something is wrong–something is changing. They tell me about their school and their classroom. Fifty students to one teacher in a room meant for thirty. They tell me their salary and I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I don’t tell them mine. They tell me about their apartment. I don’t believe them. They show me.
We enter their room through the window. The door is always locked they tell me. Inside I see why. Six bunk beds are lined up along all four walls, including one in front of the door. Thirteen people are living here they tell me. One guy shares a bed with his wife. Four people are here now, but I don’t know them. They look tired, but all are awake. There is no furniture apart from the beds, but many pictures on the walls. They are their families from back home they tell me. I feel tired all of a sudden and I say goodbye. Do I have money for the taxi? I don’t so they all pool together. Six and a half Quai for the cab fare. I refuse but they insist. I refuse again but they won’t hear of it. Do I know the way back to the main roads? I don’t, but I say that I do. They smile and shake my hand as I leave. Please come back another time they say. I nod and force a smile.
Outside it’s dark now and I don’t know where I am. I have the sea on my right so I follow a gravel road heading up into the hills. There are no streetlights here and no moonlight either, but I can see pretty well. I follow the road for a few minutes, the sounds of the harbor bars receding behind me. The road becomes wider and paved as I continue walking up and away from the water. I see two people coming toward me. One is a woman. No, both are women. Black. Police officers. They haven’t seen me, it’s too dark, but I see them clearly. I don’t want to scare them so I call out to them, but something is wrong with my voice. It sounds threatening. They are both startled, their eyes darting left and right trying to see me. They draw their revolvers and one of them shoots in the blind, hitting nothing. I sit down by the side of the road and hope that they wont hit me. I cover my head with my hands. My skin feels dry. It’s the low humidity here. It’s too dry. Maybe it’s because we’re so far inland. No water. No sea.
I wake up sweating. I try to figure out where I am. Try to remember where one thing ends and another begins. Try to get it all sorted out in my mind. As I lie back down I have no idea where I am or what the hell I’m doing here. It’s like that sometimes.