They're burning garbage in the streets, the roosters are running wild, and an old Chinese woman is beating my undershirts with a stick. The shirts are hanging on a makeshift line, fresh from the pond across the street where the plastic bags, bicycle tires, and half-eaten shoes bob and turn in the frozen wind. The fires, six feet high and spewing plumes of black smoke, sway along the road behind the pond where Old Ming drags his net between the refuse, hoping to catch a radioactive carp or two. He caught a microwave once. I told him not to plug it in.
Ming's wife, Li Pei, is the shirt beater. I asked her not to bother since I knew I'd just end up wearing a wet shirt tonight, but she thought I was just being polite. The Chinese have been washing undershirts in this pond for 4,000 years, but never before the intractable stains of foreigners, and after a long ten minutes, Li Pei walks over and hands me a wet shirt with a sigh, explaining in an exasperated and utterly incomprehensible stream of dialect what I already know. I shrug and smile sheepishly as she waddles away mumbling to herself, confirmed in her belief once and for all that foreigners really do stink. A lone black rooster follows her back down the dirt road, mocking her waddle.
A few hours later I'm in a black Mercedes, as all government cars here seem to be, honking its way down a wide but crowded street. My girlfriend, Ning, and I are in the back seat, ensconced in the cigarette smoke issuing from our portly driver and the Big Boss seated next to him. Big Boss Tang is one of the top Communist Party officials in this county, with powerful friends in the provincial capital in Nanchang. His star is rising and everyone he meets is eager to impress him with their boundless capacity for ingratiation. He also happens to be Ning's father.
As we drive through the streets, I notice what you notice in small towns in China: kids playing badminton on the sidewalk using a motorcycle for a net, burning oil drums and random little roadside fires, roosters fighting with dogs over scraps in the alleys, and people, people everywhere, some sitting in the middle of the road doing God knows what, on bikes, on foot, carrying impossible bundles of wood and plastic and scrap iron, the sunburned elderly masses in thick blue pants, giant purple scarves, and knit caps. But I mostly notice the girls. All in knee-high black boots, like Fredericks of Hollywood finally conquered Guatemala, and all screaming into cell phones.
The Big Boss shouts into his, cigarette dangling from his mouth. In between the shouting, Ning assures me that I needn't worry about the food tonight. It won't contain bleach or sewer oil. "It won't? That's good," I say, a little unnerved. Why it won't is that the restaurant we are heading to is owned by some local Communist Party officials. Their relatives work there. Officials eat there. Therefore, they ensure that only the best, non-toxic ingredients are used. As she explains this to me, I'm a little distracted by my dank, pond-fresh undershirt—complete with stink lines—that I now happen to be wearing, especially since it is the middle of February and the driver has the air conditioning on with the windows open. "Fresh air." You learn quickly that the Chinese love their fresh air as much as they hate their sun. But as the car speeds us through the dusty streets just as dusk mingles with cigarette smoke and the sounds of Styx (bafflingly) coming from the tape deck, I try to focus on the positive: no sewer oil.
As I stare out the window, face blasted with frozen air and smoke, Ning tells me that the only other foreigner in these parts in recent memory was a red-haired Dutchman who spent two weeks in the next town over. He made the mistake of announcing his intent to break off a fling he was having with a local girl shortly before he was to head back home. Unwise. She already had the drapes all picked out for their little cottage back in Holland, and needless to say, she didn't take the news well. The night before he left town she attempted to Nagasaki him at a local restaurant with a pot of boiling water and a butcher knife. I was wondering why one of Ning's aunts mentioned, with visible relief, that I don't have red hair. Bad karma. Apocryphal or not, Ning's story served its purpose. She gives me the evil eye and lets out a witchy laugh just as the driver swerves around a giant ox in the middle of the road....
We arrive at the restaurant to the burst of a thousand firecrackers. The last few go off as we get out of the car, the air thick with smoke and the smell of sulfur. A teenage boy wearing a fedora and a track suit kicks the spent pile of firecrackers like a heap of little red snake skins into the street, while the Big Boss strides over towards a back entrance, suddenly surrounded by an entourage that emerges from the shadows. I ask Ning if the fireworks were for us or for him. "It's hard to say," she says.
As we walk through the restaurant, I notice that one wall is covered with pictures of naked women in various poses. These aren't drawings or ancient paintings like you might be thinking, but full-frontal, soft-porn, glossy-magazine nudes. The wall even has its own diaphanous curtain for those occasions when eating in front of a montage of pink parasols, tiny nipples, and pitch-black 70's bush might not be desirable. This, apparently, is not one of those occasions.
We finally make our way past the fishy crab tanks in the back corner and up a treacherous, snaking metal staircase to the VIP section. As we enter our private banquet room, led by a dwarfish man with a bramble of curly hair, all decked out in a white suit, twelve people in various states of seed-and-nut spitting arise to greet us. In an instant a man with a bushy mustache hands me an orange before I even have my coat off. Another man with a lazy eye offers me a bowl of sunflower seeds. A young girl, who turns out to be one of the many waitresses, nervously offers to take my coat while staring at my feet. The room is spacious and bright, with a TV and a small space heater in front of a couple of lime green couches and a table that seats twenty. All eyes and smiles are fixed upon me, the giant foreigner, and after a brief but awkward silence, a fat man with a swoosh of white hair and a matching grin shakes my hand vigorously and says only two words to me in Chinese: "United States!" "Yes, United States," I say with a smile. He bellows out a laugh that shakes the room, amazed that I understand him, and for the rest of the evening I have a fast friend, always ready to place some unwanted morsel on my plate.
Next begins the awkward and baffling ritual of deciding who sits where around this giant Lazy Susan of a table. I make the mistake of attempting to sit down, but Ning grabs my arm and holds me back, and we wait for the underlings and sycophants to work it out, pulling each other this way and that until the pecking order has been established. The mysterious calculus completed, I am directed to sit to the left of the orange peddler with the mustache, two seats to the left of the Big Boss. As one of the few foreigners to ever visit this town, I have been given a position of honor at the table, Ning tells me. I picture the red-haired Dutchman dodging boiling water and butcher knives and just nod.
The mustachioed man seated next to me is one of the youngest present, thirty-five at most, and looks out of place, like a coal miner on his day off except for the enormous gold ring and watch weighing down his left hand. I almost mistook him for one of the drivers. He leans into the table when he talks, animated but unassuming and relaxed, blowing smoke. He and the Big Boss occasionally whisper among themselves amid the general chatter. He tells me to try the fish head in a low, wispy voice, pointing with his chopsticks at the dead eye. He then tells Ning that he wants to send his teenage daughter to the U.S. to study but needs a place for her to stay. He offers to give us an apartment in Shanghai if we can get his daughter back to New York with us. He says he'll take care of everything, he has one million yuan all prepared for the trip. "Is that enough?" he asks. He'll also give us a house here in town if we want. I'm a little taken aback by all of this, but my mind is already racing: How hard would it be to get a teenage girl to New York? How big is this apartment in Shanghai? And who is this guy anyway? The head of the local triad, I imagine. Ning is polite but unimpressed, as if she's heard all of this before. And I probably look a little too interested in his proposal. I can feel her look. To her relief, his phone rings and the would-be cab driver who hands out houses like oranges disappears into another room never to be seen again.
The conversation around the table jumps from what to feed your sick pigs to the stock boom in Shanghai and finally lands on Richard Milhous Nixon. Nixon remains a popular figure in China—in the Chinese imagination he's a giant in the pantheon of American presidents seated beside Washington and Lincoln. My dinner companions are surprised to learn that many of his countrymen place him in the less lofty company of Warren G. Harding. They never heard of Harding. The man with the lazy eye nevertheless declares, "Nixon will always be remembered warmly because he came to China first. Just like you. You are the Nixon of our town." The laughter that follows seems finally to dispel any remaining foreigner anxiety from the air. Old lazy eye beams.
A moment later, seeming to sense the change in atmosphere, our burly driver (the Big Boss's shadow) and two other men I've never seen before come over from the kid's table in the room next door. They're in there with the other drivers and the rest of the people not important enough to merit a seat at the grown-up's table. The three of them, standing just inside the doorway, lift their glasses to the Big Boss, muttering a toast in the local dialect. The Big Boss squints and smiles through his cigarette and lazily raises his glass in their direction. He doesn't stand. The three drivers, having made their obeisance, head back to the other room, inaugurating an endless cycle of toasting and drinking and standing and sitting. And drinking.
Boss Tang ate tree bark in order to survive during the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao's decade of mass insanity that brought China to the edge of collapse. Other members of Boss Tang's family were imprisoned in those days and died broke, broken men. It was then in 1972, in a February just as cold as this one, that Nixon came and secured his place in the psyche of China's own Lost Generation. Like many of his peers, Boss Tang was denied a formal education, but his quick wit and his talent for gambling made him famous in these parts and he flourished. He speaks with a languid, effortless self-assurance, as if he's used to giving orders and has nothing to prove, and like most successful Chinese politicians, he has an air of laconic indifference about him. He knows when to keep his mouth shut—always.
After a round-robin of toasting directed at him, Boss Tang finally makes a toast of his own. He rises from the table with two other men seated near him whom I hadn't taken much notice of before. He then turns towards me with his glass of Chinese white lightning raised and cupped in both hands and says in his heavily accented Mandarin, "The Communist Party welcomes you to China!" For a moment I feel like a character in a Graham Greene novel swept up in the storms of Cold War and God and CIA. Only now, fifty years later, it all seems absurdly anachronistic and surreal, like re-enacting the Battle of Gettysburg in your uncle's backyard. I raise my glass, thank him a little punchily, and bury my fifth mao-tai, which nearly buries me. I look over at Ning and see in her face that I'm drunk, lost in the warm haze of fish head soup and cigar smoke and the perfume of pretty young waitresses with bad teeth.
As the drinking degenerates into random volleys of shouting and singing, I notice the TV in the corner is still on with the sound turned down. Commercials filled with shiny blond foreigners selling everything from energy pills to Buicks interrupt the weather report. I take another shot of moonshine and wonder what Dick Nixon would think of all of this and decide he would approve. Just as the weatherman's giant head flashes back on the TV screen, the dwarf in the white suit appears in the doorway. He and his giant perm scurry across the room to whisper something into Boss Tang's ear. Tang takes a long drag on his cigarette and looks over at me without saying anything. I give him an awkward smile and nod. He just stares.
An hour later, mostly sober, as I follow Boss Tang out of the restaurant, I avoid even inadvertently glancing at the wall of nudes and keep my eyes fixed on the exit ahead. Outside it is cool, dark, and damp, but the air still pulses with chaos and life. The frogs are roasting on the grills. The hookers, bathed in the purple light of a neon sign, stand outside the hair salon across the street. Trucks filled with bricks still bounce down the road, shooting up dust and fumes into the night. The fat man with white hair, face flushed red with too much mao-tai, walks over, bear hugs me and exclaims, "Good morning, Mr. Nixon!" the only English he knows. Everyone laughs, even Boss Tang.
After handshakes all around, the rest stand and wave as we drive off into the fog, the driver honking his horn and flashing his headlights at every passing car, bicycle, and red-faced peasant. I ask myself how this can be China, the land of mandarins and Mao, screaming Red revolution and tanks on the Square? The Big Boss mashes his cigarette into the ashtray and sighs something to the driver that I don't understand. The driver grunts. Ning is already half asleep with her face pressed against the window, picking out drapes, and I notice that the fresh air has finally freeze-dried my undershirt stiff, all as Styx once again soft-rocks us ahead into the great Chinese unknown.
About the author:
Christian Ames is a writer based in Shanghai, where he is currently working on a novel and a collection of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation. He is originally from New York.
© 2011 Word Riot