The following story is the second installment in my longer piece, “Loawai!” a portfolio of stories from my travels in China. To read the first part of “Laowai!” click here.
I wake up. Nothing. No Mr. Li. No food. No sassy grad student from Seattle, and no heat. I pull out my computer and discover that there’s no internet. I try to turn on the TV, but there’s no power button on the box itself and no batteries in the remote. I can’t find a broom to sweep up the dust bunnies. I can’t find soap in the kitchen to wash the dirty dishes.
I unpack the rest of my things, and wonder if Mr. Li plans to stop by, just for a check up. He’s given me a phone number, but I don’t have a phone. There’s a balcony for hanging clothes in my room, and from it I can see a shop where people leave with bags of food, chewing on steamed buns, or cracking open a fresh can of Sprite. I gather my wallet and the set of keys Mr Li has given me and exit the apartment.
It’s just as I expect. People stare, point, gasp. In the distance I hear a male voice shout, “Hullo!” and a round of cackles from his friends. I duck into the shop, happy to find the cashier counting cash and only willing to let my presence make her grin slightly. I grab a packet of shrink-wrapped tofu, some kind of meat-filled bun, some oranges, and three tubs of instant noodles: mild. I can hear whispers coming from the next aisle, and just as I reach the end, a girl my age rounds the corner, expecting to find me still peering at the noodle selection. She squeaks and twirls, bolting back to her friend.
When I reach the counter, the cashier has finished counting her money but still only offers a modest smile, and I vow to remain a loyal customer. “Shi san quai qian,” she says, crossing her pointer fingers to signify a ten; and then holding up her pinky, ring, and middle finger to signify a three. Thirteen bucks. I could hand her exact change, but I’m not sure if I want her knowing that I can speak any Chinese yet, no matter how much of a novice I am. I give her a twenty, take my change, and tell her, “Xie xie.” Thank you.
“Bu keqi,” she says. No problem.
I remain indoors reading Brave New World and playing computer solitaire for the better part of three days. I watch students returning from break through the window behind the couch. I live off of the steamed buns. The water-cooler runs out, and I don’t know who to ask for more, so I buy jugs of water, and start drinking soda again. Mr. Li can’t figure out why my internet won’t work, and I have trouble sleeping at night.
When the first Europeans to make it to Asia crossed over from what is now the Middle East, they were forced to forge a path through the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, a region so unforgiving to human inhabitants that little if any of the natural landscaped has been altered since then, more than six-hundred years ago.
But it was the easiest route to the Far East and a nation that would become known in Italian as Cathay, or China. The legendary Himalayan Mountains provided for China, a nation known by it’s inhabitants as the “Middle Kingdom,” a natural barrier to the West. After Ming Dynasty officials linked a series of protective stone walls at China’s land border to the North, The Great of Wall China secured that border. To the East of China is the Pacific, offering both protection and opportunity for trade. However, China’s advanced society meant that trade and relations with other heathen nations offered little value, and even before the notoriously xenophobic, anti-western attitude of the Mao era, we see the evidence of China’s long occupation with isolationism.
Mr. Li takes me to the student cafeteria where I meet Tony, a grad student in the biology department who majored in English and flies at the opportunity to meet and greet and real live American. He’s skinny and awkward, with a weasly face that reminds me of a kid at the state fair. He wears tidy pants and a tucked in shirt. He helps me buy a bike and a cell-phone. He takes me to the computer market so the technicians can install Windows XP, because apparently Chinese people don’t like Windows 7. He gets my Internet going, helps me decipher some of the most important characters on a Chinese menu.
Tony introduces me to Nathan, who wears jeans and comfy t-shirts and lets his bangs hang down over his eyes. Nathan enjoys a cigarette and a cold beer, and even though his English is poor, we stumble into an easy friendship over drinks and stories of old friends. The first night we drink together, Nathan ends up sloshed and on the brink of tears, relating the story of a childhood buddy who died in a construction accident. This experience formed the basis by which Nathan now lives his life, “We might die,” he says, “We might die so quickly, and we never know when.” It is the first interaction of any depth, of anything beyond Hello, where are you from? What are your hobbies? Anything beyond let’s shout at the laowai and run away. Nathan leaves, and I fall into sleep easily.