From China with Teacups

 -by Seth Howard

     My first day in China was spent with Leif searching for a bank with a good exchange rate.  He had met me at the Beijing Airport.  I flew over from Japan, where I had been staying for 2 years.  I was happy to see Leif again.  We were in the same Japanese class at Sophia University and became friends that way.  We went to a few different banks before Leif found one that he liked.  I withdrew some money from the ATM.  I was concerned that it wasn’t going to accept my card, but it did.  My parents had given me some 1000 dollars for the trip.  It felt good to have some cash in my hand.  After that, we looked for a hotel and Leif reserved us the night.  He could speak Chinese fairly fluently by then.  Of course, he had already been in China for over a year by the time we met up again.  It was a pretty nice room, but we didn’t hang around for long, as we wanted to see more of the city. 

     There was some kind of fair going on nearby the hotel where they were selling various things.  I was hoping that I would be able to buy a pad of paper there but they had no such thing.  We walked around the city for a while before ducking into a restaurant for lunch.  We figured we would try out their Peking duck, because it was said to be their (meibutsu) specialty in Beijing.  We ate it with some salty brown sauce they gave us.   It was a little on the expensive side for Chinese food Leif said, but I didn’t have a good idea of how much money was worth there yet.  My understanding is that people who stayed in China for any length of time ended up becoming really stingy.  Even if you could get something for cheap by American standards, they were always looking for something cheaper. 

     During the day we rented bicycles and had fun riding around the city.  We went into some of the areas of old Beijing that were getting rather run down, and Leif explained to me that these sections of the city were going to be destroyed soon.  I had brought my digital camera with me so I was taking pictures along the way.  In one memorable picture, Leif caught me looking back from my bike while standing up with a tired look on my face.  In the distance could be seen tall sky-scrapers and a large highway with cars going in the opposite direction as I was headed.  We discovered a lot on our bikes before we finally headed back and returned them to the rental store. 

     At night we had dinner with one of Leif’s foreign friends who had been in China for years.  Evidently he had “Gone Chinese.”  There was a strange kind of crazed look in his eye and when you talked to him you wondered to what extent he understood your humor.  He had a kind of angry look on his face which I would come to understand later as the result of the constant struggle you had to go through dealing with the Chinese.  He had brought a girl with him who was “just kind of there” and didn’t really say much.  Especially because we were speaking in English most of the time, which she didn’t understand.  Still, I liked the chap and thought he was an interesting fellow.  He ordered food like he owned the place, and we joked around about his having spent too much time in China.  This was a completely different thing from that kind of dark quality people who stayed in Tokyo for too long start to take on. 

     After dinner we separated from the kid and Leif, and I went into the college area of the city were all the students were hanging out in clubs.  We went into one of them, and I built up enough courage to get in there and start dancing with some of the more attractive girls.  The music was loud.  Leif stayed on the sidelines, evidently unconfident in his dancing skills.  After a while, we took a break from dancing and went upstairs where it was quiet enough to talk with people.  I saw some of the girls I was dancing with but couldn’t say anything to them because I didn’t know Chinese, so I just stood there and smiled awkwardly.  Leif said he was impressed that I danced with those girls like that.  Apparently this was the phase of his life where he had not yet discovered women in their full form. 

     Finally, we went back to our hotel, and we were really tired from the night, so we just crashed.  Normally, we probably would have bought some beers and wiled the rest of the night away, but such was not the case this time.  Besides, we didn’t come across any shops that seemed to be selling beer.  The following day we went to the train station and bought our tickets for Harbin.  It was an all night train,  taking about 12 hours to reach its destination. 

     When we arrived in Harbin the first thing I noticed was how cold it was, even though it was just turning into spring.  On the train, we had gotten into trouble for sitting in the dining car without buying anything.  They told us that if we wanted to sit in the dining car then we had to buy something to eat.  We didn’t want to, so Leif started arguing with them.  Maybe it was because of this that my PSP memory stick got stolen.  They had seen me playing it in the dining car.  When I arrived in Harbin it was gone, so I couldn’t play Monster Hunter 2nd G which I had purchased just for the trip. 

      The first thing we did when we got there was get something to eat.  Leif’s Korean girlfriend was in China at the time so she came along with us most of the time.   We went to a Korean grilled meat place.  We ordered Beer which came in what looked like a 22 ounce bottle.  It was cold because they left it outside in the winter air.  During the summer it was warm, because they were too stingy to pay for refrigeration.  The food was great.  We ate our fill of grilled meat, wrapping it in a big lettuce leaf, and eating it with raw garlic cloves.  Leif explained that each beer was less than a dollar in American money, and even though we ate our fill of high quality beef, the bill ended up coming to only around $5 for the three of us. 

      Leif showed me to his apartment which was a really nice place, and I even had my own room.  Then there was Leif’s room, which was somewhat bigger and the dining room, kitchen, and bathroom.  Unfortunately, the shower leaked, so I was always worried about getting electrocuted, but nothing happened.  I did a lot of writing in my journal at that time because so much was bright and new to me.  We did a lot of hanging out in the dining room during the day as Leif worked on various applications on his laptop and I would borrow his Economist magazines and read them out on the balcony that overlooked the City.  We were pretty elevated as it was, and across the street you could see great tall buildings rising up all about.

      At the end of the street, there was a building we ended up calling simply “The Tower” because it was just that in form.  It had a number of floors that could be reached by using the elevator, but towards the top there was Leif’s language school that he introduced to me almost immediately.  He said classes there were very inexpensive so we tried to get me signed up for a class.  I had missed the enrollment for the group lessons, but they said I could get a private tutor and that it wasn’t that much more expensive.  I was happy with my teacher and did my best to keep up with the homework she assigned me.  Because I had just come from 2 years of Japanese lessons, I already had a head start on the language acquisition game, and started to pick up what she taught me quickly. 

     During the day, we went to this big building that ended up being a major engineering college.  There was a study room open to students and we went there to study for our Kanji quizzes.  When I studied I alternated between practicing writing the characters and reading Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” which I got an English language copy of at a huge bookstore in Harbin.  I remember crying when I got to the end of it.  I also managed to pick up a copy of “The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce,” which had a bunch of very informative essays in it on everything from “The Dubliners” to “Finnegan’s Wake.”  By the time I left China, I would have read both of them cover to cover.  I also got a copy of “Journey to the West” in a compact green box set divided into 4 volumes.   Apparently, my study strategy worked because almost every time my teacher game me a quiz on the characters, I got a perfect score.

     There were several very attractive teachers working at the school.  Several of whiom I became enamored with.  There was one younger girl who happened to be waiting in line for the water machine one time, and I let her go in front of me, using the appropriate term in Chinese I learned for “You first.”  She smiled at me, and she really was beautiful.  Then there was another one who may be considered unpretty by certain people’s standards but I was completely taken with her.  In fact, I became infatuated with her.  She looked kind of Korean.  The school was indeed run by a Korean woman and most of the students were Korean.  She had a spell cast on a couple of her Korean male students, and they would follow her around wherever she went.  I watched one time as she teased them by taking away one of their pens and playing with it in her hand.  Another time she waved her hand for me and her Korean fans to follow her as she went into the elevator.  I was too shy to take her up on the offer, but I took the elevator a few minutes afterwards and when it arrived on the bottom floor, she was there waiting for me when the doors opened.  There was another beautiful teacher who looked like she was a somewhat older woman, and when I was introduced to her I told her that I was pleased to meet her and that she was “very beautiful.”  To my delight, she said that I was very handsome as well.  We were both blushing by the time my friend pulled me away.

     One of the students was a Japanese kid, and I would often talk to him in Japanese.  He was a pretty laid back guy, and we got along fine.  Leif had a few other Japanese friends, one of whom was a cute girl, and we would sometimes all go out in a big group and get shabu-shabu.  There were a few guys who looked like they liked the girl, but I would make them jealous by flirting with the girl in Japanese.  I got her number and even sent her a message after I left China.  She got back to me with a cheerful message.  One of the kids who looked like he could have been her girlfriend had long hair, and he ended up kind of becoming my rival until we later became friends when we went to Karaoke and I sang X-Japan songs with one of the other Japanese guys.  When we needed a break, we went out onto the roof and watched the stars spread out in the sky.  On the music line, our Japanese language school had its own theme song that it would play every time class began or ended.  It was a melancholy tune which was really catchy, and I constantly found myself humming and whistling it on my own. 

     Sometimes, we would go to the cafeteria which was inside the tower, which mainly served Korean food.  I would mostly order Bibinbap or some Korean-style sushi roll.  The food was great and inexpensive.  There, I saw the teacher who I had a thing for and she was in a tight pink slip.  I stared at her like a dog, panting.  But most of the time we would go to a particular Chinese restaurant which served grilled meat on skewers like shishkabob.  It seemed to be mostly pork, but we got a variety of different things such as dumpling-like meatballs, cut tomatoes with sugar on them, and fried bread on skewers.  Of course, we washed it all down with copious amounts of beer.  It was Leif and my favorite restaurant.  The quality was really very good.  At night, we would sometimes go to a local Korean bar and drink Jinro Soju, the Korean equivalent to Shochu.  Leif’s girlfriend came with us and we had a great time getting drunk many a night.  Certainly going to restaurants became the centerpiece to our travel, and many a time Leif would get into arguments with the waiters, telling them to “Quaidiar!” (Hurry up!) then try to bargain with them about the price of the bill.  He really tried to save every cent he could. 

     Sometimes, it was hard for me to pick myself up and make it to class, because I got sick with a cold twice during the time I was in Harbin.  But still I did my best, and made it to every class, although I was sniffling away the whole time.  It really hurt my concentration too, but I continued to get good grades on my tests.  I took frequent showers to try to open up my nasal passages and took some Tylenol Leif had to try to get rid of the headache, but it was really bothersome.  Living within range of a penicillin factory couldn’t have helped.  Still, I kept up with writing in my diary, and jerked off to thoughts of the teachers at the school.  Leif’s girlfriend would come over and we would watch Korean movies together on Leif’s laptop.  Some good, some bad.  The one I liked most was “Oldboy.”  Leif’s girlfriend was okay looking, but I kind of took a particular liking to her later on.  She was an acquired taste.  There was some talk of Leif leaving his apartment and going to Korea.  He said the apartment had been paid for a couple of months so I could stay there if I wanted to remain in China after he left.  I considered his offer.  At the same time, I was in communication with my American university (UConn) about the possibly of returning there to finish up my degree. 

     Then, one day I went to the cafeteria and saw a cute girl I had seen around the school a few times, in a yellow dress.  I got up and started talking to her.  She was happy to talk to me and spoke to me a mile a minute in Chinese.  I did my best, and told her that my Chinese wasn’t that good yet, but by then it had improved greatly.  She had beautiful sounding Chinese.  I thought she was so cute.  We made plans to meet another time.  The next time we met was in the school after it had closed.  We talked about the “Journey to the West,” and I told her that I loved the story.  I waited for the right time and asked her if she would be my girlfriend.  She looked surprised and put her hand on her chest and said “Yes!”  I was relieved.  I was lucky to have scored such a hot girlfriend.  But I thought the teachers in the school might be jealous.  There was also a girl at the desk who had a kind of bitchy personality, but she seemed to grow to like me, and I flirted with her every chance I got.  At one point, I went up to talk to her, and she seemed quiet for her usual self and really embarrassed.  I knew then that she had a crush on me. 

     Sure, I was happy to have met my girlfriend, but there was some talk of me returning to school in the States, and I had to go back to Japan before then.  I had already been in China for almost a month, and there was maybe a week left before I might have to fly back.  I wanted to take up Leif on his offer, but decided against it.  I went to a nearby internet café and used a computer to send an email to my girlfriend.  I explained my situation, and she wrote me back some long lovey letter saying things like “Oh, we will have time, yes we will have time.”  I thought her English was just as cute as her Chinese.  I wondered why we hadn’t spoken English to each other from the beginning.  I wrote back some stupid message telling her that I was thinking of staying in China, but I needed someone to take care of me, and wondered if she would be there for me. 

     The next letter I wrote was to Sophia University, telling them I would no longer be a student there.  The Dean wrote me back telling me that he was sorry to hear that.  Then, things seemed to be winding to a close.  I bought a little MP3 player from the electronics store while I flirted with the store clerk.  I met a few kids at McDonald’s who had been keeping correspondence with me as well and their English seemed very good to me.  I was glad to have made such friends.  Then, I had caught my second cold.  I heard someone at the school say “Wan la?” (You’re done?)  ..And I thought I probably was.  I got a few good looks at the teacher I liked, and imagined her without any clothes on.  I fantasized about going to a hotel with her and her two Korean boys.  I tried to tell my teacher how great Japan was, but she wasn’t buying it.  Japanese were tortured in Harbin during the war after all.  They still didn’t have a great opinion of them. 

     Leif went with me to the train station, and we bought my ticket back to Beijing.  On the train ride, I was sniffling and sneezing all the way back.  Two girls sat next to me and seemed to comfort me.  They talked to me about this and that, and gave me tissues.  I thanked them for their kindness.  In between trying to amuse them with what little energy I had left, I was reading my copy of “Journey to the West.”  The bland scenery passed by out my window for hours.  Finally, it was the two girls’ stop.  I said goodbye, and thanked them for all they had done for me.  Then I was alone, going into the darkness.  When I arrived in Beijing, I found the youth hostel I had made reservations for.  I was happier than anyone to have a room to rest in that night.  The next morning, I got up early and took the taxi, telling the driver to go to the airport.  He seemed to understand.  He took a roundabout way.  By the time we got there, the taxi bill was way more than I had money to pay for.  I gave him a Japanese 1000 yen piece and told him that it would more than cover the fare.  I lied.  The driver took it reluctantly and drove away. 

     Quick stop at the airport, and soon I was on the plane.  I ordered a wine, then a beer.  The drinks were free.  Thank you Japan Airlines.  Cute flight attendants served me my drinks.  One of them I eyed for a while, and I swore I would get her number on the way off the flight.  Now, I was coming into my own.  The lights dimmed, and if I wanted to I could have dosed off.  I sniffled.  As the plane gained altitude I waited for my ears to pop, but they just wouldn’t.  Instead they hurt me for all they were worth.  A woman looked back at me as I cringed, in tears.  It wasn’t that bad, I told myself.  All things come to pass.  Somewhere on the plane a baby was crying.  You wondered why they brought those things on planes.  Go figure.  I looked at my copy of “Journey to the West” blankly, lacking the concentration to really turn any of the pages.  Watching the clouds pass by outside my window, I thought of Japan—of how I kind of had a crush on my landlady.  Wouldn’t I tell her all about it?  We loved to talk.  And Japanese girls were waiting for me.  It was wrong of me to have left for as long as I did.  How did it feel, leaving the girl of my dreams, and all those pretty teachers?  I had meant to buy one of those steel thermoses they had.  The thought had entirely slipped my mind.  Next time, I thought, next time, reaching casually for my drink.

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