I’ve had two. I’d probably have nine or ten by now if I got out more. And by that I mean if I fell back into my old habit of spending lunchtimes scribbling alone in some dingy locally-owned coffee shop. I’m better off avoiding them. Or any other fine dining establishment that from the outside resembles a grimy fish tank. But I didn’t meet my first Chinese best friend among the piss puddles of UBC. El Segundo, yes. That’s what I called him. And boy could he pour a cup-a-zhou! That’s sinolicious for you! Black and silty! Overpriced! But all that came later.
I was down Wenzhou after being tricked into a job at Ganbei Dragoon. I had been warned by a Chinese friend who had worked at the main office. “Molteno is full of shit!” Ridiculous! I just talked to him on the phone and he said Wenzhou is ten times better than Shanghai! Not so difficult from what I’ve seen! “He only says that because no one wants to work down there!” Chinese, ha! What do they know? Says HST, “You have no faith in the essential decency of the white man’s culture.”
I flew back into Shanghai, still wondering why my GTFO visa from a few months before failed to trip any red flags. But plenty of problems with my photo! Yes, Miss Immigration, people lose weight and shave goatees! And a haircut! Quick, call security! Ah, the giggles! And here comes the supervisor. A badge! Hammer and sickle! No laughing matter! “Another ID?” You mean something more official than my passport? Sorry, Suzie, but I seem to have left my diplomatic pouch back at LAX. They let me go with a warning.
I was met by some waif from the office. More giggles. “But you are not fat! Your photo is so fat!” She throws up three times on the bus. In between heaves I ask if they had received the scan of my degree. “Oh yes, but we make up new one anyway.”
The office feels like a pizza oven and smells like burst plumbing. Molteno invites me into his private quarters. “There he is! Mr. Wenzhou! Flight alright? How about some AC?” He cranks it. My shirt freezes to my back. He puts his feet on the desk and tells me how flattered he is that I bothered to showed up. “Wenzhou! You’ll love it! I’d move there myself if I didn’t have to run this stupid company!” I’ll bet! Shanghai is such a mess, right? “Prego,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the bribes! Every month these monkeys show up and threaten to shut down the entire operation!” You’re kidding! Big man like you? I’d have thought you’d have had the mayor in your back pocket! “This is no joke, Prego! Sometimes I imagine myself at some remote border crossing with two suitcases full of cash! I’ve about had it! And Shanghai, God! What a dump! We’ll give you a couple days training and get you the hell out of here! Sunny Wenzhou! Don’t worry about a thing!”
I never saw the sun. But it was there, alright. Sending wave after wave of incandescent suffering through the blanket of filth above Wenzhou. I asked the Chinese girls at work if they had ever seen the mountains that were rumored to have encircled the city. Dirty looks. All of them were suspicious of me for whatever reason. Maybe it was the upcoming Olympics and they were wondering why I had been allowed anywhere near their precious debutante ball. Always on their guard. Texting on the sly.
The manager was a grade-A goof. Hunan? Hubei? I don’t remember. He tried to be my best friend. But his breath was so revolting that I had no problem coming up with myriad excuses why we shouldn’t be seen together after hours. He was insecure about everything. Work, girls, all of it. Have a couple drinks, I said. You’ll be fine! Start with mouthwash! “Prego, any thoughts on the business? How to make more money?” I told him he wasn’t winning any loyalty from his staff when on payday he forked over my giant fistful of bills in front of everyone. He missed the point I was trying to make. “Don’t worry! Lucy very like you!” Rubbish! Lucy is a bitch! “What meaning?” Some other time.
Bitch or not, we went out once with a group of friends she knew from Shaanxi. Lucy and I took a taxi to some restaurant with a nonsensical English name broadcast in big bright neon. Air Force Express or something. Her friends were waiting for us in a private room. Three guys, three sheets. “Ooo! Ahh! American!” The usual blah blah blah. “You like China?” Of course, I said. Especially Wenzhou! Beautiful! And my gosh, the architecture! Such splendor! They thought Wenzhou was the pits.
The alpha of the group knocked over bottles and ashtrays climbing across the table to sit next to me. “Pigu? Ha ha!” Actually, it’s Prego. “Pigu, you like me? You my friend?” Of course! Do they have fried jiaozi here? I’m hungry. “Jiaozi! Ha ha! Very gude!” I don’t remember him asking permission to feel my leg for the remainder of dinner, but apparently I had said yes.
The jiaozi were nasty. And the more I drank, the less inclined I was to try my luck with Lucy. And then this guy! Disgusted on all fronts! “Ok! We go!” His buddies don’t understand. He chastises them for being so uncultured in this new age of internationalism. “My friends, they…they…” Yeah, I get it, tamen bu hui shuo yingwen. And the crowd goes wild.
We pile into his van and head out. Everyone’s having a grand old time. Especially me, counting all the red lights my new friend is ignoring. He doesn’t brake once until we reach the river. Masses of people, doing their thing. Unfinished high-rises stand at attention, their heads in the smog. The sun goes down. The city is a sauna. We’re on the boardwalk watching kids shooting air rifles at targets strategically located in a way that ensures passersby the maximum risk of injury.
I ask Lucy if it’s normal for guys to put their hands in other guys’ back pockets. “Yes, sometimes… maybe.” I’m trying to keep at least one body between me and my new friend. I’m jockeying from one side of our group to the other. He follows me like a puppy. He puts his hands on my shoulders. He massages my neck. No one notices. I point at something in the distance. Shenme dongxi? “What? Where?” Swoop! Back over here. Catch me now! Here he comes.
We cross the street to a long line of booming night clubs. He’s leading us through them one by one. Lasers and noise. They’re all the same. Throngs of young Chinese people sitting around trying to look cool. It’s better than what we’re doing. I’ll give them that much. We’re outside again. “You like, yes?” Oh, yeah! The night of my life! “You want drink?” I guess so, I said. And then Lucy, God bless her, is stricken with a headache and wants to go home. Last time I ever go out with you, I said. About to score, here! You ruined everything! Home? Fine! But first, a bathroom break! “Yes,” says my friend. “I’m too!”
Into another club. The G-Spot. His hand is feeling around my pooper. No one bats an eye. Was I being rude by staying flaccid? How long until the smooching starts? At some point I might have to draw the line. Cultural insensitivity. I wasn’t looking forward to it. We’re wandering around the G-Spot. I really have to go. My friend is content to keep his hand down my pants.
Where’s the pisser, I say. WC? “Ah! Thissa way!” Urinals! Unbelievable! With a divider rendered useless by my friend who keeps peeking over it. Gan ma? “Oh, sorry, sorry!” Believe me! Nothing to see here! Why do you think I moved to China? “China! Yes!” Don’t you ever look at porn? America is awash in giant cocks! I couldn’t take it anymore! “Ah! America Pigu! You my best friend!”
We’re barreling back up to the squalid ghetto I called home. Red lights, bah! Bus horns! Near misses! He pulls in and drops me off at the gate. I say goodbye to everyone in the van. Lolling heads and thumbs up. My buddy leans out the driver’s side window. “I call you, ok?” Certainly! “Best friend, ok?” You bet!
I’m walking away, laughing to myself. He jams his van into reverse and smashes into a police car.
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