[ Yueqing ]
I was hungry. My garage key wasn’t working, so no bike to ride. In the overcast, pitch blackness I walked two-and-a-half miles into a small satellite village of Yueqing (pronounced something like Yu-ayCHING).
I walked past industrial parks; communal farmland with crops in bloom–invisible now, but fragrant in the darkness; cliques of gawking Chinese, and construction sites everywhere, surrounded by the peculiar, bitter scent that is an artifact of arc welding. Still more: older folks doing tai-chi in front of a karaoke bar–Chinese ballads blasting across the empty suburban landscape; three-wheeled electric rickshaws and delivery trucks; electric bicycles running lightless and silent, dangerous in stealth mode.
Earlier in the day, my host Frank chauffeured me along this same road. Frank, who likes to sing. A lot. Frank who has a nice voice, and sings in tune. Today’s playlist included rousing versions of Richard Marx (“Right Here Waiting”), The Carpenters (“Yesterday Once More”), and–Frank’s absolute, all-time favorite–Phil Collins (“Against All Odds”). Women in pointy bamboo hats harvested eggplant; the wind tousled my hair; Frank sang Shoo-Be-Doo-Da-Day. I may have harmonized.
Why is this pertinent (the ride, not the tunes)?
Because Frank and I were making our mellifluous way back from lunch at the establishment to which I was now returning.
What was that earlier meal?
Rice (mǐfàn), two dishes of vegetables (shūcài), one of pigs’ feet, and two industrial-sized bowls swimming with seafood: two different fish (yú), shrimp (xiā), clams, and squid.
What was my present hope?
To return alone and on my own dime, scaling down the serving-size to human–rather than typical Chinese–portions: heaps of protein and carbohydrates adequate for Thor and Hercules on Gym Nights.
Was success in the cards?
It was not in the cards.
Things began innocuously enough with a walk down the buffet-style counter, tray in hand, pointing at things. As accompaniment to sticky rice and a cold bottle of local beer, I selected plates of bok choy and steamed cabbage. As it had already donated its cloven hooves for the day’s earlier cause, I added a smallish plate of pork tripe. This latter caused some alarm. Thinking I didn’t know what I was selecting, the proprietors tried to warn me off, until I pointed at my belly and made loud, porcine snorting noises. Their daughter giggled and I was served.
Aside from the staff, four older gentleman were seated at a single table piled high with empty bottles of beer (píjiǔ) and glasses. They were sloshed, loud, and unruly. I sat a few tables away, alone and facing them until the most inebriated gentleman started barking at me in Mandarin. The others joined. He repeated himself and paused, awaiting a reply. I hadn’t understood a word, so I gathered my linguistic courage and said, with a big smile, “Wǒ shì Měiguórén”–I am American.
This was my first attempt to form a Chinese sentence in public.
I received quizzical looks, then uproarious laughter in reply, but I was expecting as much. Mandarin is all about tones; four of them, and they are difficult. The same monosyllabic word can have four different meanings depending upon the tone marking. For polysyllabic words, multiply these permutations accordingly. In my awkward first attempt, I may well have said “Wò shí méi guórén”–Fertile season, matchmaker compatriots! More likely I just sounded like the teacher from an episode of Charlie Brown.
Whatever I said, I suddenly had new friends. Before my departure an hour later, the owners gifted me three more heaping plates of veggies, the men had opened (and vanquished, with my assistance) three more bottles of beer, I had graded and corrected the owners’ daughter’s English assignment, and my drunkest new compatriot had summoned his daughter in Beijing by smartphone–passing her back and forth so she could translate for us. (Though her English was fantastic, all she would say–despite my reassurances–was “my dad is so drunk! I am soooo sorry!”) Many selfies were taken. A promise was extracted by the young girl that I return again so we could practice each other’s languages.
And so on.
When people ask me why I travel, I think of days like today.
The featured selfie, if it isn’t already obvious, is of the Most Intoxicated Fellow and the Lovely Schoolgirl. The kiss was sloppy and unexpected, on the count of three: and a-yī and a-èr and a-sān…