“Well, what happened?”
“Let me tell the whole story from the start. She’s tall with glamorous movie star eyes, tits on the small side but a nice round set of hips. The first time we met she was wearing green army pants, the kind with all the pockets, a tight black shirt and sunglasses, which she took off as soon as we sat down in the café. That was important. If there’s one thing I can’t handle it’s people who don’t take their sunglasses off. I need to see someone’s face the first time I meet them. Hers turned out to be so attractive that I immediately assumed I didn’t stand a chance winging a second date out of her. In fact I wondered what someone of her breeding was doing seeking guys online in the first place.”
“Well, we had dinner a few days later, and get this, she invited me to visit her mother’s home in Weihai, out on the Shandong coast, that very weekend! At first I was like, how weird, is this a marriage trap or something? And on such short notice? But then I thought, what the hell, maybe it will be fun, and it might speed up the process of getting into her pants. It might be the only way of getting into her pants. I spent three days there.” Continue reading
“How did you do that?”
“Watch again.” Fifty students stood around him craning their necks – some standing on chairs – as the teacher moved three walnut shells around the surface of a desk. “Now look,” he said, turning up each shell to show there was nothing underneath and putting them in a line with a pea sitting in front of the first shell.
He placed the center shell over the pea and pushed it forward. He moved the shell on his left to the center position, while shifting the center shell over to where the left shell had been. He overturned the center shell, now magically revealed to hold the pea that should have been under the left shell. The students gasped. Continue reading
“I like the decor here. Look at the designs lit up on the wall by a hidden projector, and the silver mobiles over there, suspended in space like birds or fish. Notice the rafters in the ceiling above lighted blue. And that big black-and-white peony mural taking up the far wall.”
My date is ignoring me, swinging her leg back and forth under the table. She hands me the menu. It’s my first visit to the Little Kitchen, a moderately upscale Cantonese chain with ten Beijing branches listed on the wet wipe packet. On the Mainland, Cantonese food is distinguishable from other regional cuisines not so much by the ingredients used as by the greater clarity food achieves when prepared with less oil, salt, sugar and pepper.
“Can you give me an idea of what you’d like to eat?” I ask.
Let’s start with Liam D’Arcy-Brown’s Grand Canal voyage The Emperor’s River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China (2010). A great idea, certainly, traversing the entire Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, especially as no one else, at least in our day, seems to have tackled the challenge. It is no longer possible to do so by water, with large stretches presently bone dry. Starting at Hangzhou, the author hitched or bribed rides on coal barges that took him up the canal for brief spells, while taxis and buses took him further along on nearby roads. Elsewhere, suspicious police stopped him and sent him back, forcing him to loop around to get to the next point up the canal, and eventually to its terminus at Beijing. Despite the fractured route and the monotony of the scenery, there is – as with that other momentous landmark, the Great Wall – a great deal of potential interest: the 1,500-year history of the canal, the sheer logistics involved in the carving out of its 1,115 miles, the number of workers dragooned into its construction (3,600,000 initially), its primary functions of shipping grain and luxury items such as silk north to the imperial capital, and so forth. D’Arcy-Brown delves into a lot of this, though sketchily; I never for instance learned anything about the technical side of the canal, how it was actually constructed or how a pound lock works (for lifting boats to higher elevations), which is actually what I most wanted to know. But enough interesting anecdotes and historical personages coloring the canal’s history are supplied to weave an entertaining tapestry of tales shifting seamlessly between the past and the present to carry me through the book. Continue reading
Siran was showing how the seam on her antique Chinese shirt opened up for breastfeeding, and by the time she got through all the knotted buttons – they take as much dexterity to undo as to do up – my cellphone had rung twice. I was praying Debie would not call, but this was an unidentified number. They are usually telemarketers and I ignore them. Whenever it rings a second time it’s someone who knows me. It was her mother. Siran was not expecting this. “Oh no, tell her I’m not here!” she whispered, “I don’t want to talk to her.”
I had met her mother only the day before, having been invited over for dinner. The apartment was tidy and nicely decorated, with a calligraphy scroll on the wall and books, not baubles in the glass cabinet. Her mother was a good cook and trim and attractive for her fifty years, graceful, an unaffected poise. Her husband was stationed in another city for his job. I was almost becoming more interested in her than in her daughter. I gave her my card. Now I had her on the phone, and I don’t like to lie. “Yes, she’s here.” Continue reading