A visit to a Chinese home boggles the imagination
“Excuse me. Where is the bus stop?” asked a middle-aged Caucasian man who had stepped into the shabby auto repair shop. The mechanic returned an uncomprehending gaze before yelling into a back office. A girl emerged.
“Could you please tell me where is the bus stop?”
“Bus, no!” she said, waving her hands.
“No bus stop? Ach, mein Gott.” He pulled out a cellphone and dialed a number. “Hallo, Direktor, it’s Matthias. Something extraordinary has happened, and I’m afraid I need your help. . . . No, I’m okay. . . . I’m fine, but I’m very embarrassed to admit I’m quite lost. I seem to be somewhere on the outskirts of the city, but whether north, south, east or west, I cannot say. I was supposed to be dropped off at a bus stop but it’s only a country road with a few old shops. . . . It’s too much to go into now. I’ll explain everything when I get back. Could you possibly have a taxi sent here? . . . Oh, thank you! . . . Okay, okay. Just a minute.”
He handed his phone to the woman, who communicated the location in Chinese. In time, a taxi arrived. Back at the office on Beijing’s East Third Ring Road, Matthias sat down before the Director. “I’m so sorry for this inconvenience. I am utterly mortified.”
“So soon winding up in trouble in China, Herr Raab?” the Director laughed. “It usually takes newcomers a week or two, after they’re over jet lag and start getting their bearings. But you’ve just arrived! Well, out with it! What happened?”
“You know I’m making a clean break and starting over again here in China, which is why I accepted the assignment. It all started before I left Germany when I met a Chinese woman on a website called Oriental Friends. We arranged to meet the very night of my arrival. That was the day before yesterday. Lily was her name, 28 years old—yes, I know, a bit young for me but she was irresistible, just as beautiful as she looked in the photo—and from Beijing. Well, she said she was from Beijing, but now I’m not so sure. Her English was really good too. Anyway, by the end of the evening she had invited me to her parents’ home for dinner the very next day! The chemistry was right and I really felt we had hit it off. But so soon? No problem, she said.”
“What does she do?”
“The antique furniture import-export business. I was picked up at my apartment building yesterday afternoon. She stepped out and opened the passenger door for me. Oh, I would much prefer sitting with you in the back, I said. She refused and insisted I sit in the front. It all seemed rather formal, but I guess that’s how they do things here. The man driving was her elder brother. We drove for a good hour, on highways and roads, past many high-rise communities, then warehouse districts, and eventually a woodsy area. Her legs were pressed primly together and her hands enfolded in her lap the whole time, as if she were somewhat nervous about introducing me to her parents. This made me a little nervous too. Finally we pulled up to a large house with a gate at the end of a road….”
Inside the entrance of the house was an antechamber with classical hardwood Chinese chairs and tables on a bare concrete floor. Lily told Matthias to wait and disappeared. A young man came to usher him into the “guest bedroom.” Lily came back a few minutes later. “We’ve prepared a bed for you.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Am I being invited to spend the night?”
“Yes, if you’d like.”
“But I haven’t even met your parents.”
“You will, shortly. Please make yourself at home now. Why don’t you have a rest? I’ll be back soon.”
The young man returned. “So sorry, sir. We wish to change better room for you.”
“Another guest room? But this one is quite alright.”
“Please come to other guest room.”
The new room was larger, with a queen-sized bed, in contrast to the pair of twin-sized beds in the former. Lily arrived again and escorted Matthias to a spacious living room chock full of more classical Chinese furniture, and a large oriental rug on the floor.
“Wow,” he said. “This furniture must be from your work? Quite a collection. And may I have the honor?”
Lily introduced an elderly couple present in the room, Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Zhao.
“I’m very pleased to meet you!” said Matthias, handing them a bottle of wine he had brought as a gift. “Your daughter is very lovely and I am thrilled to have the chance to meet the family so soon after being acquainted.”
Lily translated his comments into Chinese, and the couple laughed.
“Mr. Zhou and Mrs. Zhao. Do parents in China have different surnames?”
“Interesting. A progressive practice, if I may say so. Lily, your furniture is exquisite. But is there not too much of it? I mean, if there are fewer pieces in the room it might create a better effect, less crowded. May I have a look?”
“Of course. How do you like this pair of beautiful Ming Dynasty chairs? They’re made of Zitan wood. Have you heard of it? It’s called Red Sandalwood in English. The wood is from India.”
“Yes, yes, they’re very nice. Ebony, I think you mean.”
“Oh, no. Not ebony. Red Sandalwood. The most expensive wood in the world.”
“Are you sure? This seems like high-quality ebony to me. I know my woods. You see the dense and even grains of ebony here. I have some excellent ebony furniture back home, a family heirloom.”
“How about this Ming Dynasty couch bed made of Yellow Rosewood over here? Have you heard of it? It’s as valuable as Red Sandalwood. It comes from Vietnam.”
“Oh, is that the Chinese for walnut? Yes, this is a very good walnut finish.”
“Oh, no. You don’t know Yellow Rosewood?”
“But I’m quite confident it’s walnut.”
“Which one you like best?”
“They’re all lovely. But Lily, why do you need all this furniture? I know you’re in the business, but you don’t have a shop or a warehouse to keep them in?”
“I collect them.”
They sat down for dinner around a Qing Dynasty round table with six matching wooden stools occupied by the four of them, Mr. Zhou, Mrs. Zhao, Lily and Matthias.
“Isn’t your brother joining us?”
“No, he asked me to convey his apology, but he has some matter to attend to.”
“Who was the young man who showed me to my guest room? Your younger brother?”
The younger brother just then began to bring out one steaming dish after another from the kitchen. He didn’t join them for dinner. Matthias found this odd but decided not to inquire. Nor did they serve the wine he had brought. It was a very fine wine from Germany that he had wanted to introduce. He quickly forgot about it upon being dazzled by the resplendent display of food, complemented by the expensive bottle of Maotai spirits they opened up.
“How do you like this table?” asked Lily.
“Now this wood, I’m not so sure of. It reminds me of teak or oak, but the grain pattern is more striking.”
“It’s called Chicken Wing wood, because the grain looks like chicken feathers. This wood is from China.”
“Very nice. You said the other two pieces are from India and Vietnam. Why do you import wood to make Chinese furniture? Why do you not use valuable Chinese wood, like this table?”
“Chinese wood used to be the best, but all the forests are cut down and there is very little left. The finest wood must now be imported. I think you are a—how do you say the word—connoisseur? You can appreciate the best.”
“Lily, could you tell me how you started in this business?”
“Oh, that’s too long story. You don’t want to hear now.”
They made more small talk until Matthias got tipsy and the dishes were cleared. Lily showed him around the back garden, with additional classical pieces for outdoor use in heavy porcelain and stone. She put him to bed a while later, rather earlier than he expected.
“Lily, can you join me for some more of your exquisite Chinese spirits, what do you call it again? The night is still young.”
“Oh, no. You watch some TV. I have important business to do. I will try to join you later tonight, okay?”
“Well, all right, but I would really like to spend more time with you and get to know you better. You will come?”
“Yes, I’ll try. You have a rest now.”
Hours passed. He had given up on her, turned off the lights and was drifting off in a haze of frustration and longing when she came. She sat on the edge of his bed. “I’m sorry it took me so long, Matthias.”
“Oh, this is the first chance to be together with you since last night in the restaurant. You’re so beautiful,” he said, trailing his hand over her hair and breast. “Can you stay here with me tonight?”
“No, I don’t think that would be proper for your first visit, do you?”
“Why not? We’re grown-ups, you know.”
“It’s the wrong time of the month for me.”
She nodded. He pulled her closer. She wouldn’t kiss but allowed him to slip his hand under her shirt. She lay back with him a few more minutes before gathering herself and pecking him on the check as she left.
They were waiting for him around the breakfast table.
“Good morning. Lily?” he said with a start.
“No. You call me Linda,” said the woman, the spitting image of Lily but older-looking and more haggard. She was with two unfamiliar men.
“Oh, and who are you? You must be her twin sister?”
“She didn’t mention anything about you yesterday. You certainly have a large family! And who are the two gentlemen?”
It was at this point that Matthias realized none of the family members he had met remotely resembled each other.
“Yeah, we all family. Big family. They’re friends. So, which one you like?” She gestured toward the furniture behind her. “Lily told me you like the two chairs and the couch bed.”
“Oh, yes, they’re quite nice. But where is Lily?”
“Her shift is over. We sell you the chairs for 50,000 Euro. The bed for 80,000 Euro. Or you buy together for 120,000. What do you think?”
“Her shift is over? You mean she has a job? She’s on another shift now?”
“No, she off work. I take over. So which furniture you like?”
“I don’t understand. This is not her home? You want to sell the furniture? Oh, no, I’m afraid I’m not the right person for that.”
“Let me tell you something. These two woods very special. Red Sandalwood and Yellow Rosewood. They go for hundreds thousands of Euro at auction. Hundreds thousands of dollar at auction. But they way overprice. We have special connection in India and Vietnam to get the wood and build in our own factory. So I give you much cheaper.”
“Oh, thank you for the offer,” Matthias laughed, “but really I have no need for furniture. You see, I am living in China for the next few years, and my apartment is already nicely furnished and everything provided for. I have neither space nor need for any new furniture.”
“No problem. We ship back to your home in Germany. We use professional moving service. Everything professional. See, look.” She pulled out a binder with stamped certificates of authenticity and a credit card swiper.
“But I have no extra space back home either. My house is stuffed with many pieces of antique furniture that my family has had for generations. I have so much in fact I don’t know what to do with it all. I can’t sell it because it’s family property and my children would kill me. I’m sure you can find other interested foreign customers. I’ll certainly keep my eye out for any and can let Lily know. I have to admit your furniture is of superb taste. Do you have a shop or outlet where you keep all of it for sale and people can have a look?”
“You not interested? Okay, I give you chairs and bed for 100,000 Euro. That’s the lowest I can go.”
“I think there must be some misunderstanding. I don’t believe I was invited to your home to buy anything, or is it the custom in China to do business during home visits?”
Linda’s smile went away. After conferring with the two men, she scribbled some figures down on a piece of paper and handed it to Matthias.
“1,000? You want to sell it to me now for only 1,000 Euro?”
“No! That’s your expenses for staying here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look,” she said, going over the itemizations. “300 spend one night here. 200 meal for four. 400 sleep with Lily. 100 transportation.”
“Sleep with Lily?”
“You think have sex with her is free? You think stay here is free?”
“But we never had sex.”
“Of course she have sex with you. She go to your room last night.”
“No, no, no. We never had sex. She said she was having her monthly period. I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s very weird for me to be invited to someone’s home and then charged money for it. There must be some misunderstanding. Lily should be able to clear everything up.”
“We come right back. You wait here.” Linda exited with the two men into a back room. Matthias could make out the sound of animated discussion. A few minutes later they emerged.
“Okay, we go to bedroom now and you sleep with me. You only pay 1,000 Euro for everything. No need pay for Lily.”
“Sleep with you? I’m completely shocked. I don’t even have any Euros with me. I only have Chinese money.”
“We use your credit card. You buy furniture, I deduct 1,000 Euro. I still sleep with you, for free!”
“No, I’m very sorry, but I cannot do this. This is all too crazy and sudden for me.”
“No furniture, you pay me 8,000 yuan okay too.”
“But I really don’t want to have sex now.”
Linda’s face darkened again with annoyance. “You don’t sleep with me? Something wrong with me? Okay, you leave now. You pay me 6,000 yuan.”
Matthias paid the money and with great relief got in the car, driven by the same person from the day before. They drove until the trees opened onto blighted real estate. At the first major crossroad, the driver pulled over.
“Bus. Okay?” he said, pointing to a row of ramshackle shops across the road.
* * *