The Kitchens of Canton. A novel. Ch. 6: Gwongzau

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Sender, message, signal, receiver: the standard model of communication. Or simply: sender, signal, receiver. There is usually a message, but it’s often hard to distinguish it from the signal. Some messages are obvious—the time of day, the price of something. Or the words “I like you”: the message, fondness for someone, seems to be contained in the signal, the words. Or consider the glance of a person who likes you. Again the message is in the signal: the gaze, the eyes. The signal is so instantaneous it’s practically invisible, and what remains is the message. The message is the only thing we notice. Since the signal is so insignificant, we might be tempted to revise the model to: sender, message, receiver.

The problem is, without a signal, there is no communication; while on the other hand, a great deal of signaling—communicating —goes on without a message. The message is not necessarily crucial, or even important. Indeed, you can’t understand the nature of communication until you realize the message is not important. If the “message” could be defined as a specific packet of information, what we discover is that people withhold information more often than they give it. And they may wish to communicate this very fact. There may be signals to this effect: the empty message, the anti-message. There may be signals with no message. There may be contradictory messages. The message is redundant. It is just a distraction, an interpretation, something you think you understand. What stands in its place is more basic: mutual acknowledgment and reassurance.

Someone may not particularly like you. And so what? It’s enough the person is simply comfortable with you. Ingmon has no reason to like me. We can hardly have a conversation. We know nothing about each other. Yet over the weeks there has been a change. Whenever giving me a massage, she hikes her tunic over her hips (to avoid getting oil on it) and sits squarely on my butt. The weight of her flesh, and the gnarl of pubic hair in the middle of it, is delightful. In the beginning her movements were workmanlike and repetitive; her body warm but not herself. Later, she started to relax, and her weight sank into me. The scratchy hair became slimy with her wetness. She bent close when stroking upward so that I could feel her breasts against me. At one point, the tunic came off and she used them directly on me.

If she hardly ever speaks, she doesn’t need to. There’s always something being said in the silence. After all, it’s impossible to not communicate. Animals are locked in perpetual communication. Plants communicate through chemicals (if we could only read them). The only things that don’t communicate are inanimate or man-made objects. We communicate even when not intending to; we cannot stop communicating even if we wanted to. We signal our attitudes by virtue of the clothes we wear, the way we walk, the way we enter a room. People who are indifferent to those around them and think they are not conveying anything nonetheless signal this attitude by their posture, their very appearance. Someone who avoids you is by this very silence announcing loudly and clearly: stay away. All this communicating predominates over the dispensing of verbal messages. And of course, the more people know each other and are able to read each other, the less their need to speak.

She taps me on the shoulder.

I turn over. Ingmon communicates by a handful of words. At first, she taught me “Faan gyun.” It’s one of the few Cantonese phrases I’ve learned. But once I understood it, it was no longer needed, and she now just taps me. Mostly she communicates by the way she settles herself onto me. As usual, she sits on my balls and glides her groin along my shaft as she kneads my pectoral muscles. And she continues the massage, as if we weren’t actually having sex, though I am now inside her. For the first time. She doesn’t smile. She’s calm. Normally, before I’m about to shoot, she presses a button in the console next to my bed and the boss enters to catch a spurt of semen in her digital spoon. Sometimes, like today, she appears early and stands in the room, watching everything.

My cock pops out glistening when Ingmon gets off me and she proceeds to finish me off by hand. Thereupon she cleans me up. Usually they leave silently and without so much as a parting glance. Today, however, she coos the words, “Baai baai.”

I’m learning a lot about essential communication, minus the message. But there are times when specific information is nonetheless needed by one party or the other, and a great deal of effort is expended in acquiring or dispensing it. For instance, I get bored with the same body all the time. At the presence of new flesh, I dilate. My erection is twice as hard. Isn’t that what they want? I indicated this to the boss: I wanted a fresh body. I did this by pointing to Ingmon the next time she was brought in, waving her away and pronouncing “No.”

“Nei jiugo ngtungge gunoeng?”

She sent in a new woman the next day. Turned out her name was also Ingmon. She had a different body, somewhat less to my liking, too slim. Still, it was okay, because what I require is an alternating series of bodies, of whatever type they happen to be. The day after that, I again said “No” when Ingmon 2 was brought back in, and they fetched Ingmon 3. Her body was satisfying in new respects, less so in others, but again that was fine, because it was her difference from the others that was important. Let me stress this point. They could have brought in ten or one hundred Ingmons and let me choose my ideal body type from among them. But I would soon have wearied of this ultimate Ingmon unless refreshed in turn by another body. This is when communication difficulties got the upper hand. I didn’t need an endless chain of new bodies I would never see again. For I might want to see some of them again. What I really wanted was to have the same few Ingmons on a rotating basis, so I could get to know them a bit, albeit with an occasional new Ingmon added to the mix.

But how to communicate this? How to express that I merely wanted to see Ingmon 1 again was challenge enough. I gestured animatedly and in exasperation against Ingmon 3, shooing her to the door. I pointed outside the porthole and sweeped my hand in the reverse direction of the sun to indicate the past. And back again at the door. I pointed to Ingmon 3’s small breasts, and shaped my hands to indicate the larger breasts of Ingmon 1. The next day I was delivered Ingmon 4, with a big bust. Again, I would certainly have wanted to try her, but I vigorously protested in order to convey my intention as unambiguously as possible. Otherwise the confusion would multiply. I kept pointing back to the door, in a futile attempt to convey the reverse passage of time. I tried to portray other features of Ingmon 1’s body—her broad hips, for example.

Ingmon 5 and Ingmon 6 followed next. As soon as each appeared I turned my head away and crossed my arms in a pout.

“Aa?” the boss exclaimed.

Finally, Ingmon 1 was produced.


“Ngo jiwai nei ngzungji keoi,” said the boss, still baffled.

“Yes.” I sat up. “I like her. I want her.”

The next day when Ingmon 1 as expected appeared again, I had to repeat the whole procedure to get the boss to understand what I now wanted was Ingmon 2.

“O, ngosoeng ngoming!” she at long last said, the light bulb going off in her head. “Neisoeng bei keoidei leonwun.”

Ingmon 2 was accordingly fetched, and thereafter my three Ingmons were properly rotated.

You may wonder how they could all have the same name. They don’t, of course, have the same name. They didn’t even know I was asking their name. They were merely saying they didn’t speak English. But Ingmon stuck and Ingmon it is. To keep things simple, whenever I refer to Ingmon, it’s Ingmon 1. I see her every day now. And once I realized I liked her the best, I got rid of the other two. Occasionally I sacrifice a new Ingmon to the variety god, but mostly it’s good old Ingmon 1.

What irks me even more than my confinement to this cabin without being allowed to exercise and being fed foods designed to make me fat, so that my formerly healthy ninety kilograms is fast approaching one hundred fifty; even more than being required to spend hours daily steeping in a hot bath thick with harsh-smelling herbs and placed on the scale to be poked and slapped, my rolls of fat measured with calipers, is that they refuse to tell me the one thing I want to know: their name. They don’t call me by my name either and probably don’t even know it, for what use is it? I assume I am a number. They feel under no obligation to tell me my number since it’s only for their own reference. For the records. When addressing me they simply say, “Layho.” I quickly figured out it’s the Chinese word for “Hello.” Otherwise I would have presumed it to be my new name.

Not being able to speak the language has the virtue of greatly simplifying matters. It short-circuits the normally tangled process of communication among native speakers. Pragmatics is the study of how people manage to get their point across to one another when words are at odds with intention. The more you are able to communicate among natives, and the greater facility you have with the local language, the more complicated communication gets. This is because people don’t always say what they mean. Fluency in a language is the ability to veil the meaning behind one’s words. Even conversation under the most prosaic of circumstances becomes a guessing game, full of feints and gestures that need to be interpreted. To take someone at face value is the utmost form of naivety. We appropriately respond to a statement or query by anticipating what the person is really getting at, despite what he or she says. The run of daily communication that goes on everywhere relies not on words but visual signs—clothing, posture, facial expression, eye contact—to ferret out the truth. Except for the most essential requests for tangible information, spoken words are superfluous—and therefore suspicious. The more fluent I might have become in Cantonese, the more suspicious they would be.

As things stand, I can’t complain. Indeed, I am at a loss as to why they are so damn nice. I have the following theory. Whenever someone mentions the weather, or compliments your clothes, or asks how you’ve been doing lately, there is usually an ulterior motive: to groom you, to get you into bed, to use you for something. This is not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong with people wanting to sleep with you or seek financial protection in you or get crucial information out of you? You can profit from them too, if you want. Aren’t we morally obliged to provide these things if we can? Why horde something we have if someone else can make good use of it, whether it’s our money, our knowledge, or our body? I would even argue that the strongest relationships are those in which people use each other in so many ways they become indispensable to each other.

If I were fluent in their language, they might assume nefarious intentions. They might think my odd preference for rotating several Ingmons, for instance, was to glean information out of them, to spy. Alternatively (which is just as likely), let’s say they didn’t assume any bad intentions. We still need to get them past the presumption of double meaning that rules Chinese interactions, according to my experience. As stated, nothing you say is ever taken at face value. If I had been able to tell them in perfect Cantonese would they mind rotating several of the girls so that I could get to know them, they would have been just as mystified as when I struggled to explain this without a word of the language. Their initial interpretation would be that it was my polite way of saying I wasn’t satisfied with their caliber of masseuse. Were I then to correct this by reiterating my wish for the same three or four girls, not an endless string of them, they would again read this as another polite rationalization of my desire, on the contrary, for an endless string of girls. The more I denied wanting many girls, the more impressed they’d be with my apparent mastery of the politeness routines of their language; the more convinced they’d be of my unstated desire for an infinite series of girls, which I was too shy to request openly (for what man doesn’t secretly want many girls?). I would either be a monogamist or a full-blown polygamist, and there is no allowance for intermediate options.

As I am plainly ignorant in their language, I am spared these suspicions. There are no masks. The cost of my linguistic disability is that I am treated as a child. But this protects me. I can voice simple needs in English, a nonsensical baby language to them, and they try to satisfy me when they work out my needs from the context. This is the nature of my relationship with the boss. Even in my innocence the boss is probably suspicious. The reason she allowed Ingmon to fuck me and then watched her fuck me was possibly to gauge the genuineness of my feelings for Ingmon. It’s also possible she’s permitting me to bed with as many Ingmons as I want to see if they can somehow glean anything useful out of me, despite my fate already having been sealed.

As for Ingmon, I struggle to read her. The agreeable way in which she treats me has several possible explanations: she was instructed to be pleasant, she’s naturally pleasant with everyone, she’s warming to me in particular, she has something to gain by being friendly, or all of the above. I need to ascertain the degree of constraints surrounding her employment; whether emotional labor is encouraged through positive or enforced through negative incentives; indeed, whether she’s employed at all and not a slave herself. Do the Chinese enslave their own or just the rest of us? There is of course the more palatable variety, known as bonded labor—de facto slavery that lasts until one pays off one’s debts. If not this, what motive would anyone have for working in such a claustrophobic space? What explains the boss’s presence here for that matter? What do they do when they get off their shift? Are they living in comfortable circumstances with a good salary? Or so miserable they actually find their slaves’ company a relief? If the boss’s duty is to watch the girls engage the slaves sexually, what about her? I invited her to massage me once and she refused. Does she have a husband or a secret slave lover in this alien habitat?

The next day Ingmon appears alone. She enters my cabin not in the usual abrupt manner but haltingly this time, briefly pausing at the doorway. Once inside she pulls off her tunic and gets on top of me in one smooth motion. Remarkably, for the very first time, the boss doesn’t appear when I ejaculate. Ingmon refuses to kiss me, but she licks my cum off her fingers and stares at me, as if ascertaining my personality from its taste. I want to invite her to lie next to me for a few minutes but she hands me the towel instead. And then, without cleaning me up, she’s out the door. The boss now enters with the digital spoon. The change of etiquette seems quite significant. Somehow Ingmon got the boss to delay the collection of my semen until after she had left. She succeeded in inserting a moment of intimacy into our relationship.

I gesture to the boss with the towel to see if she’d wipe me down.

“Ng houjisiaa, ngo nghai ngonmosi,” she says, by way of refusal.

*     *     *

Previous chapter: Ch. 5: Xinluoma
Chapter 1: New Gary, IN
Chapters 7-24: Buy the book
Back to Table of Contents

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