Incident at Dongwuyuan Fuzhuang Shichang. A short story

The nuisance of the uncooperative customer

“How much is that?”

“That’s for post-pregnant women. Were you pregnant?”

“Oh.”

“You want one of those instead. Why do you need it? You’re not fat.”

“She thinks she is.”

“I want it anyway. Does it work?”

“Sure. What size are you?”

“I don’t know. I can’t try it on here?”

“You’re probably medium. Come inside the booth and duck down.”

“Duck down?”

“There are hardly any men around. Or let me hold up a sheet in front of you.”

“How much is it?”

“Try it on first.”

The wholesale clothing market across from the Beijing Zoo, popularly known as the “Zoo” for short, the market not the zoo that is, is the haunt of women of every persuasion for its variety and cheap prices. The place is mindboggling in its scale, a jumble of huge buildings each with hundreds of tiny rented stalls on every floor, bursting with heaps and piles of garish clothes, an enormous honeycomb of cells oozing cotton and synthetics. The heat from the torrent of bargain hunters requires many of the sellers to strip down to spaghetti tank tops and black bras, a delightful sight for the odd male visitor. But although there’s a party atmosphere to this female jungle gym, it’s not all fun and games.

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iProstitution. A short story

iProstitution: the granting of romantic or sexual favors to a man in exchange for the latest Apple product

“You want to see me? Why? You want to have sex with me, right?”

“You’re still a virgin, aren’t you? No problem. It’s okay if you’re not ready. I have a lot of patience. Didn’t you once invite me over for dinner and wasn’t I well behaved? But I do hope you can begin to like me a little and let me touch you, embrace you. I am able to control myself and don’t need to make love. We can practice. I can get you started. You are, after all, already twenty-five. You must be curious and eager.”

“I can only make love with a man who loves me. You don’t love me. Before you got back from America you asked me what kind of gift you could bring me. I told you my iPhone screen was too small to watch TV shows and I wanted an iPad. You said no. So I think you just want sex.”

“You mean I really have to give you an iPad? You said you were only joking, but as I suspected you’re dead serious. You would trade your virginity for an iPad?”

How to have fun in China’s disposable cities

Revolutionary sculpture at Shijiazhuang train station. In front is a group of freshly arrived migrants from the countryside looking for work (photo by Isham Cook, Oct. 2012).

“Qiu Baoxing [vice-minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development] said during an industry forum that Chinese buildings can only stand for between 25 and 30 years. In contrast, the average life expectancy of a building in Britain is 132 years and they last around 74 years in the United States.” (Qian Yanfeng, “‘Most homes’ to be demolished in 20 years,” China Daily, August 7, 2010)

HOW TO HAVE FUN…

Let’s take a tour of a third-tier Chinese city, Shijiazhuang, “Stone House Village” (pop. ten million), capital of Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing like the letter C. I choose this city after being invited there by a young woman I befriended recently in Beijing. The circumstances of our meeting were peculiar and quickly endeared me to her. I was making my way down an unfamiliar lane in the popular Nanluoguxiang bar area to kill time before an appointment with a friend, and stopped in front of a reggae club. Vaguely aware of a woman standing nearby, I walked inside for a drink. A moment later she came in as well and with a shy smile asked if she could join me.

The apology. A short story

Communication problems at a gift shop spiral out of control

“We have a question about China’s ethnic groups—”

“Minority Nationalities, not ethnic groups.”

“I know. That’s what’s confusing us. A display in the museum said there are both 56 Minority Nationalities and 56 ethnic groups. How could that be? One of the ethnic groups is the Han majority. There should be 55 Minority Nationalities, not 56, right?”

“No, there are 56 Minority Nationalities. The Han are a Minority too. They used to be called the Shaohao, who were the descendants of the Yellow Emperor. As they grew in population and political dominance, they rejected their own traditions and instituted changes. Later they renamed themselves the ‘Han’ to distance themselves from their Minority past. Over time, the Shaohao were forgotten, but survivors who refused to go along with the changes remain.”

“We didn’t see anything about this in the museum displays.”

“Of course, you didn’t. The Shaohao have been suppressed and live mostly underground. We are not allowed to organize or promote ourselves. The only place we are permitted to speak with the public is here in the gift shop.”

The exact unknown. A short story

A casual affair with a student engenders inexplicable difficulties

As darkness fell the lantern’s glow opened up like naked legs. Jingfang had clearly not come to my office for business. She was hanging out. Usually they don’t start stopping by till later in the semester, after enough time to size me up in class, but it was only the third week. Okay, let’s draw her out a bit. “I gotta go. How about lunch tomorrow at the Friendship Hotel?”

“Sure.”

The persistent. A short story

What happens when one gets sexually involved with women of the obsessive variety

There’s an old piece of lore that you can get your way with any woman by being persistent. “Just keep on trying” was the regular advice I received to help me along the Sisyphean task of getting female classmates in bed back in high school. In China they prosecute this advice more rigorously than we do, as I have learned from numerous encounters with Chinese women applying the same on me. It has to do, I believe, with the quantitative rather than qualitative mindset endemic to the culture: the more of something the better. We would call it banging your head against the wall. From their standpoint, the incessant bam, bam, bam works because people are softer than walls; they inevitably crumble if you wear them down long enough. It’s also understood that with such a huge population scrambling for fewer resources, hammering away at something is often the only way.

Grace never succeeded with me, a particularly hard-hearted and jaded foreign male, wiser in years or at least more resistant than most to pressure and therefore not the best candidate for this approach. But not for lack of trying. We met as fellow patients in a Beijing hospital. On evening walks around the grounds I began to notice, several weeks into my sojourn, the burning eyes of a woman walking past in the opposite direction, piercing me through the darkness like a cat’s. A few more nights later, we stopped and talked.

The Chinese university: A primer for prospective foreign teachers

Despite their varied and sometimes startling architecture, Chinese university campuses are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The following pictures are taken from four different universities. The reader is invited to identify them.

As my Chinese improved and I met more people from within the institute and beyond, I was struck by the deep hostility toward foreigners among Chinese in authority. There was a lot of talk of friendship but very little to be found. (John Pomfret, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China)

BY WAY OF ANALOGY

Let’s imagine a dystopian turn of events where the Far Right in the USA got the upper hand, and I mean really got the upper hand and took power, and once in power rammed through an authoritarian Christian agenda on the American people. The public schools are already primed for this, so instituting universal school prayer and Creationism in lieu of science classes would be a fait accompli. The main priority would be the archenemy in their university bastion, namely Liberals. What would the universities look like after being reconstituted along Christian lines? We needn’t envision a reign of terror, with “heathen” professors hung from nooses in public executions, such as featured in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. That would be much too messy, when there is a simple and elegant solution: the Chinese university.