I should tell you this:
One thing he’d noticed right away after committing to the program was that Chinese was hard. Even Chinese people thought Chinese was hard, he’d learned obliquely, but, still, he was shocked at how little he’d actually acquired until forced to move his mouth, his lips, his tongue, and make things happen. Communicate. Exchange ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Order breakfast. He was inadequately prepared.
He’d stood in dim shop doorways, low things with stuff hanging from the lintels. He’d frame a sentence in his head, a sentence that would convey his desire to purchase tea.
“Hello,” he’d say, “Is there a surprise here for me?”
Shopkeepers, for the most part, were not willing to work very hard with a foreign demon to establish economic relationships, had no idea how to teach the silly thing the proper way to speak. Disappointment reigned.
It was only after weeks of immersion, total and complete, open-eyed and slack-jawed gawking immersion was he able to speak with shopkeepers confidently.
“Me want tea sure thing?” he’d ask.
“I know, I know,” a shopkeeper would mutter while flinging a packet of something on the counter, while spreading his hands to show the ghostly creature how many fingers, how many yuan and mau and fen it needed to pay.
“You okay?” he’d ask. “Is it permitted? Am I permitted?”
“Of course you are permitted,” the shopkeeper would answer while rummaging through the filthy parchment and featherweight aluminum coinage of the people’s currency. And it was smooth like that until the end.
They had both been shocked that the other Americans were shocked by how old they were, how actually married they were. For teenagers, such things fetched them wide eyes and slack jaws. It was weird to only be in their mid20s and still be thought of as old.
“Really?” asked Cho Ma Li, renamed and Sinocized in Massachusetts, Taiwan, and Xi’an, in that order, and that was what all her paperwork said her name was, that was the name everyone used when they wanted to call her by name. Immersion. “Married?”
“Really,” answered Karen, not yet renamed nor issued a work permit from the Ministry of Education, her housing permit issued by the Ministry of Housing, her ration coupons distributed by the Ministry of Distribution, or her bus pass. She was still Karen. “Married.”
“For how long?”
And before Karen could answer, he’d rumble low, “Four years, two months, six days.”
Karen would laugh and say, “He’s kidding.”
Cho Ma Li would laugh and pretend to get it, whatever it was.
“Oops,” he’d say, looking at the place he’d wear a wristwatch if he wore a wristwatch, which he never did. Instead, he carried pocket watches and, since pocket watches were either very expensive and delicate or very cheap and delicate, he never knew exactly what time it might be at any given moment.
“Oops,” he’d say, looking at his imaginary chronometer, “International date line…”
Karen would bop him on the shoulder, very playful and “cut it out” at the same time. If he was smart, he’d cut it out.
This thing about watches would again manifest itself around 127 days and four hours later when Karen stood inside a tiny shop and bargained there in Chinese, in local dialect Chinese, in good old Shaanxihua, for an antique pocket watch to give him as a present for his birthday and almost Christmas. Though by this time her Chinese was about six million times better than his, she could not get the shopkeeper to give up the watch with the miniature tintype of Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek, a very rare and altogether strange trinket to have hidden away at the risk of death all through the revolution itself and then, even more risky, the clean-with-fire spasms of the Cultural Revolution only to haul out and put in the window of a shop not anywhere close to anything tourists ever visited. It was just a watch again; it had no political significance and its owner, the shopkeeper, faced no political consequence but, still, he would not sell the thing to Karen. Instead, she bought a heavy, fragile, completely unworkable timepiece on a weird, mismatched chain knowing that he would, more than anything else, be pleased that she’d done it at all.
As if on a timer, it began to rain on October 10, the anniversary of the events starting the 1911 Wuchang Uprising, and it continued to rain for one hundred days. It was a season of cold, of damp, of mud. It was very 19th century with the coal smoke and horses. Trudging was the people’s preferred method of locomotion, and students and teachers alike, the lowly shopkeeper and the revered peasant farmer both bent their heads to the northeast wind, to the locomotives of ice and deluge (deluge is too strong a word…perhaps “downpour” would be more accurate) charging down unchecked from the Gobi, from Siberia, from the fucking North Pole itself, that great mass of people all trudged through the wretched weather to punch Beijing’s time clock. Awake in the dark and the rain, sipping hot water from chipped lacquered tin ware, shivering in long underwear and a PLA overcoat and two pair of socks and black rubber boots, Karen would prepare her day by candlelight. Her husband, awake, would remain beneath two thick cotton quilts and an army blanket, wearing long underwear and his overcoat in bed.
It is likely that the first words Karen speaks at the beginning of such a day, the first sounds she makes will be, “Shut up.”
“No,” he’d grumble. “You shut up.”
They had to do it two more times and then she’d laugh and he’d laugh and they’d sip hot water while freezing water fell from the sky. Soon enough, it would be the time of the cold, wet, hungry student trudging to the dining hall for pigskin soup and mantao. There would be a variety of trudging times each day to come and each morning they would review.
“The Cold, Wet, Nauseated Trudging Back to the Dormitory From the Outhouse Before Trudging to Class.”
“The Cold, Not So Wet, Bored Beyond All Reason, Slack-Jawed and Drooling Trudging Back from Class and Getting Hungry Again.”
“The Cold, Hardly Far Enough to Really Call a Trudge Across Your Dorm Room to Assault Your Roommate for Talking About Food.”
“The Long, Cold, All the Way Down at the Other End of the Hall to the Dorm Political Officer’s Room Trudge.”
“The Cold, Wet, Expelled through the School Gates Trudge of Shame Back to Your Home Village.”
“Hmmm…more like, The Cold, Wet, Expelled Through the School Gates Trudge of Shame to the Train Station and Some Version of Hell Rather Than Go Home.”
“Checked the weather today?”
“Hang a bit, yes…it’s coming in. Radio Free Xi’an says it’s a perfect day for cold, wet trudging with your baby by the dirty riverside.”
“Are they going to shoot someone if we go to the river today?”
That was a real question. The time before the last time they’d gone to the river, they’d somehow and unknowingly avoided the crowd gathered to witness the traditional Cold, Wet Trudge to Execution. They tended to avoid any crowds if they could and in the PRC, that was pretty damned tricky. They usually failed, but that day they'd been lucky. Luckier than they’d known. They’d thought it was backfires or fireworks or some old thing blowing up, the kind of thing that happened all the time.
The African exchange students enrolled and living at the Shaanxi College of Highway Knowledge hadn’t been that fortunate. Or unfortunate, they supposed, depending on about a million variables.
The African exchange students had been in Xi’an for years, since high school and before even, and now some were working on post-grad degrees in Civil Engineering and Massive and Unworkable Public Works Engineering. They all spoke excellent Chinese. The Shaanxi College of Highway Knowledge ruled the inter-university football system. The Africans were nearly all Muslim and got to eat special food without pork (which was tricky in the PRC where they loved anything swine-related), but they’d had to personally teach the school cooks how to make the foods they could stomach. Eventually, the plan was that they’d return to Cameroon and Madagascar and Sudan and Chad where, in joint-venture cooperative program together the PRC and its partners in friendship, education, and development would lay down some impressive civil engineering or a massive public works program like a highway to nowhere or a useless and unusable dam, and everyone would be better off and happier for it all.
Except, this was an important point, for the way most part, Chinese people hated African people. On sight. The usual skin color thing. Called them horrible names to their faces and worse names behind their backs. While the Africans SKOHK ruled local intercollegiate football, the African dorm’s participation in intramural football at SKOHK, the dorm vs. dorm intramural matches most schools have, was one long fistfight. We’d watched fans of another dorm’s team run out onto the field of play to try and attack an African player, but during those matches, the Africans’ schoolmates tended to protect them. Punch-ups in the bleachers were common. Vile things were spoken in loud voices, often in unison, as a chant.
"Die, Black Monkey" becomes "Sile, Hei Hóu" which sounds kind of sporty and jovial unless someone understands Chinese, unless someone is a black monkey person or a friend of some black monkey people. There were a lot of fistfights in the stands between the Chinese students, the non-football playing Africans, and the friends of Africans, many of whom were demons, though some were Chinese. Perhaps they saw a future beyond the playing fields of Xi'an.
Anyway, the Africans from The Shaanxi College of Highway Knowledge were driven to the river the day of the those executions and were told to look at the bridge for engineering insight and, oh, by the way, they’re killing people over there to their right.
“There was a girl there, a girl in a pink padded trouser,” Mohammed told me later. “She had this really bad, you know, like pimples, acne all over her face, like the same color of her pants, man.
“There was like a million people there and about 50 cops. They made her kneel down there in the dirty river sand and she got her pink knees all dirty soaking up dirty river water from the wet dirty sand, and then they put a bullet into the base of her skull and she just sort of went bang face down in the dirty sand and that was pretty much that. They went down the line bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, six times one for each of those guys from the posters on the people’s newspaper [large character wall posters].
“And then the truck came driving out on the dirty river sand, leaving these deep marks in that sand, you know, and those marks will be there with all those footprints from all those cops and all those people, and they took this guy out and he didn’t even get a chance to kneel down. They just shot him, bang, and then the police let go and let the crowd loose and they just swarmed those dead bodies, man, they were all over them with money, dipping money into the dead people’s blood because it’s supposed to be lucky and I don’t get that at all and they let these dogs lick up the dead people’s blood and I don’t know why they did that, why they let the dogs do that, shit, man, why they brought those dogs there in the first place. All those dogs, man, they just had string and rope around their necks. They were just regular dogs kidnapped and dragged to a Chinese execution. And who was that other guy, man? What did he do? Who was he even?”
They both paused there to recognize the significance of Chinese teachers dragging their African students to an execution, and Chinese people dragging their local pariah dogs to an execution. He thought about the girl with the dunce cap and the acne, thought about her there on the dirty river sand, lifted from the truck, and placed in the line.
“It’s fucked up, man,” he said.
Robert Masterson, is an award-winning teacher and writer (Garnish Trouble / Finishing Line Press; Artificial Rats & Electric Cats / Camber Press; Trial by Water / Dog Running Wild Press). His journalism, creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, newspapers and websites. Masterson’s creative and academic work has taken him to dark corners around the world. He holds degrees from a wide variety of colleges and universities.