Learning The Western Alphabet
That morning I had studying to do, five pages of intensive reading to learn by heart before the class in the afternoon, but I smile sweetly when they ask me to take the Foreigner to the Acupuncture Clinic. The leaders have decided that I should be the Foreigner's Minder, and the Foreigner wants to see some acupuncture, so I have to take him. I don't understand why he wants to go, he's not even ill. But I don't question it.
The hospital is on the far side of the university campus, on the lower slopes of Yue Lu mountain, and as we walk along the path between the blocks of flats everyone stares at us: why is a pretty young student like me walking next to this tall, big nosed, pink faced Foreigner? One peasant woman drops her basket, and vegetables roll all over the road in front of us.
'What are those long green things?' he asks, watching her as she scrambles to pick them up. Has he never seen bamboo shoots before?
'Why do you want to see acupuncture?' I wasn't planning to ask, it just came out of my mouth, in English.
'China is famous for it. I thought it might be fun to see.' Fun?
'It's for when you're ill, in pain,' I say. 'Not for show.' How could something so old fashioned and ordinary be special for him?
The hospital smells of herbal medicines, a sharp green smell that reminds me of childhood illnesses and my mother's cool hand on my hot forehead.
'God awful smell,' he says.
In the clinic a nurse is treating the neck of an old woman suffering from rheumatism. Under her short, roughly-cut hair, they stick out like knitting needles from a half finished sock. As the nurse manipulates them, pushing them further in, the old woman sighs with the familiar pain.
I try to make things easier by saying, 'They don't have acupuncture in England.' The nurse mutters, 'Big nosed barbarians!' She pushes in the needles more forcibly, twisting them like those poles with spinning plates at the circus. There is a groan behind me and the Foreigner, green as the young bamboos, falls back on to the wooden floor boards, just missing the corner of a large metal cupboard. What if I'd injured him on my first morning as Official Minder? As I wait for his eyes to open, the nurse carries on angrily pulling out and replacing the needles in the brown, worn flesh.
BambooOn her parents' grey concrete balcony there's just room enough for two low chairs, made of yellow bamboo, roughly cut and split. I like the ethnic look but they are far too small for me. There is no way I can fold myself up to fit in them, so I have to sit with my legs out in front of me, my size 11 trainers almost as big as the chairs themselves. She laughs at my awkwardness, her own legs and feet thin and tiny as a child's. When she goes inside, the wire meshed door bangs behind her. I can hear her talking with her mother: their voices are loud and screechy in contrast to their tiny birdlike bodies. She comes back with a plate of 'Lucky Rabbit Milk Sweets', and a white porcelain mug with a lid. Inside it, in the greenish water, a few leaves are unfolding like leeches.
'Special tea from Jiang Jia Jie, but no milk! So sorry,' she laughs. I've been in China long enough to know it is embarrassed laughter. She'd insisted I come round to meet her parents, even though I wasn't very keen. I knew that visiting people in their homes was disapproved of. I'd been told that 'people would be too ashamed to show a foreigner their low living standards', that was how they'd put it to me. So I expected it would be awkward, and I was right: her father nodded at me and then disappeared immediately into the bedroom, while her mother is still hovering smiling uncertainly in the hallway that serves as their kitchen, with its line of brightly coloured flasks. She would have taken them down to the boiler house that morning like all the other women round here: standing in a queue for the day's supply of hot water for the endless green tea.
'Why don't you just boil a kettle at home when you feel like a cuppa?' I ask MingMing as she watches me struggling with the tea leaves.
'Wait till they have settled at the bottom and then sip,' she says. And then, 'Because it would be wasteful of fuel of course.'
It was something else I would not be able to understand. Like why sticking needles in people's necks could be called treatment rather than torture. OK I know that's an ancient tradition. The big mystery here is how all these people live together almost on top of each other, sharing the same boiler for heavens sake, and don't explode with frustration all the time. I know I would.
Later MingMing takes me for a walk in the hills behind the college 'because it's important to exercise in the spring.' She's always coming out with these cute motherly expressions. When I laugh, she looks at me blankly. I suppose it's as if I were to guffaw the next time my mum says 'wrap up warm'. It's odd how we just grow up with all these expressions and never question them. We only notice other people's.
We pass an old temple roofed with yellow tiles, its wooden eaves carved with lucky dragons. She tells me it is being used as a wood store.
'Old style' she said. 'Old things, we don't like them any more.' Walking behind her up the narrow path I note her glossy hair in its simple black pony tail, her white cotton blouse and what looks like a home made skirt made from curtain material: too long to be sexy, too short to be fashionable. She wears nylon knee socks and plastic sandals. I hope this isn't her best, and that if it is, she isn't wearing her best for me. Chinese women do nothing for me. Should I tell her that, just to make sure she doesn't get the wrong idea?
'There,' she says, pointing out some strange red shoots in the earth. 'Bamboo. It's green and then white inside. The peasants dig them up and sell them in the market. They're good to eat.'
'So you eat chairs,' I say. She hesitates, not wanting to contradict me.
'Chair-to-be,' she says. 'Isn't that what you say: wife-to-be?'
Cultural Pollution CampaignI go to the Friday afternoon meeting and find that we have a new campaign. Our Revered Leaders, the Old Men of the People's Republic of China, are worried about the young people getting too influenced by the outside world, now that we have foreign experts even in Changsha. This time there are five 'blacks': no pony tails, no skirts, no immoral foreign authors, no idle talk with foreigners, no empty modern music. Old Zhang asks me, as Class Monitor, to make sure the red banners with their black characters are painted by the students, and hung from the classroom windows. The loudspeaker outside the guest house is to be turned up particularly loud. They call this campaign 'Cultural Pollution'. My father says it isn't a real campaign; no one is going to get thrown out of their windows or paraded round the campus. My mother isn't so sure: 'Be careful,' she says to me. 'Just do what they say, I'll help you plait your hair, and make you some trousers: army green, I've got enough coupons saved up. I'll make them tonight. And don't see the foreign ghost any more.'
I tell her the leaders have asked me to carry on being his Minder. It's an honour: they don't trust anyone else. I am top of my class and on the waiting list to become a party member. I am the only one allowed to talk to him. 'Well don't bring him here again,' says my father. 'Foreign ghosts always mean trouble.'
'He's not a foreign ghost, he's a foreign expert,' I say. 'Deng Xiao Ping himself says we should invite foreign experts so that we can learn from them and develop China into a world power. He's come to help,' I add, as the wire mesh door swings closed behind my father.
'Let him sit in the sun in peace,' says my mother. 'He's an old man. I must air his camel hair trousers ready for the winter.'
We'd planned to have a dumpling party for the whole class at my place, but no one else turned up.
'The others can't attend,' she says. 'They have to go to a meeting.'
'What kind of meeting?'
'Just a meeting, you know how we Chinese love meetings.'
'Even in the evenings?'
'...especially in the evenings.'
I am furious with her: it had been her idea to have the party. She said she knew I'd love dumplings, and we'd been shopping that afternoon in the college free market (a fancy name for a group of peasants squatting in the mud by the front gate) to buy all the ingredients. I'd been chopping green things for hours, while she kneaded pastry. How could they all be at a meeting except her? I know that there is some kind of campaign on: there are new banners everywhere with their angry red characters I can't read, the early morning exercise music is now old army songs played at top volume, and all the girls have plaited their hair, and hidden their legs in baggy trousers, army green or army blue. They look hideous.
'What's going on then?' I say, all the time I cut the pastry circles for the dumplings, that she expertly fills and firmly closes. Every one is exactly the same. 'Why does no one come to see me any more? It's not just tonight, is it? No one's spoken to me for weeks.'
'Nothing going on. You are our Teacher. We all love you,' she says. What a little hypocrite she is, sneakily hiding things from me, pretending everything is normal. I see red, lose my temper, and bang the rickety stove, just two rings balanced on a gas cylinder. It proves to her, and the neighbours above and below, that I am the beast they have been warned about. The pan full of bubbling dumplings falls to the floor, and we stand in silence and watch the mess coagulate.
She is crying as she unplaits her hair, combs it through with a small bamboo comb she took from her trouser pocket, and ties it back in a pony tail.
'You are my teacher, I don't care what they say,' she says. 'Come with me. Let's go to a place I know where they make better dumplings than I can.'
So we walk through some back streets to a tiny shack of a restaurant: one table and four or five stools. There is a dirt floor, crunchy with discarded bones, and the rafters above us are black with thousands of years of history I would never understand. As the steam rises from the stack of bamboo steamers, I feel sorry for her but I don't know what to say or how to say it. I see that she is brave, much braver than I am. I want to apologise for not understanding, and for knocking over the pan, but I don't know how to apologise. I remember the briefing I was given about losing face: if I apologise would she feel bad about accepting my apology? She would want to pretend it hadn't happened. Have I compromised my position as teacher? Then she slips a piece of paper to me over the greasy surface of the table, and as we eat, she translates the newspaper article from the Beijing Daily: it lists all the decadent western authors forbidden by the present 'cultural pollution campaign': Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Cheever.
'Can you teach me about all these? I want to know what they are trying to hide from us.'
I have got written permission from the leaders to take him shopping. I have to do this every time we go anywhere together, but I have never told him about it, or how difficult it is for me, if he goes out somewhere without me. Or if he suddenly asks to go somewhere when I'm not prepared. Sometimes I make excuses. Once I ignored the rules altogether but they found out. I don't want to take that risk again. They might send me to a school to teach instead of letting me stay at the university. The students with the best marks are always invited to teach here, unless they make a mistake. I used to think it would be hard to make a mistake, but now I think it might be easy.
I've borrowed a bicycle for him. I was surprised when he told me he could ride a bicycle: I thought only Chinese people rode bicycles, because on the TV foreigners all drove cars. They are both flying pigeon bikes, the best, from Shanghai. He didn't look very impressed when I pointed this out. Maybe they have different ones in England, but I don't believe they could be any better than our flying pigeons. We ride along the river bank and over the Xiang Jiang, the Fragrant River, where Chairman Mao swam one hot, hot day. My father said it was madness, all the old men of the college, swimming with him, to prove their loyalty. Some of them died of heart attacks, but Chairman Mao only laughed. It was a brave way to die, he said, for true comrades.
I explain to him how in those days, when the traffic lights were red it meant go, and when green it meant stop. Red for revolution. Red for double happiness, for weddings.
'Our railway station is one of the biggest in the country,' I tell him, 'its clock plays 'The East is Red' on the hour, and the number one train comes from Beijing to Changsha, because it was Mao's home city. I could take you to his birthplace if you like, one day. There's a big museum there. It's a nice place for a picnic.'
'Sounds deadly boring,' he says. We turn off May 1st road, where the bicycles ride five abreast, and parked our bikes in a parking lot. I tip the old man in charge. 'Take special care of the foreigner's bike,' I say.
'And yours too, Little Miss Pretty,' he adds, flirting with me. I smile. The college boys don't know how to flirt.
The market is spread out along the lane, peasant men and women squatting behind their baskets of vegetables. He wants green peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, and when I find them, asks me to buy several kilos even though I explain that they are charging high prices because he is a foreigner. Then I buy some eels for my mother. They are swimming in a wooden barrel. After the peasant woman has weighed out my share, she takes each one and splits it on the sharp knife that she has stuck in the wooden block for that purpose. The wood is dark with blood. I take the trembling mass in a piece of newspaper she hands to me.
'It's my father's favourite dish. It's good for the lungs and liver,' I explain. 'Shall I get some for you?'
'You're a murderer,' he says. 'A nation of murderers. I'm joking,' he adds, but I'm not sure. Foreign ghosts are hard to understand. But the eels taste wonderful with my mother's turnip chilli pickle and steamed rice from the canteen. I think about him that evening as I eat, and wonder what he's doing with those expensive peppers and tomatoes, they cost a week's salary for a university teacher.
It took me some time to realise that no one else dares to talk to me. If I want sex while I am in China, she is my only hope. I'd boasted on the plane over about not being celibate in this land of one child families, but it is proving more difficult than I'd thought. MingMing is like no other woman I've ever met. Coy is not the word: it is a completely different language, like going back in time to the Thirties, or the Victorians maybe. I have to admit that when we first met, I didn't find her at all attractive.
Not until that day she took me cycling on the usual heavy black bicycle with no gears. I can't think why they are called Flying Pigeons. Anyway, one Sunday she suggests we go into the countryside and I am more than delighted to get out of the college, and away from the constant staring that goes on round here. Once we get to the end of the main road east of town I realise she has no idea where we are going, so I take out from my bag the map I'd been given in London. First she tells me that it is illegal to have a map, and then when we've found a place out of sight of the road to open it, I realise she has no idea how to read it. I have to ask her to read the names of towns, and then I work out which paths might lead to them. I set off with a great sense of freedom and she follows me, happy to let me guide her through her own countryside.
It turns out to be an intricate pattern of paddy fields, edged with mud banks just wide enough for one bicycle, or a single wheelbarrow with its whining wheel and grunting pig. There are villages of mud bricks surrounded by trees, buffaloes, and flocks of ducks guarded by small boys. It is wonderfully liberating to ride along on top of the dykes, seeing China, but not feeling part of it. So I am in a good mood when we stop by the edge of a river, and wait for the wooden ferry boat to come from the other side. We lay down our bikes and sit down together to drink some water from an old green army bottle she has brought, and eat peanuts and melon seeds. She has to teach me how to crack these with my teeth, spit out the husks, and swallow the seed. She does this ugly task very delicately. Crack, spit, swallow. I watch her mouth and then without thinking, lean over and kiss her red lips. I can taste the salt from the roasted seeds. She blushes, but then to my surprise, she kisses me back, and her red mouth opens into mine. As the ferry heads into the muddy bank I realise she is, let's say, fuckable. The only question in my mind is 'when?'
My name is Zhou MingMing, you could say it means 'shining brightness' or 'double beautiful' something like that. It is a traditional kind of name for parents to give daughters. Many of my friends have revolutionary names like 'Be Red' or 'Strong China'. I'd just had my eighteenth birthday that Spring Festival, the year of the Hare, the year he came to our university. Suddenly we are told that our leaders have invited a Foreign Expert to come and teach us. It is a miracle. Nothing so exciting has ever happened before in our university. None of us have ever met a foreigner before. No one knows quite what to expect. Will he look like those tall big nosed Americans who sleep in enormous soft double beds, in separate rooms from their wives?
On the first day of term, Old Zhang gives us new exercise books, and on them we write as instructed 'Mr Green: English Conversation'. How odd to be called after a colour other than red. Green Ghost would teach us two hours every morning, from 7.30. We should be punctual, polite and obedient, and learn from him all we could. We were not to talk to him as a friend, as foreign ghosts were lecherous and untrustworthy. Only the class monitor would be allowed to talk to him, in her role as Green Ghost Minder, and that monitor was me.
My classmates are envious, my parents worried. It is not a privilege they told me, it's a test. Be on your guard. They want to test you. I promise to report back to the leaders every week, tell them everything he has said, and done; any attempts to touch me; any unpatriotic words; and report all other visitors who went to see him. You see, said my parents, they have only chosen you because our flat is nearby. You can see the comings and goings. It's not because you are anyone special.
That first day I am nervous, we all are. Old Zhang introduces him, tells us to be good students, and then sits down in the front row, leaving Mr Green alone on the platform. I think he is the most beautiful man I have ever seen. I forgive him the big nose and pink skin. He looks at us and we look at him. Then he turns round to the blackboard, and fumbles for chalk. I get up and show him where it is kept, one half piece allowed for each teacher each week. He doesn't look at me. He smells of milk. He says, 'My name is Mar Tin Green,' and gestures to us. We repeat after him, 'My name is Mar Tin Green.' So he turns to the board and starts to write 'My name is....' Then as the chalk shatters and covers him in a cloud of dust, he says, 'Fucking hell,' and we obediently repeat it after him, all sixty of us, 'My name is Fucking Hell.'
Have you ever heard that old Chinese tale about the hare looking at the moon, or was it a tree? My mother used to have a tiny jade ornament, of a hare with its nose in the air. I think the moral is, don't expect good luck to come round more than once. Anyway this is how the students looked at me, those first few lessons. Mesmerised by my voice (they whispered after me everything I said), my face (my big nose), my hair (which is dull brown but they call blond), my size 11 feet (enormous). It isn't wonder in their faces, more a polite horror that anyone could be so physically repulsive. It is a shock: I've always felt moderately attractive. Until now.
I soon realise that it is going to be hard to teach conversation to 60 students. No one will answer a direct question from me (it is not our Chinese custom) and no one will talk in pairs if I ask them to (they do talk, but not in English). The old guy who introduced me that first time turns out to know no English at all. He sits in the front row and sleeps, while I talk to myself. So I get them to write about themselves instead. The first essay is about the wonderful Communist Party of China, and so is the second. Both essays are just about the same, and I am about to accuse them of copying, until I realised all 60 are identical. Someone must be organising them, telling them what to write. I suspect my Minder. But when I ask her she is indignant, and shows me the first exercise they had been set in their writing class that term: they had all copied the set exercise and translated it into English.
'Can't you think for yourselves?' I'd said.
'It's not because we don't have minds,' she said. 'It's because this is what the Chinese teachers want. If you want something different you must say so, but we will be careful what we write. We don't know who will read it. We have to consider our futures.'
'I will read it,' I say. 'Only me. You can write what you want.' She looks doubtful. It is then I decide to bring some literature pieces into class. Surely they would get discussion going. MingMing brightens up at the suggestion. 'Who shall we read?' I ask her.
'Shelley,' she said, 'Ode to the West Wind is in our reader.' So Shelley it is.
'Why is it the west wind?' I asked them. They shrug collectively, all the ones who are not looking out of the window, or finishing other work under the old desks.
'Because it is the warm wind that brings spring!'
'Not in China,' says MingMing. 'Here it is the east wind that brings the warm weather.' That stumps me. What did I know about anything? Why teach English Literature in China? They hadn't even heard of Mickey Mouse.
So I ask them to write an essay about their feelings about Shelley's Ode. I get fifty nine essays about the keen revolutionary spirit of PBS, and one about what a wonderful husband and father he was. 'Utter crap,' I tell the poor girl. 'Where did you get that from?' She shows me the text book, and reads from it 'PBS was a wonderful husband and father because he was a keen revolutionary spirit...'
MingMing tells me off afterwards, for making her lose face in front of her classmates, for not understanding what it is like to live here, learning another language and culture without access to books. With only the occasional dubbed American film.
'Try and see it from our point of view,' she says, angry but sexy. I promise. I'd vowed never to promise a woman anything ever again, but I do. This is not how I thought culture shock would be.
He wanted to learn to write characters, and asked me to find him a teacher.
'I can teach you,' I say, and so I take round some brushes, an ink stone and a book of characters: the kind small children copy in kindergarten. I explain about the strokes, how to hold the brush, how to dip it in the ink, how to move it, how to put the brush on to the paper, and take it off again, without leaving a blot. How important the pressure is, to get the stroke looking just right, the character well balanced. I make him do fifty attempts at 'I'. The last one is perfect.
I explain how each character is made up of strokes in a given order. How as children we spend many hours learning the ideograms. He says it is easier to learn just the twenty six letters in the western alphabet, but I argue that it could not be as subtle. I try to explain how the look of the character is as important as the meaning. I point out how we write from top to bottom, from right to left, and how he writes from left to right.
I explain about rice paper, and how to paste two sheets of it together so that the paper can take the ink. I tell him the names of different types of calligraphy: flowing, water, grass. He says he thought it would be easy but it makes me laugh to watch him concentrating so hard, on holding the brush correctly, and making the strokes in the right order, and then producing characters that a five year old could have done better. I do my best to explain about flow, and pressure, and breathing. How the brush strokes should be as natural as grass growing by the side of the path. I have to stand close to him as we do this, my small hand on his large one, guiding the strokes.
I want him to kiss me again, like he did when we waited for the ferry. There had been no one to see us. Here anyone could see us through the window, and report me. I dare not ask him to kiss me again.
I want him to want to kiss me.
I want everyone to see.
All the time I am copying those wretched characters, I am watching her jade coloured neck, and the fine bones of her hands. Her hair is up, and her face as she concentrates on the brush stokes, is beautiful, wide and flat, almost moon shaped. You see, I've read the Dream of the Red Chamber (it is her favourite book). I am becoming obsessed with her, and long for these evenings when the only sound is the drying of ink on rice paper.
I thought when I first came here that I would have fun. I know they'd warned me about culture shock, but this is not what I imagined, this slow sloughing off of my usual ways of behaving, and tuning myself into her. I didn't know I could do this. I've never done anything like this before. Those first few weeks I missed the blokes at home, the girls, especially Kate. I realised that one reason for coming here was to get away from seeing her and Justin together. I didn't expect life here to be so strange, and I didn't expect to fall in love.
KashgarThe summer is terribly hot, even for Changsha. We lie on bamboo mats and never move far from the fans. Mar Tin has air conditioning in his flat but even so, he goes travelling once the temperature hits 40 degrees. He has money and can go where he pleases. The rest of us have to stay in our units, where our permits allow us to live and collect boiled water and buy rice.
He gave me his key and said I could use the air conditioning, but I know that the neighbours will complain that it is too noisy, keeping them awake, so I don't go there. We get up very early, and do our chores while it is still cool, and then spend all day lying inside and sweating. I try to read and study. When I can't bear it any longer I stand under the cold shower until my skin starts to soften. As soon as I dress again I am sweating. If he were here would I want to touch him?
He sends me a postcard from Kashgar. It is so far away from here. Why does he want to go there? The people in the far west are rough and uncouth. It's the kind of place you go if you disobey the leaders. I didn't tell him but my uncle lives in Urumuchi. He fell in love with a student, and when the leaders found out, he was banished. He's never come back, and we've never seen him in all these years. We never talk about him. This is why I was sad when he said he wanted to go there this holiday. I was hoping he'd go somewhere like Hangzhou. I'd love to go and see the lake there. I was hoping he'd ask me to go with him. I could have gone as his translator. I will keep his postcard in my pocket. Next summer we must go to Hangzhou together.
First day of term, and I go into the English faculty building to find the teachers cleaning the latrines. Wang and Wu are in their wellingtons, sloshing water around in a foul smelling bucket. I try to commiserate but they seemed to think it perfectly reasonable for them to spend their morning cleaning, instead of preparing their lessons. Maybe it is a propitiation rite: we'll clean your toilets if you behave all term. I leave quickly before they ask me to join them. No way am I going to go anywhere near those evil smelling loos. I can't believe that anything they do will improve the stink that wafts round the classrooms all year.
There is no sign of MingMing. I feel kind of miffed that she didn't come round to see me the night before. She must know I am back. Her parents' flat is just across from mine. Besides, everyone knows everything round here, especially about me. While I was away I worked out that I am about a third of the way through my time here, and no way am I going to last the year without some sex. Besides I think I have fallen for her. I never expected to fall for a Chinese woman. They are way too small, tiny breasts and no hips to talk of. But her face is pretty, and I've got used to her talking to me as if I am a small child that needs keeping under control. In fact I've been thinking about her a lot, all the time I was away. Of course it could have been that there were no women there worth looking at. Most were covered up in long shapeless dresses, their hair in scarves, the young ones looking just like their mothers. Back in Han China, the girls look positively liberated in their short skimpy dresses, and nylon socks.
And I haven't forgotten that kiss by the ferry. Something told me that had been her first. I'd expected her to come on for more by now.
When I was a child I used to look forward to Spring Festival because of the new clothes, the lucky money envelopes, and the firecrackers, but now I think the Moon Festival is my favourite. I love the way we watch out for the new moon, noticing how it fills out each night, a little rounder and smoother, until it is perfect. And I love the moon cakes my mother buys from the shops. It's the only time in the year she buys ready made food. I love their gaily decorated boxes, and the patterned paper in which each is wrapped, their golden colour, and the chrysanthemum flowers and lucky characters on them: so that taking a bite is like eating poetry. Inside the moon cakes there are lotus seeds and date paste, or egg and chestnuts, delicious things that we rarely eat. I like to think they are a bit like the English mince-pies we read about in our extensive readers at school. We eat them for the memories.
You have a white paper lantern hanging in your window. Behind on the glass hangs its reflection, and the real moon is low in the sky behind them both. Double moons, double happiness. I take you two boxes of red crane moon cakes, one is from my mother, and one from me. Each has four cakes, enough for a feast. I show you how to unwrap each one, and then we cut one, the special one with the egg inside and we eat it together. Or rather I eat it, you cough a little and say you find it 'interesting.' That evening you switch off the light, and we sit by the window, listening to the rats scrabbling in the rubbish pit below, and watching the moon rise. I recite poetry to you, the poems I can still remember from school, Ming dynasty poems about watching the moon rising, while remembering my beloved. And I feel so very happy that I haven't lost my beloved. You are right beside me, holding my hand and stroking my hair.
I like to think that things may have developed nicely that night. She was all flushed and happy from reciting the poetry, and telling me how many prizes she had won at school for her perfect Mandarin. If it hadn't been for those rotten cakes. They were disgusting; a combination of sweet and sour, and a consistency that made me gag. I only ate a sliver but she gobbled down at least two, before she started to turn pale and then green and had to spend the rest of the evening in the bathroom. It turned out all the cakes that year were rotten: they'd over produced the year before, and so instead of producing new ones, they simply re-cooked last year's and sold them as fresh. Almost the whole college is ill. And the rats must be ill too, as I threw my remaining moon cakes on the tip, and they were all gone in one night.
I hardly see her for a few weeks after that. When I do bump into her in the faculty she says she is preparing for National Day. Apparently they all have to read Marx or Mao or something, as a kind of ritual purification for the great day. I don't think I believe her. I think she's playing hard to get, Chinese style.
OrangesHunan is famous for rice, fish and oranges. When they tell us over the tannoy that there are oranges for sale in the campus shop I rush over with my mother and we queue for two hours. We buy two boxes: one for us and one for you. I show you how to wrap each one in pages of the People's Daily, so that they will last you through the winter. Sometimes our hands touch as we place the fruit back into the box.
I show you the paper the orange company had given me. They want to export their fruit and have asked me to translate their leaflets into English. I tell you I have translated the paper as 'fruit freshness preservation paper'. You laugh and said this is not how you'd say it in English. The more you laugh the less I can admit that it is my translation you are laughing at. We settle on 'special paper which will preserve the freshness of the fruit', but I know the company will prefer my original translation, and I need my 100 yuan fee.
Some time in the autumn I ask you about your oranges. You've forgotten them and the whole box has turned mouldy. I say nothing. What a waste, I almost cried. I want to tell you all the tales my mother told me about how hard things were in the past, how careful we all are about not wasting anything because of those hard times. About how when the cultural revolution started and the colleges closed, my mother walked home, for four days, back to her village, and how the blisters on her feet swelled up like kumquats, they were so bad that the peasants showed her how to take a hair from her head, gently insert it and drain the fluid away. This is my past. You know nothing about how hard life was for my parents, and all the people here. And how hard it is for me. I've had a warning, and I've told them I know what I'm doing. I do my best to stay away from you.
Puffed rice machine
It is bloody cold. There's no heating south of the Yangtze and we are some kilometres south of it, so tough. It may snow, but no heating. Old Zhou brings me a fire bowl, filled with charcoal, and shows me how to sit with my legs over it, and how to keep the window open to avoid the fumes. I decide it is warmer to stay in bed. This makes it more awkward when she comes to see me, in her thick padded jacket and trousers, that turn her into Michelin man. She makes it clear that I can't receive her in bed, so we sit in the other room our frozen hands round the ubiquitous cup of green tea. How I long for a cup of PG tips with milk and two sugars. Not to mention central heating. In the classrooms the students sweep up odd bits of paper and light fires on the concrete floors. I teach them some songs with hand movements, just to keep my own blood circulating. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, that kind of thing. When I say they could use these with their own future classes, they look doubtful. They only put up with me, because my lessons were easier than the others, and, I like to think, more enjoyable.
However it is just after our final round of Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, that I hear the noise. A kind of horn calling insistently. 'What's that?' I asked MingMing, who always sits at the front of the class, in front of me. I've noticed that the other students kept their distance from her. 'Rice puffer man,' she says. 'You take your rice, and he will puff it up in his machine. It has a fire in it,' she adds.
'Great,' I say. 'Class dismissed.'
We run up to my flat and fill a pan with rice from the sack in the corner of my kitchen. I pick out the ants as we join the queue of housewives and chattering children. The people immediately round us are silent as they stare at me, not wanting to lose the opportunity to have a good look. The rice puffer man wears the standard green padded army coat, just like mine, except that his has holes in it where the cotton padding is escaping. He has a green army hat with ear flaps, and shouts 'Bring your rice! Get it puffed!' (I'm guessing here) continually over the noise of his machine. Rice is poured in, a lid is closed, there is a bang, and rice krispies pour out the other end. It is magical. I hand him my two yuan with joy and we rush home, only to remember of course that I don't have any milk. Never mind, they are delicious on their own. I eat a whole bowl full sitting in bed, fully clothed under three quilts. She sits next to me and waits till I've finished. With the help of the puffed rice man and a freezing cold day, I have caught her.
Our quilts are filled with soft white cotton, sewn together loosely with red cotton thread. Each summer, while we sleep on bamboo mats in the great heat, we spread the quilts outside in the sun. When they get too thin we send them to the quilt makers who unpick the cotton and add more. There is nothing as warm as cotton. You've told me about wool and feathers and modern synthetic materials but I don't believe you. There is nothing warmer than a quilt below and one on top. We sew the quilts into white cotton covers, with a silk top. Yours is one of the best kind: embroidered with a pair of dragons in green thread against the pink silk. I tell you that they represent the emperor and empress from the old days, when the Chinese people suffered, before Mao freed us from the old capitalist days. You laugh at me, and call me your little empress. You say you have never seen anything as beautiful as my body. I tell you I love you, and you say you love me, and so great is the heat between my legs that I open myself to you, and hope the Wangs in the flat below don't hear the bed rocking, and your cries as you come deep inside me.
Afterwards you fall asleep in my arms, as the sticky wetness flows from me on to your white sheet. I am sore, but happy because I know that we will have a son, and that we will both go with you back to the UK. I can see us walking up the steps of the plane, turning to wave at the top, as our leaders do on China News. Our son will only speak English. I will start teaching him the western alphabet straight away, by tracing out the letters on my stomach.
She knows nothing about sex, but I don't mind. I am so glad to be fucking again. I have taught her what I like and she is undemanding. That suits me. The only problem is that she starts to talk about marriage straight away. At first I thought it was a joke, then I realise she is deadly serious. OK I think, let her talk and make plans. Maybe I do want a Chinese wife. Why not? She's beautiful enough. She'll look after me, cook, and do house work and so on. She's hard working. She'll be able to help me if I carry on teaching EFL, we can travel the world together. Being married could be kind of useful. But I have no plans to tell my parents just yet, and so I tell her I didn't want to be introduced to her parents as a fiancŽ so soon.
'We must tell them first,' she says. 'Before the others find out. Then I'll be in trouble. I'm not the ideal age, yet, I haven't been given permission by the leaders to get married, so I need to have my parents' permission. And then no one will gossip.'
'What will your parents think? Do they need to know yet?'
Her eyes open wide in terror. 'Of course they need to know, I don't hide things from them, I cannot. We live too closely. And if I'm... I'm... my mother will know, perhaps before I do.'
'But what's your father going to say? About his daughter marrying a penniless EFL teacher? He wouldn't even speak to me that day I came round and drank tea on your balcony. He just disappeared w he hen heard us coming. Maybe he doesn't like foreigners.'
'Oh but he does, he does. He loves foreigners. He loves Dickens and Shelley and Byron. He has all their books (no one knows this, they are hidden away under his bed, it's still not safe to show them to everybody). He speaks English very well: he taught me. He passed on his love of English to me. It's just that... well, he suffered in the Cultural Revolution. His students, they... they, the red guards, they came here and beat him up. They knew he had foreign books here, and they were forbidden. But he refused to hand them over, and they couldn't find them (because my mother had taken them to the country side, hidden in straw), so they beat him up, and he hasn't been able to work since, because they damaged his eyes. He never goes out, because those people are still around in the college.
'And now he says he hates foreigners, because they brought him trouble in the past. And who knows what the future will bring? This is why I am so careful, keeping on the right side of the leaders. I try very hard, but they would be happy if I made a mistake.
'We're from a very good family. A landlord's family. My grandfather was educated in Shanghai: he died in the revolution. They killed him. Both my parents joined the Party. They didn't know what Mao would do. They couldn't believe they would be punished for having some books. My father taught me English secretly. He always wanted me to leave China and go to England to see Speaker's Corner, except for the fog, of course that can't be very nice, but he thinks I will be safe there, and his grandchildren..'
'Grandchildren! Come on, girl, we've only slept together a few times. I can't start thinking about other people's grandchildren.'
I'm joking but I start to think about how I could get some Durex sent over. That would put a stop to any grandchildren. By this time she is sobbing. So I say, 'Don't worry. I'll come and see your parents. I'll promise them I'll take care of you.'
I take her in my arms and start to undo the buttons on her blouse. Her breasts are tiny, with brown nipples, like the delicate stems of some kind of exotic fruit. And all the time I am thinking how can I get an order to Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and how long will they take to arrive?
When I was a child I always kept silk worms, so as soon as the mulberry tree was in leaf I take some round for you. There is one branch with many leaves, and two silk worms. You take it from me uncertainly and put it in a jam jar on your desk.
'Won't they crawl away?' you ask, as the two grey creatures swayed from one leaf to another.
'No, they never leave the mulberry. And anyway these are about to start spinning.'
'How do you know?'
'I just know,' I say. 'Maybe they are a little slower or a little fatter. They are just finding a nice leaf to sleep on.'
'I wish I could find a nice leaf, take a long nap, and wake up a butterfly,' he says.
'But you wouldn't wake up if you were a silk worm. Someone would take you and plunge you into hot water and then unwind your silk and steal it!'
'Not these two. I'll keep them safe from the Silk Road.'
We call them Yin and Yang. I am glad to see that he watches them spin their cocoons with the same fascination that I do, even after all these years of watching the same miracle.
But then you lose interest. One day I come round and the jam jar has gone. You've put them on the balcony. You didn't want to sit and imagine the grubs evolving into winged creatures, imaging how delighted they would be to find they had wings and could fly wherever they wanted. I think this is because you can fly and go wherever you want. It isn't anything special for you. You can even go to places in China where I am not allowed to go. For the first time I feel angry with you, for having things I don't have, and for not even realising it. How clumsy you can be, putting your big feet everywhere. You came here, knowing nothing, expecting to teach us, who knew far more about the grammar of the English Language than you did. And yet as I say this, I know it's not true. You did know better about some things. How to fill in university application forms for Canada and the US, how to write the application letter, and do the sample essay they require. You are encouraging half the young lecturers to try to leave China. And I too, I want to go with you and see the other half of the world. I am just as bad as they are. Worse even, because I am pretending to be different.
TeaThere's a special kind of tea called golden needle tea (I think). You put the leaves at the bottom of the cup, pour on the hot water (from the ubiquitous flask with its green or pink flowers) and watch them rising and falling several times. It reminded me of those Japanese paper flowers you used to get in Christmas stockings sometimes, or those flannels that come in a block the size of a matchbox, and then miraculously unfurl in the bath water. Except that these rose and fell several times. I used to have a tiny windup boat in the bath: maybe that's what I'm thinking of. So many crass comparisons for something magical.
I have changed in so many ways, being here with MingMing. Yes, I can now use chopsticks, and drink green tea. I've forgotten about the BBC and think the Guardian is always tiny and printed on crackly paper. I've hardly spoken to my parents, and I used to be such a mummy's boy, taking my washing round to her and borrowing money from Dad knowing he wouldn't ask me to pay it back. I've stopped thinking about Kate all the time. I don't even care if she has found someone else. I've found I quite like teaching too: I've even written to the British Council to ask about getting a job with them somewhere more, well more capitalist, after this.
I expect you'll say I've grown up. I used to be brash and noisy and crass. I cringe now to remember how I shouted at those poor women about turning down the loudspeaker outside my window. How I offended poor Professor Ning when he read me his dreadful poetry and I laughed at him. I've learned from MingMing how to look at things carefully, and find small pleasures. I'm grateful to her for all this, but if I'm honest, I am beginning to feel restless again. I've agreed to the wedding idea, because I don't want to hurt her, but I still haven't told my parents. The look on their faces when I turn up with a Chinese wife! I can imagine standing outside their semi in Chorlton, but when they close the door behind us, what then? I'm sure they'll love her, of course they will. She is love personified. She will look after me, and fuss about keeping my feet dry, and give, and give and give. But is this what I want?
UnitIn China we all live in units. When people ask you where you live, they mean which unit. Our unit is the college. We have our own shop, post office, clinic, kindergarten, free market and schools. We have our own quotas for meat (lean and fatty), hot water, cloth, oranges, rice, flour, and babies.
Our unit has completed its quota for this year already.
Her mother has made her a red silk qi-pao, you know, the old style of dress, very slim over the hips, with tiny knotted fastenings in a row above her left breast. There is some rather ugly flower embroidery, but she says it is traditional for an engagement party dress. I give her a necklace from the Friendship Store. Pseudo old style I think, with tiny carved beads on a red string. She doesn't want a ring till we go to the UK. No one here wears rings. That's what the old landlords used to do, and look what happened to them.
The college is giving us a banquet. Ten courses of Hunan specialities. The heads of departments are there, the party members, her parents, some colleagues from the department. After every course there is a toast. They toast, I toast, everyone speaks except the bride to be. That is the tradition. They sing, then they ask me to sing. All I can think of is Auld Lang Syne. We eat sea cucumber and wood ears, burnt stinky dofu (Chairman Mao's favourite dish), frogs' legs, beef stomach, inners and gizzards of every kind. The College Deputy is a woman called Luo. Madame Luo keeps asking the waiters to add vinegar to the wine like the Manchu empresses used to do. She says it will promote long life to the happy couple. She toasts us in vinegar and I toast her back, to the long friendship between China and the UK. We drink over and over again to the eternal friendship of our two nations (I'm sure I heard someone say USA by mistake but he was shushed down). To future happiness, sons and grandsons... I get very red in the face, as does everyone else. I hug the College Deputy, all the professors, their wives, the semi-professors and their wives, the party faithful, the bride's parents (who were also red with drink) and the bride. I'm sure now that I am doing the right things. Do come for the wedding. We've fixed a date for next month.
WeddingIn the past, the bride would be carried from her parents' house to that of her in-laws, and only then would the veil over her face be raised. That would be the first time she saw her husband. What must it have been like? I'm glad we did it this way. We looked and looked and fell in love.
A week before the wedding he wanted me to spend all night with him. I said no, not possible. Just wait a week. So we went to his bed during afternoon rest time. We made love and it hurt me a little, and I couldn't hide it.
So then I told him. About going to the clinic. And as I spoke, his face filled with horror. I'd read about it in books, but I'd never seen it happen before me. My father once tried to describe the look on his brother's face when they gave him the ticket to Urumuchi, and told him he couldn't see Xiao Ping again. He never told me what they did to her. All the time Mar Tin was shouting at me I was thinking about her. Was she in the same situation as me? Had nothing changed in a generation? I could do nothing about it: they'd talked to me all night, and in the morning exhausted with lack of sleep and argument, they'd taken me to the clinic, and waited outside the door while it was done. They said that was the right thing to do.
But Mar Tin didn't see it that way. How could he? He'd been sleeping soundly.
Now, it seemed I would lose him, and then they'd really get me. They'd accuse me of immorality, and what then? How could I imagine what they would do to me?
'They told you to do this, horrible thing, and you just did it? Without asking me? The father? How could you? This horrible place, you're all murderers.'
The day before I left for Beijing and the plane home I was in the Friendship Store on May 1st Avenue, trying to find gifts to take home. My new Minder, Xiao Hong, was with me. She was as ugly as the proverbial back of a bus, and spoke to me only when she had to, and then with palpable horror. I drifted round the aisles undecided: Tang dynasty horses? Packets of tea? Double sided embroidery of kittens?
Suddenly there was a commotion outside and everyone rushed out in the street to see lorries going by carrying men and women with placards round their necks in red writing, dripping, to show how hastily they had been written. Their names and their crimes. I could only glimpse their stunned white faces, and could hardly take in the crowd roaring with anger.
'Criminals off to be executed,' said Xiao Hong calmly. 'Our government is cracking down on crime.'
'What sort of things have they done?' I asked.
'It was on the TV last night. Cat thefts, what do you say, cat burglars, climbing into people's flats. Embezz...embezzlement. Murder. Rape.'
'And the women?'
'Immorality.' She wanted me to ask her what she meant by that. She'd say, falling in love with foreigners, sex before marriage. She wouldn't say, having an abortion, because that was normal in this looking glass world. Nor would she say calling off a marriage because she'd changed her mind.
She can't have changed her mind. That wasn't her style. However pressurised I'd never doubted her honesty. Was it all a bluff to get me into trouble? No, surely she must have been under pressures she'd only hinted at. Maybe she couldn't go through with it for my sake.
Suddenly I saw how brave she had been, pushing for what she wanted against all the odds. I hadn't seen it till then, as the lorries went by with the crowds baying for their blood. This is what it must have been like in the Cultural Revolution when she was a child. I wanted to know more, so I took a risk and asked Xiao Hong, right there on the pavement, as the crowds eddied around us.
'What's happened to MingMing? Where she's gone?'
Xiao Hong looked at me carefully. 'Don't tell them what I say. But you should know. She loved you, but they kept going on at her, because of what happened to her parents. Did she tell you what she did when she was a child? She wrote on a blackboard Mao and crossed it out. She had heard people say it was a crime, so she did it, and her parents were imprisoned. Her uncle was sent away. Her father was beaten up. She told them what she'd done but they made her parents suffer on her behalf. I think she decided then that she wanted to leave China as soon as she could. She couldn't forgive them, and the old leaders are still here. They asked her to be your Minder to test her. They knew she'd fall in love with you. They hoped this would happen; they were never going to let her marry you.'
'Where is she?
'In the flat, while they decide what to do with her. I think they'll send her to the countryside. She won't talk to you. I've asked her. I offered to bring a letter. She gave me this for you. But she won't change her mind. She says she will never remember the western alphabet well enough to be able to speak it with you again.'
'I could speak to her in Chinese.'
She laughed in my face.
'You foreigners, you think you own the world, you think you know everything, coming here and laughing at us. Can't you see what you did to her? She loved you. You never understood what life was like for her. You never saw your parents being beaten up by their own students, because of something a child had done in fun. You don't understand how brave she was. And still is, I think she did the brave thing. She's worthy of her parents now.'
I took the package she gave me. It was a tiny cartoon book of the story of the woman warrior. And I understood. Like Fa Mu Lan, you'd carried the resentments and angers of your family on your own frail tender body.
I bought the Tang horse, five of them. I bought Fragrant River Tea, and Happy Rabbit Milk Sweets in a red and white tin.
And then I went back to the flat, crept under the quilt for the last time, and cried.
They make me write a confession. I do what they ask. But I write this one too. This is my own confession to my child. I couldn't live if I didn't try to explain to her what happened and who she is. You see, I fell pregnant very soon, maybe it was that very first time. I knew that if I was not married by the time the baby was born, I'd be in trouble. I'd lose the chance of Party membership, I'd lose my job, and they'd send me to the countryside. I'd become a peasant: me, an educated landlord's great grand daughter. And my parents would be punished again.
I tried to explain to Mar Tin but he didn't understand and I had to wait. Then after we got engaged, I applied for permission for a baby, but they told me the quota was full. They told me I had to follow the rules like everyone else. I wasn't special. I was worse than the others: my background was stinking. And I'd slept with a foreigner. They laughed at me for trusting him. So I went to the clinic and they did what they had to do. They do it every day, all the time. It's nothing for them. That first time we went to see the acupuncture, we passed the door of the clinic, but I said nothing then. And I couldn't tell him now, because I knew from that story we'd studied, The Enormous Radio, I knew that foreigners thought differently about abortion. I thought he might change his mind about marrying me if he knew what I'd done.
I was confused. All I knew was that I loved him, and wanted to live with him in the UK. My father always told me, learn English, learn the western alphabet so you can go and live freely. He'd suffered so much. He didn't want me to suffer.
But then I felt I had to tell Mar Tin. We were lying in bed, under that quilt with the dragons, and talking about secrets: how we'd never have secrets. He was saying how he felt his parents were never open to each other, and I said that was a problem in China too. He said how he'd appreciated me talking to him, explaining things. So I thought it would be OK, that he'd understand after living here so long. I just opened my mouth and spoke. I expected his arms to tighten round me. But he was shocked and angry, and called me all kinds of names and pushed me out of bed and on to the floor. He told me to go and so I went. Hurriedly pulling on my clothes and hoping the Wangs weren't listening to my shame.
I talked to my parents, and they told me what I had to do. The next day I wrote to Mar Tin to say I'd changed my mind, and then I went to the leaders to face criticism. They made me write it all down, everything we'd done and said, to see if I could be accused of spying. They made me stay in the flat for four months. I couldn't say goodbye to him. I daren't write to him, even though Xiao Hong offered to take a letter and risk her own political record. I just sent that little book. I'd told him the story before of Fa Mu Lan, and I thought he could read the pictures. I hoped he'd understand something, but I don't know if he did. Maybe it was all a dream on my part, thinking that a foreigner could love me and that I could leave China.
While I was locked up, I realised I'd fallen pregnant again, that last time, before I'd told him what I'd done. I kept thinking over and over again, how I wish I'd never told him the truth. But by then I didn't belong to the unit any more. I was sent back to the village where my great aunt still lives and needed someone to help with the pigs. So I gave birth there, and kept her, our daughter, until she was a month old. Then I heard that foreigners were coming to adopt orphaned girls, and so I left her outside the orphanage. I wrapped her in a cloak of pink satin with the traditional button eyes and furry ears that confuse the ghosts that might want to steal a human baby and swap her for a fox fairy. And to the cloak I pinned a notice in western letters, 'Only to be adopted to someone in England, please'.
I've still got some green tea somewhere. I've even got a cup with a lid, though I haven't used it for a while. I went from China to Japan, taught in Osaka for a year. Next year I'm going on to KL. I love the Asian women. Broken hearts everywhere, yes. Well, mine mainly. I often think of MingMing. I write to Xiao Hong sometimes, and she tells me that MingMing is fine. She's married a peasant, a childhood sweetheart she says.
Did I tell you that Kate and Justin have adopted a Chinese baby girl? From Hunan they say. They've called her Zoe. I pointed out that she ought to have a Chinese name but they say she doesn't look that Chinese. When I go back in the summer I'll go and see them. But not just yet, not yet.