For exactly one month I lived in Xiaoshan, China with my friend and fellow hobo, Jared. It was an arrangement I settled into with a sense of permanence even though its fleetingness was dictated by a return ticket to South Korea. I slept in something we called the Hamster Bed: a heap of comforters, sheets, pillows, and bedding accessories piled on the floor across from the washing machine. During the day, I took Mandarin lessons with a girl named Koko who I paid in KFC value meals. Jared and I spent our evenings at a club frequented by the glam-bohemian sons and daughters of the Communist Party, and we would drink watered-down Johnny Walker Black until it got light out. There wasn't much to do while Jared and Koko were at work. I was deathly afraid of the group taxis to Hangzhou, coffee was expensive and the beer caused migraines, so I spent most of my afternoons leaning against buildings and watching the traffic. And this was how I met Lennet.
He rolled up to me on a bike. He told me he wanted to learn English and that if he could speak English perfectly, he would jump around a lot. He invited me to go with him to the West Lake and take pictures. It was an innocuous invitation from an innocuous-looking guy: prematurely bald and bespectacled, sporting a General Electric polo shirt with a laminated ID card clipped to the right breast. I agreed to meet him, gave him my phone number, and beaming, Lennet rolled away on his bike.
He called me eight times before the next morning's sun came up on Hamster Bed. When I called him back, he sounded peevish but eager as hell to see me. Jared had the day off and insisted on meeting my new buddy. We met him at the same wall I had been leaning against the day before and he was wearing the same GE polo shirt. Jared interrogated him in Mandarin and as Lennet spoke, I thought I saw a wave of sadistic glee pass over Jared's face. Stifling a cough, or laughter, Jared turned to me and said, "Have fun."
Lennet and I took the bus to Hangzhou and chatted for ten minutes before a deep mutual boredom set in. He started singing to himself and I fell asleep. I was jostled awake by an elbow to my breadbasket. Lennet was poised to jump out of the bus. I parachuted after him and Lennet surged ahead of me. For several blocks, it was all I could do to keep up with him. Then he stopped suddenly. He told me to strike a pose next to a lamppost. Unsure of whether I was supposed to straddle the pole or what, I draped an arm around it and stood there looking constipated while Lennet snapped photo after photo. Then he was off again, gesturing frantically for me to follow. A few yards away, he made me pose in front of a garbage can. Snap, snap, snap. And on we went.
When I am in a strange place, I tend to assume that the individuals I encounter are not insane, but enmeshed in a vast net of cultural norms and values that are insane. But as Lennet and I orbited the West Lake and the photographs grew more dadaistic - me in front of a stray dog, me in front of an information booth, me in front of a pay phone - I noticed that even the Chinese tourists were staring at Lennet, that for once they weren't staring at me. He began accosting strangers to take our picture together. We posed on opposite sides of a recycling bin, a mailbox, a stack of watermelons. I began to suspect that I wasn't dealing with a photo-happy Asian stereotype, but with a lunatic, or a Caucasian-Voyeur-Porn monger.
This went on for three hours. It was a cloudy day and the lake stretched out alongside us, black and rippled like a pit full of garbage bags, the city of Hangzhou glowering in the distance. I'd sunk into a mood and I was about to say something curt and girlish - "Lennet, take me home." - when I noticed a sign by the pier that put me in better spirits. The sign was large and white with two imposing lines of Mandarin followed by the words "HAVE FUN." I stopped and fumbled for my camera, but Lennet was already forging ahead: he had spied an intriguing steam pipe on the horizon.
"Hey Lennet," I said, indicating the sign. "I want to get a picture of this."
"But that?" Lennet asked, incredulous. "That is only sign!"
And he was off again.
I could only take solace in something Jared had once told me: that no Chinese man in his right mind would ever let a foreigner pay for dinner. We walked to a dingy restaurant sufficiently removed from the lake to be somewhat cheap. I sat across from Lennet and waited for him to finish snapping pictures of the menus, of me holding a menu, of me looking thoughtfully at the menu. Then he asked me how much money I had.
"125 RMB," I told him.
I watched as Lennet combed through the menu and found five dishes which, combined, cost exactly 125 RMB. He let me pick up the tab.
Lennet wanted to go to the bookstore, so we went. A Chinese bookstore can be an astoundingly dull place when you only know the words for "big" and "small." I watched him shop for an hour. Then, having purchased nothing, Lennet led us out to the taxi rank and it seemed like the end of our night was finally coming into view. But when we arrived in Xiaoshan, Lennet followed me home. He wanted me to come over to his apartment to see the 274 photographs he'd taken of me that afternoon. I told him several mutually contradictory things: that I had class in the morning, that I needed to sleep in, that I was going to Beijing, that I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend. He would not be dissuaded and tailed me for several blocks on his bike. It was dark and the whores were out. I panicked. When I came to the STD clinic on the home stretch, I started into a trot, then I ran. I darted through side streets and alleyways, dashed out into traffic, and finally lost Lennet by throwing myself into the back of a trishaw and telling the driver to step on it, which he did by pedaling vigorously.
For the next several days, the phone buzzed and buzzed. I buried it in the depths of Hamster Bed, but still it mocked me like a deathwatch. A week passed before the calls began to drop off. Eight a day, four a day, two a day, until finally the phone lay dead, smothered under three feet of cotton.
I suppose the tragedy in all this is that, in cutting ties with Lennet, I lost 274 photographs of me looking constipated next to every inanimate object in the vicinity of Hangzhou's West Lake. I could have printed them out and bound them into a flip book, one in which an afroed white guy's expression sours and turns to rage, forehead veins bulging, bloodshot eyes burning into the camera lens, slowly drawing a knife from his pocket. Less tragic (but also tragic) is that I didn't get a picture of the "Have Fun" sign, though I recently found it in the Chinglish book my mother got me for my birthday.
A week later, I was sitting out in a public park, reading Nietzsche's Ecce Homo. An older gent took a seat next to me on the bench. I was relieved to see it wasn't Lennet. The man offered me a cigarette and I did the Chinese thing and accepted it. Amateur smoker that I was, I ended up getting ash all over myself. The man began brushing it off. Looking up from my book, I saw that the ash was long gone but the man's fingers were still combing my armhair, lost in the mystery of it. Then he moved in close enough that I could smell the rice wine on his breath. Suddenly the book caught his eye. He took it from me and stared at the cover illustration for a long time. I blushed: the illustration showed a merry throng of nymphs and nymphets, nude, dancing with streamers around a maypole. He handed the book back to me, gave me a thumbs up, and smiled broadly, toothlessly. I read for a while longer, though it was difficult to focus on Nietzsche with my admirer picking at the lint on my shirt, tracing circles along my wrist, breathing mustard gas into my ear. I thought about pulling out my phrasebook, opening it to the Night Life section and pointing - "Let's just stay friends" - but I sensed that the old man was about to neck me and time was of the essence. I got up and ran away. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that he was waving, so I waved back, ran, waved, ran ...
As I was being frisked at the Hangzhou Airport security checkpoint, Jared bid me farewell and said, "Don't take shit from anybody." It was one of those moments as an introverted pacifist where you think, "Maybe, from now on, I won't." But my demeanor has not changed since then. If a Chinese stalker were to kidnap me today and take me to the zoo, I would pose for all 247 of his photographs and buy him dinner afterward. And I would probably still read twenty pages of Nietzsche with some vulture breathing sweet Mandarin nothings in my ear. I have this capacity for shit absorption, you see. I'm beginning to think it is a superpower.