Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Life Among The Oldsters

I once attempted to describe the American hipster to my students, which proved to be no small feat. The up-and-coming Chinese youth are about as anti-retro as you can get. Anything that predates Lady Gaga is unhip. Cellphones that do not come equipped with an MP3 player and a 26-watt tazer are obsolete. So when I explained to them that the cool kids in America listen to old music on something called a "record player," that they wear old pants, old suitcoats, and old man hats, the response was unanimous:

"American hipsters are Chinese old people!"

Not quite. But I am inclined to say that old Chinese folk are indeed hipsters.

As wary as I am of Chinese younguns, as put off as I am by the hard-drinking fortysomething nouveau riche, I am completely smitten by the elderly Chinese. But at the moment, I am only a distant admirer. I have yet to break into the oldster scene. They have better things to do than hang out with me. They congregate in the park downtown, in tea houses, or around little streetside poker tables. Legally or otherwise, they gamble - mahjongg, dice games, card games, you name it. They enjoy a violent brand of checkers that involves enormous red and black discs, and when the players make their moves, they slam the discs onto the table - whap! - to the approval or outrage of the throng of oldsters that surrounds them.

The men smoke tobacco from long, metal pipes that resemble Irish tin whistles. The women are stooped from decades of sweeping. Together they walk along the river with their hands folded behind their backs. The elderly will say nothing when they first see you, nothing as you pass them, and nothing when you're fifteen feet away from them. Perhaps some distance later, the old woman will say to the old man, "That was a laowai back there, wasn't it?" to which he'll respond with a soft, rising "O".

This is one of the more puzzling aspects of Chinese society. The younguns, who grew up on Hollywood and KFC, who can sing The Fame Monster front-to-back from memory, are the ones who heckle and fetishize foreigners. Meanwhile, the oldsters, who grew up fearing Westerners, who in seventy years have probably never seen an American live and in the flesh, treat us no differently from anyone else. I write more about hecklers than about oldsters because hecklers are an inescapable part of my day-to-day existence. And because it would be cheesy for me to write something like, "My soul takes flight every time I pass the chainsmoking geriatric shopkeeper on the way to work, because he waves at me and smiles and then pedals off on his bicycle without a word," even though something like that sentiment is pretty close to the truth. I adore the Chinese elderly and I want, someday, to become one of them.

When I first arrived in China, I lived with a host family, and my host parents were hip to the Chengdu oldster scene. My host dad looked like a Chinese Harrison Ford, while my mom bore a slight resemblance to Angelica Huston. Their 27-year-old son, my host brother, could've passed for an alien. The day I moved in, when I asked my host dad what kind of work he did, he said, "I'm retired!" and looked at me funny. When I asked my host mom what she did for a living, she said, "I'm retired, too!" and looked at me even funnier. My host brother, meanwhile, insisted that he was a "worker," though in the two months that I lived there, he left the apartment exactly twice.

Fig 32.7: Pan Da with Host Family

My host parents were up every morning at dawn. Mama would cook breakfast while baba pruned the hedges. Then mama would hustle me off to language class. When I came back home for my Chinese siesta, baba would be cooking lunch. After we'd eaten, mama would scold me to tie my shoes, then she'd hand me an umbrella and boot me out the door again. When I returned in the evening, a six-course meal would already be spread out on the table, and baba would go pound on my host brother's door to wake him up.

More often than not, host dad would break out the baijiu, or some plum wine that he'd made himself. We'd sit at the dining room table for hours, discussing politics in very general terms - Ao-ba-ma is the zongtong of America - and I would nod, scribbling the word down in my notebook. Zongtong, zongtong, zongtong. Host brother never talked to me directly, but he would sometimes linger jealously at the table while host dad and I shot the bull, whining and dining while his father wined and dined me. Host dad would grab a bottle of beer and pour its contents into host brother's rice bowl, which never failed to send the manchild into a tizzy. Baba, bu yao, bu yaoooo!

I'd often find host mom playing mahjongg with the Chengdu Red Hat Society, in a garage across from the apartment. I'd wave and say mama, ni hao! and the old ladies would giggle. I'd ask if she was winning and she'd shake her head and say, "I'm no good at this game!" - though there was a sizable heap of RMB on her end of the table. Then, when she got home, we would go for a walk together along the lake - without host brother, of course. Host dad walked slowly with his hands folded behind his back, and would every so often reach up to pluck a leaf from a low-hanging tree limb. Host mom twirled her umbrella and sang to herself. We didn't talk much in those early days because I was unable to, but we had a pleasant rapport that consisted entirely of lazy sighs and exhausted grunts.

After a couple weeks, I realized that I didn't even know my host parents' names. The words baba and mama were becoming a bit too precious to use in public, so one night, after one too many rounds of rice wine roulette, I asked them.

"Yi Yin Yue," said host mom.
I did my best to repeat her name, but what came out of my mouth, in Chinese, meant Yi Yin Fish.

Host mom covered her mouth and laughed.
"Yi Yin Fish! Pan Daaaaa!" she giggled. "Oh, Pan Daaaaa!"

Red-faced, I turned to host dad.
"My name is Liu Lou," he said in his Sichuanese drawl.
"Niu Rou," I said - the Chinese word for beef. Host mom fell off the couch.

"Yes, my name is 'beef,'" said host dad, grinning.
"Pan Daaaaa! Oh, Pan Daaaaa!"

Mr. Beef hoisted his glass.
"He jiu!" he said. "Drink!"

The Corps kept me busy in those days - language lessons, safety seminars, Friday night bull sessions that carried over into Saturday. On the weekend, I wanted nothing more than to sleep, so sleep I did. One Sunday morning, around eleven, there came an unusually insistent knocking at my bedroom door. It was host mom.

"Pan Da!" she shouted. "Pan Daaaaa!"

I slogged out to the dining room and there was host dad sitting at the dinner table with two glasses of rice wine set out in front of him.

"Pan Da," he said. "It's time to eat. It's time to drink."
"Thanks," I said, "but it isn't noon yet and I don't like to - "
"Eat! Drink!"

So we ate, and we drank - far more on both counts than is recommended by Surgeon General Tso. By noon, a high-pitched frequency was buzzing through my brain, and I was only slightly better off than host dad, who kept dropping chicken feet on the floor. After a while, we both began to drift off to sleep.

"Song Min-Tao!" host dad shouted all of a sudden.
"Song Min-Tao?"
"Yes, your friend Song Min-Tao. What is he doing right now?"
"Um, he's probably asleep," I fibbed, "or studying."
"Call him up!" ordered host dad. "Bring him over. Together we will eat - and drink!"

Through one of those fortuitous coincidences that have lately befallen me in spades - like being christened Pan Da - my good friend Vijay (Song Min-Tao) happened to live right next door. His host family and mine were old friends, or old nemeses - it was hard to tell which - so we often went out for hot pot together, though Vijay's host brother - like my own - seldom joined us, for fear of the sun.

"Call him up!"
"I really think he might be studying," I said.
"That's okay," said host dad. "We'll study Mandarin - together."

The official language of the Liu household was Sichuanese, so I knew a Mandarin study session was unlikely. But host dad insisted, so I sent Vijay a short and diffident text message and, at host dad's behest, downed another shot of baijiu.

A couple minutes later, host dad belched and checked his watch.

"Ai-ya, where is Song Min-Tao? What's keeping him?"
"I bet he's studying. He studies very hard on the weekends and - "
"Give me the phone. Let me talk to him."
"I - well, see - the thing is - he's very busy these days and - "
Host dad snatched the phone from my hand and within seconds, he had our neighbors on the line.

"Yes. Hao, hao. Let me speak to Mr. Song," he said. "It's important."

I began to laugh uncontrollably: Mr. Song! This was happening. It was inevitable. And I could in no way be held to account. It was all host dad at this point.

"Mr. Song? Song Min-Tao? Yes, hello. It's me, Mr. Beef, Pan Da's baba." Host dad turned and shot me the slightest grin. "Have you eaten? Yes? No matter. I would like to invite you over for lunch. Your friend Pan Da and I are studying Mandarin and drinking - green tea."

I clapped my hands together and collapsed on the table laughing.

"Yes, it's very important that you come. We have already cooked a little something for you," he said. "Yes, yes. That's right. We're just over here studying Mandarin and drinking - green tea."

He handed the phone back to me. I wanted to high-five the man, but though he was grinning ever so slightly, he didn't seem to find the situation as funny as I did. He sat back down across from me and we silently awaited the arrival of Mr. Song.

A knock at the door. Host mom got up to open it. In came Vijay, half-asleep in sandals and jogging shorts, a wrinkly gray t-shirt. In a glance, he took in the scene - the chicken feet on the floor, the empty bottles, red-faced host dad, a greasy-haired and grinning Pan Da. He smirked.

"Sup, y'all?" he said. "What's going on?"
I giggled. "Nooooothin'."

We exchanged a fist pound.

"Please sit," said host dad, and Vijay sat. Host dad started pouring him a shot.
"Oh, actually, I don't - "

Too late. I gave Vijay the international "take one for the team" look and he nodded. Host dad hoisted his glass. He jiu!

Little by little, my Sichuanese improved and so did our dinner table talks. I asked host dad where he'd traveled in China and he said, let me show you. He fetched a photo album from behind a case of beer and spread it out on the dining room table.

And there they were, mama and baba at the Great Wall. I laughed. Host dad was a hipster! He looked pretty damn cool back in the 70's, with a swoop of hair scooped across his forehead and the slightest hint of a goatee. And host mom was gorgeous - and still was, I was careful to add, which set mama a-gigglin'.

"Beijing," said host dad, and turned the page.

Baba with his hipster bros in the Forbidden City. It looked like an album cover - goatees, kitschy suitcoats, the smirking visage of Chairman Mao in the background.

Baba turned the page. Host brother was born. As a kid, he didn't look nearly so bratty or so alienlike. He even had complexion back then. But I noted that his outfit hadn't changed in twenty years: a green and white striped polo tucked into drawstring shorts, sandals with socks.

We sat reminiscing for a while. Then host mom went to bed and so did host brother - separately, I assume - and we, the menfolk, stayed up to burn the midnight oil together. I had just become acquainted with the Mandarin past tense, and I was eager to put it to use.

"So, what kind of work did you do before?" I asked host dad. He hoisted his glass. We drank. Host dad filled our glasses again, then sat quietly for a moment.
"I worked," he said, "in a factory."
"What kind of factory?"
"Just a factory," he said. "We made things."

I could see him teetering on the edge of going further, then he sat back in his chair and fell silent.
"Very xinku," he said finally, "Very bitter work."

Was he sweating or crying? I could see that this was a dangerous discovery, this past tense of mine. I changed the subject and talked instead about the future.

"So, what's for lunch tomorrow?"

By the end of the two months, all the volunteers were itching to leave Chengdu, to move on to our own apartments and our own separate lives. We had been adopted, and in a real sense, our host families were like family to us. But in some ways, the experience was a bizarre regression to childhood and - watching my host brother as he pouted and slurped grape juice from his sippy cup - it was a regression I was more than ready to move on from.

But like most long-awaited transitions, it came too quickly. Before we knew it, we found ourselves standing on the side of the road with our luggage lined up along the curb, all our host families chatting with one another, family pets with names like Wang Wang and Kuai Kuai and Deng Deng scurrying all over the place, play fighting, furtively humping each other in the bushes.

We took a couple group pictures with our families, then a bus pulled up and we threw our luggage aboard.

China is not Latin America. The people here don't hug often, and they aren't much for crying, either. But our host parents hugged us goodbye, and many of them were bawling. I hugged Ms. Fish and Mr. Beef. Host brother, of course, was nowhere to be found. Then I got on the bus. Hell, I felt like bawling, myself. There were seventeen volunteers and more than 50 seats on the bus, so we all sat apart from each other until the waterworks ran dry. The bus started and we waved out the window as we passed.

But Ms. Fish and Mr. Beef had already started off down the road, Ms. Fish twirling her umbrella and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, Mr. Beef with his hands folded behind his back, reaching up to pluck a leaf from a low-hanging branch.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I studied abroad during 2008-2009 in Beijing. As I read this blog I could not stop thinking about my host family. It was the same exact thing with me. My host brother (23)just played computer games all day, eventhough he had a "job." My dad would always take out his flask of baijiu during dinner. I never knew my host parents names, just called dad "Baba" and never really called mom by a name. I had so many great experiences with them. Thanks for the article.

-Sammy DJ

Caitrin said...

That one got a tear. I'm gonna need a minute...

Jansen Cudal said...

beautiful. nice work man

Keith Petit said...

Thanks, y'all!
[bows Koreanishly]

Adventures In China said...

I am pretty much in awe of you right now.

I would like to buy your book someday.