I ate raw garlic all last week. A sudden and unexpected guilty pleasure. I couldn't have explained myself at the time. Nor could I stop myself. I devoured the stuff in bulk, with all the ferocity of a pregnant woman. Garlic took the place of smoking: a healthy alternative, I suppose, if not quite an attractive one. Between the garlic habit and my rabbinic beard, it was as though my subconscious had taken an oath of celibacy on my behalf and was hell-bent on making sure that I never got in anyone's pants ever again. A manmade chastity belt of untamed facial hair and halitosis.
It started on Monday, the garlic thing, when I discovered that the corner store sold vegetables. For the first time, I noticed the produce counter in the back of the room, like I was peering into an alternate dimension. The produce counter had always been there, of course, but it was never something my brain would have picked up on. Beer. Smokes. Maybe a Pepsi. But vegetables? Why would I buy vegetables? Who buys vegetables?
Nevertheless, I sauntered over to the counter to check out the goods. I am not well-versed in Chinese veggies. There are just so damned many of them. As Americans, we have a very limited produce vocabulary. We learn the words "apple" and "orange" and "banana" in our first few months of vocalizing, but beyond that, at least for me, produce remains an unexplored frontier. I doubt I could tell you the difference between a peach and a plum. I want to say that plums are darker and smaller, but I would have to Wikipedia the word "plum" just to make sure.
The catalog of Chinese vegetables is vast, and most of them remain foreign to me. There are long, spindly shoots sprouting from ghostly white bulbs, there are giant, dopey-looking gourds with serious acne, there are ominous black bulbs that seem lethal or hallucinogenic or both, and other vegetables so anatomically puzzling that only a description of their odor would suffice: like mothballs dipped in ketchup; like dirty socks sauteed in red wine.
I spent fifteen minutes picking up these mystery vegetables one by one, sniffing them, and asking the clerk, "What is this?" He, in turn, would supply me with a Chinese name and ask me what we called it in America. "Um," I'd say. By the end of it, he must have thought I was quite the mental midget, as the only vegetable I could readily identify in English was the humble tomato. "Tou-mei-tou. Good job!" he said, quite sincerely.
But I know garlic when I see it, or at least I know garlic when I smell it. And I like garlic. So I bought six whole bulbs. I didn't know it at the time, but six bulbs of garlic are more than enough for a year's worth of cooking. It was like walking into Wal-Mart and buying eighteen bottles of Robitussin. Uh, my kid's sick. The clerk was suspicious, but duly weighed the garlic and charged me three kuai for it. I bought a couple beers, too. And when I got back home, I sat down at the computer, drank my beers, wrote a blog post, and noshed on some garlic.
There is a reason that people don't eat this stuff raw. Swallowing a clove of garlic like a duck is perhaps a viable option, but the more you chew garlic, the more garlicanoids (or whatever the scientific community calls them) are released into your sinuses, and past a certain point, the stinging sensation actually shuts down your will to live, at least for fifteen seconds at a time. And yet I found it kind of gratifying, in a masochistic way. Like those Shock Tarts you used to get from the candy machine at Pizza Hut. Eating garlic was a challenge. And eating six bulbs of the stuff would be a dietary feat, one that I would go on to accomplish in two days flat.
The beard is much easier to explain. I was growing it out so I could be Joaquin Phoenix for Halloween in Chongqing. I hadn't left Nanchong since I'd started growing my beard, so I figured I might as well put it to use. This, my 47th beard, was my longest and most hideous beard yet. Photographic records place the beard's DOB at or around late July. I grew it out for three months and I never once trimmed the beast. On the streets, I put Chinese hobos to shame. I could see salarymen reaching for their moneyclips as I approached. And yet there was a kind of jealous admiration in those terrified glances. I had done in three months what no Chinese man could do in a lifetime. And I cared for that beard like an American Kennel Club showdog. I shampooed it, brushed it, took it out for walks ...
Until Friday night, when I killed the beard. It was a mercy killing. I put the beard out of its misery. It was getting to be too much. Halloween costume bedamned, I had to get rid of it. It was starting to chafe at my soul. And my neckline. The longer I wore the beard, the more the beard wore on me. Especially in public.
"Monkey! Monkey! Look at the monkey!"
"Woof woof! Woof woof! Ah-ooooo!"
My beard had demoted me from foreigner to wild animal. From human to laowai is but a small step, but the descent from man to macaque is like being thrown down a stairwell headfirst.
So the Friday before Halloween, I set out on my usual Nanchong orbit, from the apartment to the bank, from the bank to a nearby restaurant. And after dinner, I would head to the barber shop for the first time in three months. The barber would fire up his electric razor. Five minutes and two kuai later, my beard would be a reddish rug on the barbershop floor, and I would be a new man. Or at the very least, I would no longer be a macaque.
Friday was a cold, dead day, with gray light seeping through the clouds like a leak through a cracked ceiling. The air was brisk enough that if I exhaled really hard, a garlicky curl of mist would come wafting out of my mouth. The branches of the trees had turned black as veins full of coal.
A big part of keeping sane in a foreign country is finding new ways of getting to the same places you always go. So I left the main drag and hung a right into a rusty little neighborhood behind the bank. I passed a produce stand and correctly identified several of the vegetables. The vegetable monger applauded my Chinese, though I did not buy anything and didn't know the names of her vegetables in English.
I passed one of Nanchong's open-air HMO's. There were a couple of old men pacing the sidewalk in hospital gowns, smoking and trailing their IV carts behind them. These hospitals are everywhere in China, and they are all windows. Right up against the glass was an impossibly old man spread out on a cot, unconscious and blanketed in synthetic cloth. He was plugged into a clear IV drip while a kind of plastic accordion at his bedside was busy squeezing out the last chords of his life. Despite myself, I lingered for a moment. Then I kept walking. Sometimes, the people gather around the window to watch. The doctors don't mind them watching, and the patients don't mind either, because they're not really alive.
I haven't started writing my will yet, but I suppose this single line will suffice: "In case of emergency, get my ass to Chengdu."
All the stages of Chinese life are on display in downtown Nanchong. There are the toddlers in their assless chaps, popping squats whenever and wherever the spirit moves their bowels. The puke inducingly cute four year-olds. The vaguely malevolent elementary schoolers in their matching windbreakers. The unquestionably malevolent college kids in their matching windbreakers. Then, the wispy young women, all feathers and silk and lace, whose misty almond eyes promise a chaste, Old World romance that will never happen. Then, the bottle-shaped bottle-sucking middle-aged men talking on three cellphones at once, expelling mean torrents of flatulence from three orifices at once. Then the young elderly, the old elderly, and the ancient elderly, their gait slumping year by year ever closer to the pavement, passing their days in tea houses, at mahjongg parlors, playing checkers or cards. The bulk of life having already been lived, the oldsters are content with their grandchildren, content with their rice liquor, content to walk through the park with their hands folded behind their backs, content to be alive for just a little while longer, for at least another day or two before that last stop at the open-air HMO, where their final moments become public spectacle, unconscious there in the cot by the window, suspended in the land of the living by a plastic bag and a plastic accordion, fast asleep forever while the human circus streams past the window, living life loudly and remorselessly. The young people pass like targets at a carnival shooting gallery, stopping only, perhaps, to steal a glance at the old man's expressionless face, seeing not who he was, but what he is. He's dead. They see only the face. And I imagine the oldsters here are content with that, too.
I passed a movie theater called "HOLLYWOOD," and I was pretty sure that the letters on its marquee were not intended to be quite so crooked as they were. I popped my head in to see what was playing. Confucius, The Movie. Not quite Hollywood. But I've heard there's a pretty bad-ass fight scene involving scrolls and bookshelves. I'm not joking about that, either.
I passed an urban beautification detail, all women, standing atop stepladders and repainting a once drab, gray wall in a pleasant shade of creme. They were smiling and chatting, painting at a leisurely pace. They seemed to be enjoying their work. So I enjoyed watching them. And I enjoyed the work they were doing. Nanchong has been making a big push, as of late, to include more colors in their nightmarish urban cityscape. It gives me some hope that, in five years, Seasonal Affective Disorder will not be a year-round affliction for the Peace Corps volunteers of the future.
I went into the bank to take out some money. The teller served it to me cold. Then I went out to eat. I have been cheating on my favorite restaurant with my new favorite restaurant, and unlucky for me, they happen to be on the same street. So the owner of my old favorite restaurant swatted me across the shoulder as I passed and shouted, "Come eat!" I kind of chuckled and told him that I'd be right back, when of course, I wouldn't. I was on my way to my new favorite restaurant. Sorry, laobar - this laowai's got a new boo.
I ordered the twice-cooked pork and a bowl of hot and sour soup. The food wasn't as good as I remembered it, though I first came to this restaurant on the third day of my smoking hiatus, so perhaps that might have had something to do with it. That day, as my body repaired itself, everything became olfactorily intense. The streets were almost unbearably pungent. I became self-consciously aware of how much I reeked of garlic. And at the restaurant, the sauces were unexpectedly tangy, the meat unbelievably rich, the Sichuanese peppercorns almost maddeningly strong - and the soup was so good that I'd have given some serious thought about applying for Chinese citizenship right there and then, if it weren't for a lot of other things. But in the days since, I've contracted a nasty Chinese head cold, with the sort of nasal congestion that not even four bulbs of garlic can fix. So this time, my new favorite restaurant was merely adequate.
My beard kept me there at the restaurant much longer than I wanted to be. It bought me a beer. It didn't want to go just yet. We'd had such good times together.
"Remember that time," my beard said, "when you zipped me up in your coat?"
"Yeah," I said, "I thought about dialing 911. I even considered trimming you. But I didn't want to, you know ... hurt you. It took me ten minutes just to unzip you from my collar. Stung like a bitch, too."
My beard laughed.
"And remember when you said hello to your boss on the street and he didn't even recognize you?"
"Yeah. I remember."
"And what about that time you got a grain of rice stuck in me for the better part of a week, and your students were too nice to point it out?"
I laughed a bit.
"Yeah. Yeah. I remember, beard. Good times," I said.
The conversation sagged. I bought the next round.
"Anyway," I said, "I'm gonna miss you, beard. It was fun wearing you."
"It was fun being worn," he said. "Always a pleasure."
"What are you going to do next? You know, after the - ... "
"Yeah. After that," my beard sighed. "Well, I figure I'll just kind of get swept up by the barber at closing time and then he'll dump me into a garbage bag, and then they'll flip the garbage bag into a dumpster, and then the garbage men will come sometime the next morning and they'll drive me out to that huge-ass garbage dump you saw a couple months ago, the one out in the countryside that you can smell from five miles away - "
"I know the one," I said.
"It won't be the same," said my beard. "I've gotten pretty attached to you over the past three months, to be honest. But I'll find something."
"Of course you will," I said. I checked my imaginary watch. "Well, it's about that time, isn't it?"
"I reckon it is."
I felt around for my wallet.
"Naw, man," said my beard. "I got this one."
With heavy heart and sauce-soaked beard, I walked the two miles to the barber shop. It was raining and the rain washed my beard to a polished ginger sheen. I stroked it as I walked, in a consolatory way.
"Monkey! Monkey! Ooh-ooh, ah-ah!"
"Woof woof! Woof woof!"
When I got to the barber shop, they already knew what I wanted.
"Cut the beard?" the dude asked.
"Cut the beard," I said, "but not all the way. Don't shave me with a straightedge. That takes a long time, and I'm very busy. Just give me the electric shave. I want a little beard left over."
I have to specify this every time I go in. Otherwise, the barber will very painfully extract every last beard follicle with an unlathered razor, sans-anesthesia, and it will take at least an hour. It's like a dental procedure. I grip the arms of the chair and my knuckles turn garlic white. Sometimes, I start crying. But they always insist: bu hao kan, bu hao kan - it doesn't look good, this apelike facial hair of yours. We must remove it completely. Maybe next time I will bring a bottle of Barbasol from home.
This time, some twentysomething twerp buzzed my beard away with an electric razor, but he couldn't handle how goofy I looked with half a beard and started laughing uncontrollably midway through. At one point, he laughed so hard that he actually ejaculated a torrent of snot into my hair. I then requested a shampooing, which made him laugh even harder. He was shooting snot all over the place. Eventually, one of the other barbers had to take over the helm. The twerp retired to the back room, where his giggles were audible for the next ten minutes.
"Sorry about that," said the replacement barber. "He's new here. He's never shaved a foreigner before."
"It's really nothing," I said, "but I'm gonna need that shampoo treatment."
Unless Dude has Vidal Sassoon for boogers.
By the end of it, my beard lay in a ruddy pile between my shoes. The face in the mirror was not one that I recognized, but I was pleasantly surprised at how young I looked. The replacement barber produced a straightedge razor and I instinctively launched out of my chair.
"How about you just wash my hair and we'll call it a night?"
"Hao hao hao," he said. Good, good, good.
I lay there in the dark getting a scalp massage. The barber asked me questions that I was far too listless and contented to answer. He soaked my shirt through with water and apologized profusely for doing so. I shrugged.
The next day, I showed up in Chongqing without a costume.