News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Harried (incomplete) 2006-02-18

"Chinese girls just don't understand men," Jerry moaned wistfully, his mouth creaking into a slow smile under teddy-bear eyes. It seemed a bold conclusion from someone who, after all these years in China, was still peeved about the scandalous absence of fortune cookies. I never figured that one out but I didn't prod or pry. Or pester. I didn't want to be a pestiferous prying prick and prod him into a bad mood. Personal questions made him awkward, infecting me with a case of nerves and a fumbling stammer. A pal is a pal. You give him his space and respectfully let him drop the ball on his own time.

So just who didn't understand whom? And what was it about Chinese girls that got in their way of understanding men? But wait a minute! Who did 'men' refer to? Who was a man? What was manly? But before I could delicately sniff for answers, my ears pricked and I realized his moan was still wheezing out, a sure sign that he wasn't on a boneman's slide into depression. A shriveled moan in his experienced hands could become a warm and sunny exhalation, a lemony pale sort of bitter-sweet angst that pulled at your sympathies and warmed your guts.

We were on the second floor of a socialite bar called Goggles. When we guessed it was a contraction of 'Beer Goggles' the English owner got huffy and began ranting about local incompetence at spelling 'Google'. Either way, though Jerry's shelf life was waning, he dared to love the product on display on the dance floor. Loved it too much: jauntily calling them "little darlings" in private and "sweetheart" to their pretty timeless Chinese faces. To his credit, I never heard him bark "long-haired dictionary" followed by that evil withering laugh which is common camouflage for foreign self-doubt. Then again he didn't speak Mandarin. Never got to the root that one out either.

But he was facing the music tonight, telling me that that his "young carefree lusty days of being the new kid on the block are over," and he coughed sadly. The sun had set on the palmy days of tropical southern China, when girls were dropping their traditional gear of knee stockings, Mao jackets, and kungfu slippers for romps in their birthday suits with fashionable Westerners.

But fashions come and go. "Our due-date's expired, buddy! These ladies are wanting fresh meat," I guffawed in self-mockery. Sex was fun but, when all was said and done, no better an abuse of time than smoking meth. But that was easy for me to say, which was why mum was the word right now as I watched a ripple of sadness meander through Jerry's worry lines, shoving aside warts and wens like a stadium wave coming through. Was he going to cry into the glass of Old English he was cuddling? Or was it a move in his cherished choreography of complaint?

I glanced around the busy bar: the efficiency bulbs impaled in the ceiling were bleaching the patrons into a VHS video paleness and sucking the color out of the bruised redwood tables holding our drinks. But the place was jamming. Hopping and happening. We checked out the action, lust and hormones giving Jerry the sweats in the canned heat; me woozy, wobbling and toppling in the thick recycled air. I swiveled my head: not an empty seat for miles.

To keep it real, I focused on my bottle of Piraat, the sweet Dutch ale with the decal featuring a Levantine Norseman with his merry band of medieval rowers paddling against a sail full of wind. It was a niche beer that bragged 'global brand' but it was strong, rich and sticky sweet. I needed the calories just to think.

The day before, Jerry'd invited me out to a coffee shop. I'd pictured something quiet in tanned leather, dark and intimate, but I trotted to booming rock music compounded by a chatter of university student voices overcoming the sound barrier. Jerry was hunching over an Ikea table opposite the light-skinned late-twenties woman he was keen on. He was so into the moment that he didn't follow her auburn eyes, which settled on me when I shuffled up beside their pale-wood table. When I nudged him, he swung out an elbow, fobbing off the anonymous competition pushing greedily into his space. But when I belted out, "Hey Jerry! Helloooo?" I realized his concentration was the fear of being trapped in her headlights. Things weren't going well.

Yet on the phone he'd been effusive, "She's a hottie. Yeah, I really like her. Got some attitude you know? Not one of these run of the mill Simple Simon chicks. There's nothing Mickey Mao about her."

"Is she smart?"


"I dunno. It might make it easier to talk to her. She might actually have something to say."

"What do I care she has something to say. Its not her verbal ability I'm interested in," he winked pedantically.

But now, seeing it was me in the coffee shop, he was suddenly frantic, like a pooch happy to see its owner. Not because he was bored, but because he was afraid she was.

He'd met her at a trade show, a good sign I thought. She’d know how to deal with foreigners. In other words, she might know how to deal with him. She might be decisive even, heaven forbid. This was a country where people didn't like decisions; sharp edges got bumped off and you didn't square the circle but instead circled the square. Women most of all, where men were concerned. Picking up a woman was a man's job. Inside, to kick start the conversation, I made a face of disapproval and whispered: "So why is that couple in weird hatwear?"

I knew Jerry would think this frivolous but the young duffer was in a grey gangbanger's wool cap plunged tight over his forehead and getting in his eyes. He was getting his groove on with his slouching moll, herself in a lamb-white oversized woolen Mac. They were conspicuously into themselves, declaring to all admirers that they were above them.

In the direction of the couple, I poked a finger behind the flat of my other hand, explaining, "I mean, those hats, do they mean something in particular around here?"

She replied blankly, her body motionless, her pulse steady as clockwork, "Don't know. I don't think they mean anything."

Silence. She smiled. Waiting. Biding her time. Thinking about what to say wasn't her problem. It was mine. I was the man. I was the one in pursuit. She was the catcher, I the pitcher.

I was starting to sweat. I hated being seated across the table from strangers as I always felt responsible for carrying the conversation. And I resented Jerry putting me in this position and now leaving me out to dry. He was taking a breather, like I was in reserve, a second-string player thrust into the game to hold down the ship while the champ caught his breath.

I could feel my face reddening as I wanted someone to blame. Why hadn't he screened her through a phone call, the dumb fuck? Then I remembered he'd already spoken to her and despite her cadaverous first performance, still asked her out. Given that doing nothing had worked for her the first time round, why should she change a thing this time out? Aargh...

I ventured, hope against hope, "Everything means something. Clothes are a giveaway, a window into one's..." My shoulders were rising and the information pipe in my brain was being squeezed by my tension making it hard to remember words. But I managed to say, "...a window into one's fashion soul."

Jerry added, "Yeah. Right."

I mentioned the gangbanger association with the guy's hat. She smiled but said nothing. She looked at me blankly. Jerry said nothing either. They didn't see the point. What the hell was I talking about this shit for? They started talking shop. Business deals. Commodity prices. After half an hour of this, I excused myself and went home.

When I'd spoken to Jerry earlier this evening in the bar, he'd sung her praises. "Yeah, she's got more personality than most. You know, she's like more westernized. She's not silly or ditzy. She knows how to deal with men."

It was rude to ask but after the previous evening I was in no mood to be conciliatory, "Did you bang her?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"Don't give me that shit. You're the one eager to fuck her, not me."

"No," he'd shrugged bashfully but quickly added, "But she had to go home, you know? She can't stay out too late. She lives with her folks."

But then he told me she went back home at five o'clock in the morning. He reassured me saying, "But we talked about sex. I mean, she can deal with it. She's into it. She's mature about it."

Aren't they all, I thought to myself.

It was a mistake to talk about sex. Every woman knows a man's out to fuck her. Women, like men, are bored by the obvious. She was just somebody who spoke English and used the language barrier like a hunter using a duck blind. Instead of blurting something silly or gauche, by know she'd learned to hold her cards close to her chest. Rather than take a risk she let Harry, her admirer, lovingly fill in the blanks for her. When she said nothing, he filled in the space with something appropriate, something sprung from the whole cloth of wishful thinking. From my perspective, she was a two-legged blank, the laziest of predators. And I'm even a fan of predators, as long as they're proactive. He was making two fundamental errors: chasing pretty girls, one at a time. You won't find many pretty girls making that mistake.

Here in the bar, we'd just tied up a discussion on the state of the union. The Chinese union. Vivisecting the cold war between China and Taiwan; we'd rehashed our bits about China fooling the West into believing it was a disagreement between kith and kin, an internal family matter: like it was the golden olden days when a husband could blacken the wifey's eyes and you called it a marriage and kept your damn nose out of it because you weren't no busybody. But Jerry's heart wasn't in the mood for politics. He was in the mood for love.

I sneaked a peek at the old boy. Like me, early forties. Unlike me, weathered. Tongued and grooved beyond his years by his manly refusal to use skin products, keep the weight off, dress in dapper fashion. A man's home is his castle and his was on an island in international waters surrounded by a comfort zone. He was a pal, but I had to remind myself that conversations could be about anything but himself. Nothing that cut to close to the quick. Playing the role of a man was one thing; being a man altogether another challenge.

I was scoping for a clue in his shifting baby blues. I peaked for a downturn in the creases squaring his mouth, for an awkward fidget, his arms weirdly akimbo as they sometimes were wont to do. Or for a scuffing foot, fish-tailing across the floor, his shoulder heading up while a hand tried to reach down. Some disturbance in the matrix, some helpful hint transmitted through ragged sweatshirt and threadbare chinos; or through loafers sunburnt and squashed by over-heavy feet, black rubber waffle-batter spilling from the fleshy iron.

"Can we blow this place and get some fresh air? I know I don't get out much, but I never understood the idea of picking up chicks in bars." I shouted for effect. "It's too loud! Too many distractions!! Too much competition!!!"

"Alright already! I get the picture."

I reminded him of what I could never persuade him: "The internet or shop stalls work way better. This bar's claustrophobic, man. Wall to wall patrons. And they all look just like us. Sheesh! We got no brand appeal." He was smiling now, trying to help, his lips parting ready to inject a positive note into my complaint. He pitied my phobia of public places and people I couldn't and wouldn't relate to. I hurried the pace. "And everyone's watching. The place is full of witnesses. Gives me the creeps. There's so much more privacy on a Chinese sidewalk."

He laughed.

"No really. I'm serious. They don't see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. At least not to your face. If you play it right, you're out there all alone in the crowd. It's a beautiful thing."

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