With normal teaching services resuming after my short holiday, morale was low. Not only did I have to run the gauntlet of complaining parents again, but my teaching schedule was now completely opposite to that of my wife’s. While I work predominantly evenings and weekends at a private school, she works days in various public schools scattered around Benxi. This leaves our one solitary day off a week as the only quality time we get to spend with each other. If I remember correctly, this isn’t quite the job description that we accepted all those months ago!
As daytime temperatures have slowly been rising towards a more respectable zero degrees Celsius, it has meant the chance to explore the city (without the thought of losing your nose to frostbite) is a real possibility. Imagine my horror then when on our first free day together since normal teaching schedules resumed, my wife pointed out a ghastly, gaping hole that had appeared in the crotch area of my jeans. With only two pairs of trousers in my wardrobe, I now faced up to the inevitable. I’d have to practice the art of bartering to replenish my trouser supplies.
Buying clothes in a small Chinese city for a slightly out-of-proportioned, chubby foreigner is more tricky than it might sound, even when you have an entire free day solely for this purpose. For many Chinese, a larger than average waist also means a taller than average height. Not quite the case for a little leprechaun like myself.
The best place to buy clothes, many the latest ‘Calvin Blein’ or ‘Kucci’ knock-off fashion favourites (unsurprisingly common in a ‘property-right free’ part of the world) is in the underground markets. These dark, never-ending labyrinths are everywhere and with one only a five minute walk from my apartment, I hoped obtaining a new pair of jeans would be a quick, painless experience.
Passing a hospital on the short walk to the nearest underground market entrance, I noticed a deceased body being loaded into a waiting SUV. Parked outside the main entrance, this was probably the same entrance the now departed entered previously. A hastily placed white sheet defying the laws of gravity respected their dignity. I suppose a chunky SUV is as close to a hearse as most people can find in these parts and although I’d feel confident of surviving a head-on crash in this SUV, it was still too small for its new job. A bit of bending and the problem was rectified. Under normal traditions, when someone dies they wait for seventy-two hours before cremating the body (with land prices at a premium, this is the preferred method of a final send off). During this period the closest family members, especially spouses and children, do not sleep for the entire period in case the body miraculously comes back to life.
After searching for hours, passing various pairs of sequin studded jeans (jeans even a stick insect model would have trouble fitting in to) I finally came across a pair that looked like having the potential of reaching around my waist. It wasn’t the bed sheet that doubled as a makeshift changing room that deterred me from making the purchase. It was the hideous fluorescent pink and bright yellow smiley faces plastered up and down the legs. Admitting defeat until I venture to the bright lights of the big city once again, I’ve resigned myself to teaching with a hastily patched up crotch-less pair of jeans for the immediate future. Not the most professional look I know!
With darkness falling and to try and redeem something positive from my only free day of the week, there was just enough time for my wife and I to find a new place to eat dinner. With restaurant prices virtually the same as cooking for yourself, eating out plays a pivotal role on most evening agendas.
A lack of ability to read Chinese characters makes many restaurant ordering experiences a game of Russian roulette. On this occasion though, we struck gold: a picture menu. Safe in the knowledge the food we were eating wasn’t going to consist of intestines, insects or chicken feet, we sat back and waited for the food to arrive. When eating out, it’s not uncommon for fellow diners to forward their congratulations on your excellent chopstick use, or to enquire about age, home and money earned. With this in mind, we thought nothing of it when two intoxicated gentleman in their sixties sitting at the table opposite, started to initiate such questions in very broken English. As the drinks flowed, their confidence increased and the questions continued.
Normally these restaurant conversations are a one way barrage of questions. These elderly gentlemen were different. After knowing virtually everything about us apart from our bank details, they introduced themselves. As per usual I forgot their Chinese names immediately, but I did hold on to the fact they were both recently retired. While one was a former TV editor, the elder of the two men started to elaborate of his C*mm*nist roots and past friendship with the late, great Chairman Mao. From his charades and soft, slowly spoken Chinese I was unable to understand his previous job. With a finger outstretched, he beckoned me to his table. A second later after an expertly executed ‘arm twist’ and ‘elbow check’, my face had been thrust in to his lamb dumplings. I guessed immediately the nature of his former career. Henchman, bodyguard, fighter, soldier, I was still unsure of the exact occupational title to his work, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask anymore questions regarding it!
American movies seemingly play a key role in people’s development of their English language skills and for these two gentlemen it was no different. Tom Hanks’ ‘Castaway’ was a personal favourite of the former TV editor. After physically shaking with excitement when realising I was aware of this movie, he couldn’t help but shout Castaway quotes across the restaurant. His, "hellooooooooooooooooooo, is anybody there," shouts might have had the potential to win an amateur dramatics award, but fellow diners responded with stone-faced looks of disapproval.
The ‘arm twist’ expert was obviously feeling a little left out with all the attention his friend was receiving. As soon as silenced returned, he spotted his opportunity, bellowing "Godfather," in a husky voice. We nodded again at our understanding of his English and wanting to out do his friend, he stood on his chair and started humming the theme tune to the movie in question. As the rest of the restaurant looked on in bemusement, his TV editor friend got up from his seat and started dancing down the aisles. With eyes closed and arms raised above his head, I expected his swaying movements to end in a disastrous fall. But nimble footwork saved the day.
If I‘d hoped for a peaceful end to our meal, I was rudely mistaken. Getting braver by the second, our new elderly friends changed the topic of conversation once more. "Gay American p*rn star," the TV editor gentleman whispered, his eyes lighting up like a teenage boy who had just seen his first spot of female nudity. I rubbed my sore rib, and asked him to repeat what he had just said, thinking I’d somehow been mistaken with what I’d heard. I hadn’t. "Oral s*x," "suck," and "doggy, doggy" followed, before both my wife and I could take no more. As they both left their table for a one on one urinal ’sword-fight’ experience, we paid our bill and disappeared in to the night.
Strangely enough, the rest of the week was rather uneventful in comparison!