Unquiet Heart Soliloquy - Chapter 1 - 16
You are free and that is why you are lost.
People tend to ask a lot about my decision to go to China, but I have a hard time pinning down the exact reasons behind the move.(present to past tense?) Somewhere along the beginning of last year, I left the yearlong summers of Malaysia for the biting cold of Shanghai. Smog engulfed the entire city throughout that winter I had arrived, an opaque non-organism that would subside intermittently but never completely go away, unrelenting even through the following spring’s transitioning into summer. It felt as though for the whole year, the city was mimicking with its permasmog, a darkness I harboured inside of my heart— that very same darkness I had moved here hoping to be freed of.
My ex-girlfriend Luna hadn’t texted me back for ages, I guess that’s to be expected since we were not anything anymore. About two weeks after I got to China I finally took the plunge and got in contact with her, and for the first time in a long time we were texting back and forth just as we used to do. She probably did it out of courtesy more than anything, but I’d like to think that we still felt very strongly about each other at the time. Where sentimentality is concerned, I was the type who would all but let it take over, and she was one who would slowly distance herself from these trivial matters, until there was no longer any possibility to salvage arguments that had strayed beyond the edge and into the sweet surrender of nothingness.
The way things panned out was that Luna and I eventually made plans to see each other, plans which eventually for one reason or another never materialised. Before I knew it, my tourist visa for China was expiring and I would need to find a job if I wanted to stay any longer in Shanghai. My good sense dictated that I give up any hopes of seeing her, but the Chinese part of me wanted to stay just a little longer, to explore the motherland my ancestors had once roamed and find out for myself whether all that was said back home about the mainlanders were true. Sentimentality and curiosity eventually trumped my faculties of reason— which judging from the events that would follow, was something that had been properly knocked out cold.
As things settled, I found myself doing translation work for a local social media company, a job I’d found via an agency for foreigners in Shanghai. Translation was a field I had some experience with in Malaysia, so getting into it again felt quite natural to me. The hours were flexible as long as I turned my work in, the downside being the meagre pay which was nothing to look at. After settling the matter of rent and a few nights out on Yongkang Lu and I was stuck eating laoganma with rice for the rest of the month.
The fact that I spoke both fluent Mandarin and English was paramount to my work, and although I handled my assignments well it was hard to see myself going anywhere fast. The articles I worked on were fast-food WeChat posts, the kind that one mindlessly scrolls over while waiting for their instant noodles to cook in the middle of the night. Not exactly groundbreaking journalism, though I wasn’t sure I’d prefer that. On a daily basis, I dealt with the kind of writing which was more or less inconsequential to human existence. If for some reason I didn’t show up for work one day, having decided on a whim to buy a one way ticket to Xinjiang in order to visit and write about the various mosques around Kashgar or the existential slowness of the train journey there, the translation company could easily replace me with anybody who possessed a fundamental proficiency in translating English and Mandarin the very next day. There was a constant flux of talent coming in and going out of Shanghai on a daily basis, and I wasn’t foolish enough to consider myself anything special.
I didn’t mind the nature of work that felt almost menial at times, but part of me was always looking out for something better.
Wasn’t that what Luna had told me right before things ended between us, that what she needed in her life was not a hot-blooded romance, but someone who was unequivocally better for her?
Thinking about the past and all that happened always gave me a headache.
I kept to myself during my first few months in Shanghai. Apart from the minimal amount of socialising that any work entails, I usually wandered the city alone. Having detested Mandarin lessons when I was a child, they imaginably came in much handy for someone living in China. This especially impressed mainlainders who came to know that I was an overseas Chinese, and they were even more surprised to learn that Malaysia was the only country in the world outside of China with its own Chinese education system.
My days went by in a state of enthralment and annoyance at Chinese culture. The fabric of things surrounding me in daily life appeared in this odd state of foreign yet grotesque familiarity. In Malaysia we ate well, but not often to the point of wastage. When we toasted each other back home it was symbolic, and not because we should want to finish our drinks in one big gulp. We also loved clothing, shoes and anything to do with the latest trends in fashion just as much as the mainlanders, but never consumed as much to make the showcasing of this lifestyle a necessity.
Delving deeper into my curiosity about sociological norms in China, I started to use various dating apps to get to know women my age in Shanghai. The process was a little awkward for me at first, as I found myself practically picking out more favourable pictures of myself from my camera roll, and then quite ostentatiously writing a description of myself that presented a likeable sense of self. I tried not to overdo it at first, but after a few hours spent swiping left and right I started to see the lighter side of things. For the most part, most users on the app weren’t after anything too serious, and those who were, either never wrote back or would readily unmatch you for being too eager.
My first few dates (or ‘meet ups’ as they called it on the app) happened in spring and were fairly casual. Lunch or coffee on Wukang Lu followed by brisk walks around the French concession, taking our time not really talking about anything of real importance whilst admiring the lush crispness of the sycamore. We would exhaust the topics of our favourite spots to eat, the cultural differences between the Malaysian Chinese diaspora and mainland China, also places we’d been and those we hoped to go. Some would talk about their past loves, sentimental reveals to be left behind with the changing seasons. I wasn’t one to talk about myself with great enthusiasm, so when prompted I recounted with some difficulty the few laughable loves I had experienced during my university life, doing my part to keep the conversation going lest my date find out that I was actually an exceptionally boring human being. If we weren’t too tired after the walk, we’d catch a movie if we felt particularly frivolous. As opposed from walking, spending two hours watching some unoriginal film (the kindest way I can put it), in a confined space with almost a complete stranger of the opposite sex made me feel a little apprehensive, though my dates seemed to have no qualms whatsoever about this practice.
Over the course of many Tinder and Tantan dates, I never once mentioned my situation with Luna. The emotions still felt too close to me, raw and undigested. I wasn’t that eager to reveal what had happened with Luna for fear that facts laid out too plainly in front of someone would appear underwhelming and thus disingenuous when scrutinised. The women I went out with probably sensed that I was holding something back, and although they did not pry into the matter, it was probably for this reason why some of them never went out with me again. When I wrote they would say they were busy, or simply not reply at all—the latter more often the case.
On one fine midsummer’s Saturday evening, I had made plans to get drinks on Yongkang Lu with a young lady named Jennifer I’d gotten to know through the Tinder dating app. On her profile was the one-liner:
21 year-old Chinese-American architect with a passion for art and all things cultural studying Mandarin in Shanghai!
In her picture uploads she included a picture of her posing on The Bund in a white linen shirt and brightly contrasted sneakers, and a second one of her out drinking Cubra Libres at a party with a fedora on. Cute, I thought.
There wasn’t much to go on solely based on her profile, but after we chatted it became apparent that we had taken a liking to each other.
Jennifer and I both used free VPN apps to circumvent China’s firewall, which effectively made the struggle of messaging each other over an unstable connection to a foreign server more difficult, and far less espionage than it sounds. Finally after several discontinuous flurries of smalltalk and nonchalant flirting through text, we agreed to meet one Saturday night, when the streets were inevitably full of young Chinese kids on parental dole and among the countless lovers all buzzed up from the alcohol heady with cigarettes. I saw the immediate appeal for Jennifer and I to be out there amongst them, together as two foreigners in modern China making face-to-face acquaintance for the first time, having a good time in each other’s tipsy company, casually confiding any pent-up frustrations accumulated during the week in the ___ arms of an online date.
But come that Saturday evening I was brimming with unease. To save on rent I had taken a tiny studio facing west, which in the scorching summer evening sunlight had the entire facade on slow cook in the oven by default. My air conditioner made the sweltering heat bearable, but at times it would let on that its days were near its end and stall for whatever arbitrary amount of time. Having already got it serviced countless of times, when it stopped working again that evening I was tempted to have the agents replace it and put it out of its misery.
I walked over to open the windows, immediately catching the scent of the pollen carried by the wind. I lit a Liqun from the gleaming gold and red pack which now appeared so dull against the evening half light. Its taste profile was heavier with more of a body than your typical Chinese cigarette, which made me smoke less of them even though every puff probably killed you twice as fast. One colleague from Hangzhou had given me a pack to try out, told me it’s all they ever smoke over there in Zhejiang province. I’d hated it at first, but in my time smoking with my colleagues at the office the brand had grown on me, although I couldn’t be sure if I genuinely liked it or if I was only looking to fix myself up with a self-administered dosage of something strong at the end of each day.
I mulled things over, exhaling cigarette smoke as I watched the peak hour traffic come to a standstill outside. Only the electric scooters continued whizzing by on the special side lane. At least in Shanghai you could see the long streams of traffic being systematically broken up and have its flow facilitated by traffic lights, whereas in Malaysia the changing of red to green during peak hour hardly signified anything, and one could very well work through several chapters off a book during the slow crawl home.
Every so often a Didi car would stop to let a passenger on, cueing in a chorus of car horns sounding out across the boulevard.
The hot evening wind blew by. For whatever reason, my scheduled meeting with Jennifer that night no longer felt right. It wasn’t so much that it felt wrong—after all she was friendly and nice enough when we texted online—it’s just that part of me couldn’t see anything happening with her in the immediate and foreseeable future. Say even if we hit it off right and become really into each other right from the start— what then?
A sense of dread and emptiness took over. I took one last drag from the cigarette, thinking what I could tell Jennifer to postpone our date.
The sun was now setting and I was running out of time. I picked up my phone, only to close the WeChat app as soon as I’d tapped on it. The temperature in my room had gone up since the air conditioner went out, and instead I opened the waimai app to order a bowl of liangbanmian and beer from a nearby eatery. The process of browsing and ordering waimai would happen instinctively for me, as was my customary cigarette whilst waiting for the deliveryman downstairs (I never had them come up). On this day it took him 25 minutes to deliver, a few minutes short of the record. and in no time I’d polished off the cold noodles and lit a cigarette as dessert to go with the beer.
As things turned out I didn’t end up meeting Jennifer that night, and after not hearing from her for a few months I assumed that was that and didn’t think more of the episode.
Sunken away somewhere in the dregs of my memory was a June night when early summer was just starting to set in, with the sound of the plastic waimai packaging snapping hard when I jammed it into the bin with one hand, calling a girl I had yet met in person with the other.
I didn’t actually have Jennifer’s mobile number, only a WeChat contact she’d given me when we wanted to take our conversation off Tinder. Now that I thought about it, it was the first time either of us had called, although she only kept silent as I told her apologetically about having to cancel our rendezvous that night in order to catch up on some work that was nearing its deadline, which wasn’t entirely false but entirely insipid an excuse. She would block me on the messaging app a few days later.
The following month went by in a daze.
After starting me off easy, my company gradually increased my workload with every successful translation that I submitted, to a point where it became quadruple the amount a translator would be assigned in Malaysia. I wasn’t sure if anyone noticed the uncompromising quality of my translations, but the feedback from the editor seemed positive and genuine enough. Soon he had me assigned translations covering topics that were more cultural and engaging to both readers and translator, ranging from travel and leisure to real estate and entertainment.
This new challenge was fresh, but not altogether fun for me. With the more interesting articles came an increased sense of responsibility toward each phrase and mannerism within the writing. Great amounts of my time were burnt up in dealing with the many colloquialisms and unique manners of expressions that were simply untranslatable from Mandarin to English, and vice versa.
“Take it easy,” the editor would tell me, “The readers don’t expect a perfect and equal word for word translation, seeing that most of them don’t pay attention that the writing is translated,” he laughed. “Every piece of a translation constitutes a new work in itself, so give each sentence a bit of room for deviation from the original writing and try to have fun with your work.”
His remarks perturbed me greatly, like an unreachable inch at the far side of one’s back, tingling and pulsating into perpetuity. If I wanted to take it easy, I would’ve just stayed put in Malaysia, sipping oversweet teh tarik and biting on pisang goreng just watching the clouds go by.
The entire process of coming to China had taken a lot out of me. Firstly, I had to find money to finance my trip somehow. I decided after some deliberation, to recuperate the countless IOUs promised to me and went about collecting the many tiny loans I’d lent out to my friends and acquaintances over the years—Money huh, didn’t I pay you back already? Never thought you’d want such a measly sum paid back, but whatever— it was all very pitiful, but necessary. I did the same with recounting favours I’d done for others, and requested to be paid back in small sums of money. Most people though, had refused my request outright and told me in no obscure terms about where to go. As always with matters to do with money, some bridges are built to be burnt eventually, and perhaps what’s surprising in the end is how long it takes to set a fire.
And hence I was motivated to work at a high level, even at the most menial and dead end of jobs. Except my dead end job began to change, as I was assigned my first writing job by the editor one Monday morning which would lead to a very peculiar string of events.
“You’re too good at your job,” the editor said, neither bothering to offer me a coffee nor the the stained velvet chair that I pulled gingerly towards me.
“I know you’re no shabi. You know very well I didn’t ask you here this morning to praise you,” she paused, first to light a cigarette, second to puff and exhale,“at your work rate you’re making us Zhongguoren look bad. Aren’t you folk from the Nanyang supposed to be more laid back, and not so machinelike with efficiency?”
The editor was 35 years old, but she could’ve easily passed for somebody in her mid-twenties. As much as we knew at the office, she was single, independently wealthy, and lived alone. At her birthday party that year we bought her a first edition Hemingway (supposedly her favourite writer), only to find out she already owned several in mint condition.
I wasn’t sure if the editor was actually expecting a response from me, and so I waited for her to go on. The air in the old office room was musty and dank with the smell of cigarettes, probably less refined ones smoked from all the way back in the days of economic reforms. The editor was smoking a pack of Zhonghua, which she naturally passed my way. I obliged.
“Some of us aren’t as lazy, laoban” I said, exhaling after a long draw.
The editor brought up my file, her eyebrows slightly raised and her lips accented with irony. Then a warm smile washed over her face, and I figured I could never guess what she was thinking. I knew she wasn’t about to rearrange her compartmentalisation of Malaysian Chinese people just yet, which made me happy because who doesn’t enjoy being the anomaly? In the editor’s mind, I happened to be an overachieving Nanyang Chinese who was actually supposed to be lazier than the other 1.3 billion Chinese in this world, how nice.
“This is what we’re going to do. I don’t want to put your proficiency with language to waste, so I’m transferring you to journalism where you’ll cover the latest fashion trends for starters. Best not to squander valuable linguistic talent doing good English translations of bad Chinese articles, not when you can be churning out great English articles for our readers, right?” she asked. Again, I knew not what to say, and simply continued smoking.
And that was that.
I handed in the translations for the week, and was immediately scheduled to cover my very first story on fashion the next day. Sure felt odd to leave behind translating which had become so natural to me, be it as a job, practice or art if you may, but I had to look forward now. When I needed a job to stay in China I told myself I’d accept anything that came my way, and that hadn’t really changed. Now I had to focus on the next task: writing, something I’d never really done seriously before except for a few radical pieces that lamented a juvenile disillusionment with the education system, fervently written for my high school magazine back in the day, only to be silently accepted and then scrapped by the friendless and prude student editors without further notice.
The company I worked for was called FRANCO (Fulanke in Mandarin), a dedicated social media press that was founded by the editor about 5 years ago, and after a year of translating, all of a sudden I was on the path of writing for them instead. The editor was boundlessly wealthy and the company was doing well under her helm, which made it unlikely that I was just filling in as a cost-cutting move, for she could easily have headhunters bring in some budding writers the following Monday.
Could it be that she saw something special in me and trusted me to unearth it? The precise something that Luna had so readily neglected?
As you already know, I think about you all the time. I trust you have been well.
Things have been good with me. I’ve been busy with my work, although as of today I’ll no longer be working as a translator but a writer. I’m not so sure how I feel about the change now, but my gut feeling is that it will take me somewhere someday.
When can I see you? I hope it’s not too weird asking you this after all that’s happened. But I do miss talking to you. Everyday seemed a bliss when you were in my life. You’d given me this motivation to work hard, and the desire to find and stick with a vocation that falls in line with my perception of the world. I’ve thought long and hard since we last talked, and have tried to analyse myself from outside this shell, in an attempt to contemplate my existence from a view of selflessness if you will.
I’ve come to realise that all my life I’ve never fit in with whatever social circle I interact with, be it with my family, friends or colleagues. I don’t consider myself to be an outsider or outcast in Camusian sense, but rather a betweener who hovers in and out of existence between communities. As you know I’m an ethnic Han Chinese whose mother tongue is English, who then studied Mandarin and Malay in primary and secondary school. I never knew that these language skills would come in handy, and when the opportunity of working as a translator arose I spent a good amount of time polishing up my vocabulary. It is thanks to you that I was able to discover a set of intricate language skills that I never knew I possessed.
Now after a year, I’m about to embark on a writing career, which I can’t help but feel brings a different sense of duty and responsibility from translation, although the two acts are not all that dissimilar. I know you probably didn’t want me to come to China especially for you, but in all honesty my move away from Malaysia has given me a new lease of life, and I’m really enjoying it.
Off to bed now before my first day. Please write me sometime.
I smoked one more cigarette to relax myself, and then sent the message to Luna. It was past midnight and she was probably asleep by now, though it wasn’t like I expected her to write back anyway.
I got up at 5AM the next day, earlier than I usually would so that I would have ample time to smoke, wash up, and get to Huaihaizhong Lu well before the doors opened at Nike.
The idea was for me to arrive at sunrise to survey the demography of the people in queue, photograph them, and hopefully interview a few of them to shed some light on their passion for sneakers and the necessary sacrifices in sustaining this expensive interest.
Following my briefing with the editor, I had in mind a rough frame for the scoop she desired. Sometime ago, there were various riots around Asia due to the limited supply of the Adidas NMD, a lifestyle sneaker so comfortable it had masses of people camping the shopping mall entrances the night before its release. The editor had completely disregarded the story at the time, as she had simply dismissed it as people foolishly rioting over luxury goods marketed in limited quantities. To her the story was merely a 21st century capitalist tale of scarcity marketing, but then it took her by surprise that the hysteria surrounding the riots was not endemic to China but part of a larger global streetwear scene that was completely new to her. In a scene where hobbyists hustled out of necessity to fund their addiction and resellers resold for profit as their full time job, the editor saw the potential for a unique story to be told through the world of streetwear and sneaker culture. I was to give her this story.
I showered and left my apartment, lit another cigarette and made my way south toward Huaihaizhong Lu. I hadn’t been up this early in a while, and although the morning air wasn’t as crisp as it was in Malaysia, it was refreshing enough. The first smoke of the day against the rising sun, all that was missing now was a steaming cup of kopi o. I took a short drag and spat. God, it sure felt good to spit sometimes.
I was a little behind time and ended up getting on a Mobike, only stopping briefly for some baozi and grounded soy milk on my way there. The whole concept of renting a bicycle via the scanning QR codes and then leaving it on the designated racks was still relatively foreign to me, and I would often forget that this means of transport was available to me. At times like this when I did remember to use a Mobike, my navigation of the two-wheeler was quite slow and awkward as I wasn’t used to the sheer amount of riders of the road, not to mention having to cycle on the right side of the road rather than left.
I had almost reached Nike, so I parked the Mobike at one of the nearby racks and walked the rest of the way there. I took this time to polish off the baozi and soy milk, now at perfect drinking temperature after the short ride.
I lit another cigarette, and pulled out my phone.
Luna hadn’t texted back, I realised the message had failed to send.
The first time I saw Luna was almost two years ago to this day. And if I could only reverse that right swipe on her profile I would do it in an instant.
She was 21 with bluish hair at the time, a Wenzhou native who loved fashion with a bottomless bank account. You know the type.
We matched on the Tantan app when she was in Malaysia, during one of the many trips her family would take together throughout the year. It didn’t matter the budget, distance, or time of year. It could be the Swiss alps, the Milford Sound or the Machu Picchu ruins—just as long as there was no visa complications, they would go.
Back then, her family had hired a guide from one of the top tour companies to take them around Malaysia in a Mercedes Sprinter, and so her replies were scarce, often only to ask what was good to eat or to complain about local hygiene and general laziness of us locals.
How on earth had I become so smitten with her, let alone start dating her in such a short amount of time?
There is a sadness which subsists in the heat peculiar to summers, transmitted and sensed through the progression of the season, culminating in the highest temperatures and most unbearable afternoons. I had never felt this melancholia before, as the heat was a yearlong constant in Malaysia, a humid hell on the edge of the equator.
The sun was setting from a highpoint over the horizon, with its rays coming down over the many residential apartments and onto the sycamore laden streets I passed through on my walk to my apartment that evening.
I had spent the whole afternoon selecting and editing the pictures from the sneaker drop, compiling the notes I’d taken during interviews to form a short but concise article.
Time flew by as I worked. A quick lunch and several more savourless coffees and it was already evening, so I left the cafe because I didn’t like to leave after dark—it’s just too depressing.
I lit a cigarette, and saw that I did have fun covering my first story, though at the same time nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, no eureka moments to provide insight on my new job, and no queue-fights to commemorate my first day that I thought might happen.
It was utterly ordinary, just as my life had been so far.
But then someone called out my name from behind.
Someone was saying my name, a cool voice seemingly piercing the calm summer’s evening from an outside realm.
I turned to find her standing before me, a girl wearing an oversized Comme des Garçons graphic tee with culottes and brogues.
Before I could register how well-thought-out her outfit was, she’d already slapped me across the head with a waimai box that read Dongbei Jiaoziguan in red bold lettering (fortunately no dumplings were damaged in the process). My cigarette butt flew loose from the grip of my lips, a trail of wispy smoke followed its fall to the concrete.
“I knew it was you! That’s for blowing me off the other night you greasy human being!” she chided in a non-Chinese, almost American accent.
Admittedly I had that one coming. Probably. Still, I was a little taken aback having been assaulted with dumplings of all things. Greasy though, sounded so original and was entirely befitting a description of me, I had to hand it to her.
“Pleasure to finally meet you, Jennifer,” I said, offering her a cigarette.
It didn’t take too long for Jennifer to get her point across, to establish in no uncertain terms that she was a feminist. Yes I was aware that she had her own cigarettes and need not get them from any man(the antagonist role which I assumed by default simply because I was born with a penis). I was also aware that I shouldn’t have blown her off or given her the pigeon as the Chinese would say, and wish that she didn’t feel the need to admonish me for being so rude. Still I couldn’t fathom why she’d so hurriedly blocked me without even giving me a chance to explain myself and to make it up to her. In fact that all happened some while ago, why was she even still mad about it?
A strong independent woman needs no shoulder to lean on. But the same can be said for any strong independent person, who may be stronger still for knowing they need not flaunt their strength to the world. I thought better against telling her this, for fear that it would fan her flames and push her over the edge.
We must have smoked what felt like five cigarettes without a break, with her bellyaching about God knows what all throughout. My throat was dry, and I was absolutely famished, so I asked Jennifer if she’d like to join me for some crab noodles before I stole her dumplings.
“You’re kidding,” she said, “and what am I supposed to do with my dumplings?”
“We’ll eat it on the side. Come on, it’s my treat.”
We walked for quite a distance in silence, admiring the redness of the setting sun that stained the fading horizon like crimson blots of ink in water.
Jennifer had neither accepted nor rejected my dinner invite, but at least she let me light her cigarette this time without bringing up women’s suffrage.
“You’re going in the wrong direction, the best place to get crab noodles is Sinan Lu.”
“I like the one on Huaihaizhong Lu. Plus it’s nearer to my place,” I rebutted.
“Well the one on Sinan Lu is nearer to where I stay, so we’re going there,” she said, “Besides, what does a foreigner know about where to eat? All you guys ever eat is waimai from the most random dianping listings.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. But wait.
“Well… aren’t you from the US? You don’t really have a southern accent.”
“What are you, the police?” she retorted.
I just kept quiet, took another drag and exhaled. The sky was almost completely dark now.
“I’m from here, but moved around a lot when I was younger, is that good enough? Now, no more questions till we get food. Otherwise I won’t let you buy me dinner,” she said, trotting ahead of me in her dress shoes.
What does someone say to that?
We ate with pure gusto that night.
Jennifer was right, the crab noodles was indeed far better in the hole-in-the-wall joint she recommended on Sinan Lu. We’d worked up an appetite from all the walking, and so we ordered some beer to cool off and unwind at the end of a hot day.
We ate drank and smoked, polished off the box of dumplings Jennifer had smacked me over the head with, then smoked again.
She didn’t eat that many of her own dumplings, it actually seemed as if she detested the stuffed medallions of chive and pork, and all but left me to scoff them down with vinegar borrowed from the noodle store.
Jennifer seemed to be in a better mood now that she was full and not running on pure nicotine, but still I held back from asking why she had been so upset to throw a dumpling tantrum with someone she barely even knew. She was now back to her usual self—if I could call it that—the same person I had enjoyed chatting so much with online a few months before, but abruptly stopped contacting.
Now I was asking what cigarettes she preferred, and pouring her drinks. The whole thing felt peculiar sensation but was somehow pleasant, like the awkward feeling you might get when catching up with an old friend you never knew all that well, but who actually turned out to be quite fun.
After eating our fill of yellow noodles and downing half a dozen Qingdao, we were somewhat given to the sense of lightness permeating the summer’s night, and in the hopes of chasing that distant scent of rain and petrichor carried by the warm August breeze in all its purity before it mingled with the ash and asphalt beyond return, we continued walking.
Quite unconsciously (at least for me), we ended up walking south—I forget how far or how many cigarettes it took us—toward the Dapuqiao residential district, eventually arriving at the Tianzifang shikumen unceremonious, loud and drunk.
She wanted ice cream, so I got her ice cream. Then she wanted more beer, and thought it was good idea to ask the ice cream server for some. No beer here! the server ejaculated in frustration. I laughed. She tried again with the waiter, this time in her perfect foreigner English instead of Mandarin. Sorry miss, we don’t serve alcohol. But perhaps you would like to try one of the bars in Tianzifang? I’d be happy to make a recommendation…
“I hate this I hate this I hate this,” she told me.
“Relax. So we’ll get beer somewhere else.”
“No you don’t get it at all… Arrgh! Let’s go get some jianbing.”
“You can still eat?”
“Shut up! I didn’t eat much all day. You’re still buying right?”
The jianbing stall(if you could call it that) wasn’t too far away. Traditionally from Tianjin in the north, this street delicacy was now ubiquitous throughout China, although they don’t quite make it the same way elsewhere, Jennifer explained. This particular stall— a spirited youth with nothing but a grill and assorted condiments on his bike along with all the sunshine glittering in his eyes — was especially authentic, and particularly popular with the budding university girls.
“Testosterone and pheromones sure make a solid business foundation,” I remarked.
“Shut up… It’s cause he makes it the proper Tianjin way, using only mungbean, crispy guobier, green onion and nothing else.”
I bet he adds some special sauce too, I wanted to say, but it was our turn to order and Jennifer couldn’t contain her excitement any longer.
“Xiaogege! Could we get two jianbing? With extra sauce and green onion please,” she said, with the sweetest tone I’d heard all night.
See? I knew a handsome bloke like him would have some kind of extra sauce.
“I’m stuffed Jen, why don’t you just get one?”
“I’m not sharing with you! Get your own!” she said, almost breaking into falsetto. Even the ‘xiaogege’ shook his head a little, as if to say sharing ain’t cool, mate.
On a cold steel bench we had found ourselves sitting, abruptly depleted of cigarettes and the desire to dig into the piping hot wrap beyond the first few bites. A couple left behind by the passing moment. Only when the high died down did the sheer ridiculousness of the whole night come to light.
I thought about calling it a night and heading home to proofread the article I’d worked on all afternoon, until I felt Jennifer tugging lightly on my shirt, asking me if I’d like to go up to her place for some more beer. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by this, but when I asked her if she was interested in reading my article she didn’t seem all that against the idea.
She asked me if I wanted any more cigarettes, I shook my head.
“Thank God,” she said with a sigh.
“Tell me more about the things you hate,” I said, putting my arms around her.
She pulled herself close to me, and I could feel the undulating tide of her breathing upon my chest. She thought it over for a while, as if pondering the essence of being itself.
“I hate this furry chest hair that grows in random wisps and… and that streetwear article you made me read!” she whispered gleefully.
Ouch. She was probably kidding but still it hurt. Farts in a bathtub— it was just like that, I was never able to control my emotions from rising to the surface. My disappointment must have been evident. She caressed my face, and with her gaze piercing and bright in the darkness proceeded to kiss me strongly all the way from my lips to my sparsely haired chest.
Still nothing. Not a damned thing.
“It’s alright you know,” she said, her breath no longer short and heavy.
There were a whole list of excuses I could use, that I was tired from the long day or nervous with the spontaneity of the events of tonight. Even the classic this has never happened before was an option I could go for, but I didn’t say anything at all and continued staring straight up into space.
The temperature from the day had finally receded, and through her mosquito-netting fitted windows was blowing a welcoming cool breeze. The only shapes I could make out in the darkness was of a mobile made of scrap aluminium, which made a faint rattling sound when spun by the wind, and the contours of her bedside table clock turning away the early morning seconds slowly with its glowing hands.
Wriggling free of my embrace she turned away from me, and with a click a soft yellow light illuminated her bedroom. An accordion sconce casted her figure in shadow, and all I could make out in the dimness were a pair of finely sculpted shoulder blades, and what looked like a Scorpio star sign tattooed in a deconstructed (almost surrealist)line form.
At first glance her room appeared minimal, but really it was quite bare and devoid of objects. There was no clutter, but if you looked closely there would be traces of Jennifer’s inhabiting the space here and there. A pen and concealer the only colonisers of the kitchen counter, books and loose sheets of paper strewn all across the white standing desk (there were no chairs in sight), a linen shirt hanging on the wall. The space hadn’t been renovated and wasn’t particularly homey, but possessed that messy-enough-in-places aesthetic that offered a unique authenticity to it, and one that was stylish in its own way.
She reached for her panties lying on the parquet floor, and after putting them on, lit up another cigarette. She turned around and with an expressionless gaze, simply looked at me. I couldn’t help but feel utterly naked.
“I should probably get going,” I said, pulling the sheets over my crotch.
“Are you in a hurry to get home? The buses don’t start running for a few hours.”
Through the tightly fitted square netting I managed a peek into the dark, empty street — the other side of the world Jennifer and I had inhabited just a few hours ago. The thought about stepping back into that loneliness wasn’t all that appealing.
For the entire time Jennifer looked at me the same way, conspicuously waiting for me to make up my mind. I couldn’t tell if she wanted me to stay or not, what with her staring me down with arms folded under a pair of luscious full breasts, their brownish-black teats imploring me to declare what was now turning into a protracted decision, made it impossible for me to say, let alone do anything.
She killed the cigarette with a hiss, made all the more prominent in the dead of night. She walked closer to me, and with her body and full bosom leaning halfway across the bed, blew the last plume of cigarette smoke right onto my face.
“Can we just sleep?” I managed to say between coughs.
I didn’t see Jennifer for a while after that night, and I didn't smoke for even longer still.
No, not one puff. I wasn’t being health conscious, nor suddenly turned off by the idea of habitually inhaling cigarette smoke and then savouring the buzz of nicotine coursing through my body. Quite simply, I’d woken up one day completely depleted of any desire to light up.
I didn’t feel the need to smoke a cigarette with my morning coffee and youtiao— a kind of ritual I’d developed since moving to Shanghai. Didn’t smoke during my breaks at work either, not even when I went out drinking where I’d usually go through a pack easy.
The weeks went by, and I didn’t feel healthier, more invigorated or better about myself.
All I was certain was that I couldn’t smoke any more. Every time I tried to light up it just wouldn’t work (the act had suddenly become impossible for me), and I could never get beyond the first or second puff.
Had I been unconsciously relieved of something, that was somehow no longer weighing me down? My inability to smoke was most disconcerting, a mystery that was not the least bit intriguing to me. Or had I gone beyond my limit during that night out with Jennifer, and my body was just making up for the toll I had put on it over the course of the year during which I’d started this habit?
The signs were impossible to read. What I needed was an access to the unconscious signifiers that was exclusive to the world of dreams and the suppressed psyche. Cigarettes were bad for me, but even so I’d enjoyed them. Could it be that meeting Jennifer sort of blocked off my access to that specific vein of the pleasure principle? If that was the case, what had replaced it?
Whatever it was, it was not evident now. I was unable to smoke and for that reason I was deeply depressed. No more morning pick-me-ups or beautiful moments of sunset nicotine to wind down the day. It was an annoying, and humbling experience.
I decided to ask Luna what she thought about this. Even though she hadn’t replied to any of my messages for a long time, I imagined she would have something to say about my predicament at the very least, as behavioural changes in particular never failed to fascinate her.
“It appears that I have stopped smoking,” I said the moment the dial tone faded.
Out from the hiss of static on the other end came Luna’s voice, hazy from the bad connection or the ever-increasing distance between us, I wasn’t sure.
“Oh? That’s convenient. You were such a light smoker I thought you’d given up long ago.”
I told her about how I’d just woken up one day completely removed of the desire to smoke.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to quit before, I guess I just never saw the need to do so,” I explained.
“That’s what everyone says, they smoke so much in one night and almost stroke out by the end of it. There’s fear, remorse, guilt—all genuinely felt but just as conveniently washed away with a cold shower on Monday morning.”
“But I really stopped and I don’t know why. Then I actually tried to smoke again, but instead of feeling relief and pleasure, it’s actually revolting. I don’t know what’s going on.”
She paused to think for a while. A faint blowing sound came from her end, which I wasn't sure was due to bad cellphone coverage or if she was smoking a cigarette herself.
“Theoretically. You could and indeed should feel some pleasure when you inhale cigarette smoke. And also theoretically, you should feel better and healthier since you’ve stopped smoking. But real life isn’t a theory is it? It’s difficult to pinpoint the line where theories actually dissolve into forms of praxis, and that’s why tangents exist, because it’s so hard to follow through with something good for you in theory you end up turning away. I don’t really know what I’m saying here, so feel free to stop me anytime.”
Silence. Then there was the sound of wind again.
“Where are you Luna? I miss you so much,” I said, hearing the way her breathing slowed on the other end. I had learnt to tell the way her mood was affected like that.
“There’s a lot going on in my life at the moment,” she exhaled, “Like… I don’t even know how to tell you.”
I paused and felt my heartbeat quicken. Clearly we had drifted apart somewhat, but there was no doubt I still cared deeply for the woman with the alias L. on my WeChat. On the flip side, whether she felt the same was hard to say, especially when we could only result to interfacing like this.
A sense of uneasiness crept in, so palpable I could no longer tell how she felt about us. But what about me? How did I feel about her? What the hell did I feel about anything for that matter?
“Are you back in Shanghai?”
“Yes. I have been for a while now.”
“You never said.”
“Well. You didn’t ask.”
“Ok so I’ll ask something else. Let’s get something to eat this weekend?”
- hesitated to reply. All I could hear was the blur of a long muffled silence coming through from the other end.
If somebody was to ask me if I missed Malaysia the simple answer would be no.
I did not miss the many late nights spent drinking teh tarik in mamak stalls, waiting only to finish the last cigarettes from the pack and then for someone to buy a new one. Not the food nor the over-sweetened drinks, the everyday mangling of languages nor the casual disregard for traffic laws. The brisk evenings on the verandah, catching whiffs of the smouldering asphalt teasingly cooled by a passing shower. The laziness of kampung life.
If somebody was to force me to pick one thing I missed about Malaysia, it would have to be the rain.
During the monsoon, rain would pelt down so heavily you could barely even hear yourself think. I often chanced its arrival upon clay rooftops, beads like missiles hammering down more intensely with every passing second before meekly trickling into the steel drainage channels. The rain could go on for hours at a time. Traffic would come to a standstill, and those of us stuck in the warung could only pray for the dark clouds to recede, secretly glad at the opportunity for another cup of tea with condensed milk. To think we were that simply defeated by nature.
There was an imitable sense of calm brought on by the falling of midnight rain, where the rustle of leaves and shrubs in the distance would usher in the first droplets. You could see the wild cats and dogs duck for cover, and the wild boar retreat for the estates after rounds of scavenging the roads. If night was a nocturne, the rain certainly painted its most romantic scene, even if the monsoon meant that there could be a variety of assortments, from its faint pitter-pattering on aluminium awnings resembling a novice percussion ensemble, to rain falling with full force in a deafening chorus of chaos, relentless and full to the brim with life.
No, I didn’t miss it that much.
Tonight it was raining in Shanghai too.
The following Saturday morning, I stood waiting for Luna at the corner of Hengshan Lu and Wanping Lu.
I had picked up some shengjian bao on my way over, but they were already lukewarm by the time I started to dig into them. The panfried pork bun unlike anything we had back in Malaysia—crispy and tangy with vinegar on the outside, soft and succulent on the inside. I polished them off in no time, and continued to wait.
We were barely midway through the fall season, but there had already been many days like today where the temperatures plummeted without warning, and it was all Shanghaiers could assume that a wretchedly moist winter lay ahead of us.
I’d felt fine when I left my apartment, but now the sun was lost in the sky of grey, and I wished that I’d put on a little more than a long sleeved shirt. I was wearing a blue Shuren oxford shirt, made by a friend of a friend who was an independent menswear designer in Malaysia. The piece had blue corduroy elbow patches, and so I opted to go without a jacket in order not to obscure this detail. Now I felt silly. It wasn't as though I couldn’t have just thrown a cardigan into my backpack on the way out.
So in the cold I waited, looking in vain for the sun.
The vibrations from my cellphone pulled me from my daze. It was my mother, calling on WeChat from Malaysia.
I pulled my phone out and could finally hear its humdrum ringing. I didn’t feel like answering at all. What she said was always the same, and I had long since grown tired of her constant bellyaching of me falling below her expectations. When are you coming home? Are you seriously going to continue living in China? Malaysia isn’t that bad what. You know so-and-so got married, apparently not because of an accident. Someone else bought his wife a new car, barely got the loan approved after financing their condo, so I’ve heard. I hope the mainlanders aren’t being rude to you. Are you eating well at all? I might come over for a visit soon. I’ll let you know, ok? OK.
But of course, I always picked up.
“Would it be so hard to answer the first time I call?”
“Forgive me mom. My hearing tends to be somewhat impaired on weekends.”
I’d never told my mother about Luna, about how I’d come all the way to China in the hopes of seeing her again. I wasn’t sure why exactly I hadn’t made it clear to her. Perhaps it was the fear of disapproval and judgement, the thought of embarrassment and shame, of feeling humiliated in the talk amongst our family. There was never really a need to tell her anything.
“You’re not still using those dating apps, are you?” mother asked.
“Not so much anymore, but I was only following in your footsteps mother.”
My mother laughed. She’d always maintained she went on those Tinder dates as an April Fool’s joke.
“Why don’t you come home, dear? I’ll find you a good wife in no time. Everyone loves a UK graduate.”
“I was only in Bath for 3 months.”
“They don’t know that. Plus it doesn’t discount the fact you graduated from an English institute.”
“I have to go now mom. I’m about to a friend.”
“Oh lovely. A friend I’ll be able to meet soon?”
“Yes hopefully, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’d like to meet her first.”
We hung up. From the call log I garnered the last time I called her was last year. Whenever we talked, mother was often the one who called.
I spent 2 hours loitering around Xujiahui Park, but Luna never showed. I didn’t text or call her, there really wasn’t any need to.
I pulled out my phone, but nobody had texted or called apart from mother.
Then I opened up the Tinder app, and saw about 10 unread messages waiting for me. Then I remembered, I’d muted the message notifications for the app ever since the day I first made plans to meet Jennifer. Ever since then, improving the written quality of my work had consumed vast amounts of my time. I had been happy for the most part with the quality of my articles, but the editor had called me in several times to tell me that she really expected more from me.
Jennifer had blocked me on WeChat, but had sent me two messages on Tinder where she could still reach me. I had fun the other night, let’s meet again sometime if you want to. she’d written, with the second message being her phone number.
I locked my screen, not knowing what to think.
Switching it on again, I proceeded to scroll through the messages from my other Tinder matches.
I wasn’t a guy who got a lot of matches or messages. It just wasn’t me to put up well-thought-out pictures of myself with a witty bio to go along with it, and so I had simply used some old pictures of me when I’d modelled for a photographer friend of mine, with a piece of prose I’d chanced upon when browsing one of the many Chinese university forums, which roughly translated to:
Love dwells far beyond sea and mountain—
Great lie of the land, one cannot flatten
I shall be ferried across ocean by boat
Taking long trail through high mountain post
All standing before me will become appeased
Still unquiet is the heart awaiting release.
I loved the way the poem sounded from the very first time I read it, and would’ve readily credited its author if I knew who it was. It wasn’t a great description or an original one for that matter, but it worked to portray me as somewhat of a deep person if not a pretentious douche. Guess it was a hit or miss thing— every swipe was a 50-50 thing anyway.
So there I was scrolling through my messages (which was either just hi or something funny like wish I could go that deep *wink*), when a received a new message from a girl called Rei.
“Nike Air Max 1s in Xujiahui Park? Bit old, still handsome,” she wrote in Mandarin.
The first thing I did was look down at my beaten up pair of red and white Air Max 1s, so soiled and creased up beyond recognition I’d almost forgotten what they were called. The second thing I did was to take stock of my surrounding: a couple of aunties half power walking and talking, an expat getting off his bicycle to light a cigarette, a group of old men engrossed in a game of Chinese chess, and some university students conducting what appeared to be a product photoshoot that involved some tech gadget.
My first guess was that Rei was one of the university students, texting me out of boredom from the protracted photography session. The sun didn’t look to emerge from the mass of dark clouds and the day was getting colder by the minute, but still the student sweated profusely in their tee shirts and jeans, entirely focused on angling the round disc reflectors however way they could cheat the fading light as the photographer continued working the camera shutter. I did a head to toe of everyone there, then tapped on Rei’s Tinder profile and swiped through her pictures for the very first time.
Rei had a unique way of dressing, not what you would call fashionable in the high street sense, but always with a sense of style that was entirely her own. No. She wasn’t one of the students whose perspiration had now turned their garments a different colour. She was more elegant than that, the type that you’d be able to recognise instantly if you saw her.
I felt uneasy and decided not to reply just yet, and got up from the bench I’d been warming for the past hour to make a round of the park in search of my mystery texter. Well perhaps mystery wasn’t the right word, as I had access to her Tinder profile right here on my phone. It wrote:
If you let me dress you, one day I might just undress for you.
Was she a stylist of some sort?
Now I really needed to find this girl.
I kept my eyes peeled as I walked, more wary than ever of the shoes on my feet (Rei had a different shoe on in every picture and they were all pristine). I didn’t find her feeding rice to the sparrows by the lake, which didn’t seem like her anyway. I didn’t find her under the willow tree either, which was a hotspot for couples in summer but completely deserted today because of the looming dark clouds.
Once I’d made half a round of the lake I gave up my search. I didn’t even bother trying the old memorial chimney situated at the southwest of the park, nobody ever went there anyway. Instead I climbed the sightseeing bridge overlooking the middle of the park, feeling suddenly like a dog that had forgotten where its bone was buried. Everything around me manifested itself in subtly differentiated tones of grey, from the concrete footpaths cast in shadows, to the shroud of smog reflected in the surface of the lake.
I felt tired. Tired of doing and feeling nothing all the time. I needed a cigarette, but no longer bothered to carry a pack with me. What was the point. Did I really need any more grey in my life?
I thought about Luna, how it didn’t matter to me that she hadn’t shown up. In a way, she was like a hot gust of wind on a whim, sweeping through the streets of Shanghai in summer, all but gone after autumn’s coming. These tiny pockets of heat would come in waves, oppressive and most unwelcome, though same time a central part of Shanghai’s rainy summer cycle. Since coming here, it had been nice for me to experience the progression of seasons that were nonexistent in Malaysia. It made me wonder if the changing seasons represented a greater balance in the grand scheme of things. Having grown up in a tropical climate, I’d always found it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of solstices or the equinox. Equally, explanations about daylight savings confused the hell out of me too (they might as well have been talking about the multiverse theory). Are our emotions susceptible to change like the seasons are? Or do we come to feel particular sentiments according to the time of year? I couldn’t answer. At the end of the day, I wasn’t one who’d make a habit of retrieving winter clothing from the storage unit when the temperatures dropped with the falling leaves. My winters were spent entirely waiting for the wind, wondering when the bursts of heat would arrive in full force once again.
But it didn’t matter how long I waited, the winds would always catch me off guard, rushing to caress me hard and fast in pockets of hot current before dispersing onward for other lands no sooner than the moment I turned around, only to find myself left behind in its hot dry wake.
The northern entrance to Xujiahui park appeared quite desolate by the time evening rolled around.
Having hidden behind the clouds the whole morning and afternoon, the sun hadn’t bothered to show itself for sunset either. The only people left apart from a few runners and myself were the aunties who’d just finished their afternoon session of guangchangwu, now leisurely packing up their radios and paper fans after an evening spent moving their bodies in poorly attempted unison. Some of them would now go home for a well earned rest, others to cook up a meal for the family in haste, refilling too their own bellies before hurrying back to the park in time for the nighttime session. I on the other hand didn’t feel like eating, and hadn’t felt a strong sense of hunger in a while.
I resumed my place on the steel bench I’d left. The university students had finished their photoshoot and were all gone, save their part-time sitter who had since changed out of her chic, sunshine-girl costume, now wearing a colour-block crop sweatshirt and high waisted straight jeans hemmed perfectly to sit on top of a pair of mint Nike trainers. There really was no need for me to scrutinise the face behind the purple-tinted cat-eye glasses, from her style I could sense that very same individuality I had been scouring the park for, and knew instantly that this was Rei standing a few metres from me.
I hadn’t recognised her before because of the clothing she had worn during the photoshoot—a red floral crepe midi dress with straw fedora and flats didn’t really seem like her, although she would later reveal that she did indeed own similar pieces. The weekend fit she had on now though, gave off a light and easy vibe similar to her style shown in her Tinder photos. In her presence I couldn’t help but feel like I was being rude, what with my shabby clothing and uncoordinated way of dressing I could probably use some tips from someone dressed as impeccable as her.
“Well that took you long enough, were you waiting for the guiding moonlight to show you over ?” the girl named Rei said.
I looked up at the moon, now a luminous mass obscured by the smog, seething away like a cyst under skin—why was I expecting to find something there of all places?
Judging by her Tinder profile, I had thought her as the kind of girl who would pester a guy to take her shopping, who spent hours on end in Xintiandi browsing the latest offerings in women’s fashion constantly expecting to be pampered, though after a while’s talking I could see that she wasn’t really the princess-syndrome type, and upon seeing her in person I only wished I had the honour for her to take me shopping sometime.
So that’s what I asked her.
Right now? she asked. Yes, right now, I nodded.
“Umm… How bout’ we get those sneakers cleaned first, or maybe even some new ones?”
Well it was all pointless, I wanted to tell her— the sneakers, the swiping we did on dating apps, the back and forth flirting in false bursts of warmth that only culminated in a bitter yet familiar disappointment. These apps had begun to make me feel more lonely and empty regardless of the attention and sense of companionship it offered. Still I didn’t see any reason to say no. Rei seemed nice and normal enough, and with the midsoles of my Air Maxes subtly cracking beneath my weight, what harm was there with a new pair of shoes in my life?
That night I journeyed with Rei to the very fringes of the French concession to have my shoes cleaned, and by the time Luna texted me with the two words I’m sorry, I ignored her out of both spite and necessity.
There were many sneaker stores throughout the whole of Changle Lu, many of which the editor had mentioned before but had yet assigned me to cover. You could get anything you wanted, Jordans for retail or resell, Supreme bogos from New York, Palace trifergs from the U.K., you name it. Though I was surprised to learn from Rei that these daigou brands didn’t sell as well as one would think.
“People here are very patriotic about the Chinese brands that drive the nation’s trends. 10 years ago was a different time, when people were crazy about Japanese fashion and hip hop style from the 90s,” she said.
“Nike Dunks were a big thing back then, right? When the whole skateboarding movement was going international?”
“I guess so. But hardly anyone skates here anymore. Now everyone just wants Yeezies for their WeChat moments, or Instagram if you’re fancy.”
“Yes precisely! Aren’t you smart!” she snickered.
My shoes may have looked cleaner after the 10 yuan cleaning service (which was basically a glorified wipe down with fragrant soap), but what the shoe cleaner could do nothing about was the yellowing and sheer wear that showed on my Air Maxes. Rei said she liked the vibe it gave off, which was kind of ‘OG’ without saying that I was trying too hard, whatever that meant.
I ended up picking up a new pair of grey and white Air Max 1s, and Rei went straight at me for not being adventurous enough to try something new. Why don’t you try them on for size, you’ll see that you look like a granddad, she said. I told her I already knew how they’d fit, and wasn’t afraid of looking like a granddad.
Upon leaving the first store we immediately found ourselves browsing the wares of another. Then another. And another. Shopping with her felt surreal, with her every movement and deliberation on various articles of clothing so effortless it was like she was operating on the border of unconsciousness. Rei knew what looked good on both men and women, but just being with her put me at ease. By the end of our little spree she’d bought some long wool socks and a dainty maroon beret, for fall she said simply, and cutting into my hands and pocket was a several plastic bag’s full haul of two sneakers, a pair of raw denim jeans and a stainless steel bracelet I had already misplaced.
“Do you feel better now?” she asked me after we got our boba. I could feel the sweetness coursing through my body with every sip.
“I guess so. But what about?”
“Oh I don’t know? You were waiting about in the park for a good few hours, there must’ve been lots on your mind.”
“I’m probably just missing home, I haven’t been back for a while now,” I lied.
“Hmm… Where in the south are you from?”
“Well, I’m from a little farther south than the south.”
“Oh. Wait. Are you Vietnamese?!”
“What? No, I’m Malaysian. But good guess.”
“You speak putonghua so well for a foreigner… although you look nothing like a foreigner.”
“Well, I am ethnically Han Chinese, you know there is a whole lot of overseas Chinese in Malaysia.”
“So they teach Mandarin in schools over there?”
“Only if you choose to enrol in a Chinese school, there are Chinese people who don’t even know how to write their names in Mandarin back there.”
“So it’s the same as over here. Tell me, why’d you come to China? Isn’t it much more pleasant in Malaysia? I’ve only heard good things about life in the Nanyang, with the island resorts and amazing durian.”
“I came to China to meet this girl, my ex-girlfriend to be exact.”
“Umm… It’s like whenever I’ve got you placed in a box you just jump right out!”
“Well, this is the thing.”
“What is it, Mr. A-Little-Farther-South-Than-South? Did you come here to win her love back?”
“If only it were that simple. The thing is, I’ve never met the woman before in my life.”
During my days as a young man only just discovering his virility, I had always dreamed of sleeping with a lot of women. Looking back at it now, this idea of mine wasn’t anything like a primal Dionysian yearning driven by carnal desire. Rather it was a fantasy primarily driven by the wide array of smartphone pornography that was circulated among classmates in the all-boys school I went to— a spectacularly juvenile idea that appeared grand for all of us at school, who were not nearly precocious enough to know what to expect at all during sex. With regard to sexual matters, I’d always expected to become aroused and be able to perform on cue regardless of how drunk, tired or nervous I was (not that I had even expected these factors to be problematic in the first place). Though as it would become clear to me in the coming years, sexual arousal was not a thing that came easy for me, even with desire as its counterpart being the predominant logic at times of decision making.
My problems started when I first came to China, around the time when Luna was just starting to avoid every method of contact I initiated with her—messages were left unreplied, calls were missed, and she even unfollowed me on social media a handful of times only to follow back sometime later—not that I mean to suggest that the two events were related, only that their coinciding with each other left me feeling as though I’d incurred some form of karmic punishment that had accumulated past its threshold, and was now being duly meted upon me.
I hadn’t yet replied to Luna’s apology sent on the day she simply decided not to come see me. After close to a year’s building up the anticipation of our meeting, where many a day was spent brooding in agony, angst and anxiety as to the when and whether we would actually meet, I now felt oddly at ease with the idea of never speaking to her again, and so that was the line of thought I chose to implement. Once I actually took a moment to lay bare the timeline of events that had occurred between us— from our getting together online which although was absurd felt so right in the moment; to our abrupt breakup and her subsequently reaching out for emotional support; to her going back on her promise of meeting me in person if I happened to come to China on my travels— it became easier to come to terms with the train of circumstances that had played out, and swallow the hard but simple truth which was that she meant more to me than I did to her.
A few weeks after our failed rendezvous at Xujiahui Park, I found myself overwhelmed with a very bad case of writer’s block, which in my relatively short 3 months of working full-time as a writer, had never happened before.
After turning in what I felt was a series of mediocre articles on the topics of travelling alone, minimalist living in China, and the best skincare brands for working males, the editor called me in one day to assign me my next story which was to be on ShanghaiPRIDE.
“I have to say, I know absolutely nothing about it, save the fact that it’s a LGBT event,” I told her, not wanting to disappoint her in case I turned in a piece of work that would let down the entire LGBT community.
“Don’t worry about it. Most people don’t even know the festival exists, even though this year’s event will mark the decade since ShanghaiPRIDE’s inception. Having said that, keep in mind that the 10-year anniversary is a big thing for the LGBT community, and since Chinese coverage of the event is highly censored, it’s up to the foreign media to provide a fair coverage of the festival in its full authenticity.”
The editor pulled out and lit a cigarette, and I waited for her to go on, but that was it.
“It’s quite a big topic,” I said.
She took a drag, the fumes in the unventilated room felt suffocating.
“You wouldn’t happen to be homophobic?”
“No,” I said after thinking about it for a while, “I don’t really have an opinion about it one way or another.”
“Well then we don’t have a problem. I’m a little homophobic myself, not that I don’t have a ton of gay friends in the city, it’s just that I wouldn’t know what to do if my daughter told me she was gay, but that’s what they call ‘heteronormativity’ in English, the gaze that a straight person is used to viewing the world with.”
A daughter? That was news. He-te-ro-nor-ma-ti-vi-ty? I couldn’t even pronounce it.
“You’ll be fine. Listen, there’s always room for improvement for every writer, but at the moment that’s not something you should worry about. I’ve read every one of your articles to date, what you need to find is your niche. In the meantime… just enjoy the ride.”
Another drag, another sigh of smoke.
Aren’t all rides enjoyed with the view of an endpoint in sight? I thought to myself.
I began my research on ShanghaiPRIDE later that afternoon, and quickly updated myself on the history and evolution of the event throughout the years, of how it transitioned from a cultural celebration in the year of its inception to the full-fledged parade it was today.
Browsing through the pictures on the festival’s official website and social media pages, I was confronted with the existence of a queer world that for the greater part of my life I had been vaguely aware of but not entirely familiar with. Heteronormativity —was that what the editor had said in English? I looked that up too, but couldn’t find its Mandarin equivalent.
Admittedly, I had no idea how to approach the writing of this article. The topic itself felt so far away from me, though at the same time it wasn’t something I could simply approach objectively from an outsider’s angle— a position I was not accustomed to.
Half in frustration and half for wanting something to do, I got up from my work desk and helped myself to the insipid filter coffee everyone at the office complained about but seemingly enjoyed. The machine was situated at the rear corner of the pantry, all the way down the asbestos-partitioned corridor, which made for a nice short walk away from the exponentially increasing workload. Whenever an intern or someone new joined the crew, even the drip of the machine seemed slow and testing to their patience. At times when there was a long queue, waiting for coffee in the pantry became a solemn undertaking, a rite of passage that allowed fresh-grads to develop and embrace a working mentality of a seasoned veteran. Some would use this time to zoom out and enter a meditative state, before refocusing on their current task at hand, but most of the staff never bothered, and would spend the entirety of break time gossiping about everything in the office or whoever’s personal life.
But the pantry was empty this afternoon, devoid of the usual waxed-haired douchebags hitting on the interns and gossiping OLs eager to recap their weekends. I savoured the peaceful moment, taking in the onset of fall through the water stained windows as the whir of the coffee machine droned on behind me.
Then the dripping stopped, and my coffee was ready.
Quiet. I hadn’t felt it in a while.
Suddenly craving some Malaysian food, I delayed the writing of my article to go out for nasi lemak.
I took the short bus ride north towards Jing’an to a restaurant run by a Chinese auntie from Penang. The food there excellent but of course nothing compared to the greasy fills you would get back home. The restaurant was a short bus ride from the office, and I always enjoyed coming here when I was sick of the canteen food or the same waimai every time. Sometimes I could score a bigger portion simply by sweet-talking the young Malaysian part-timers who’d come to Shanghai for university, but the aunty would catch on quick, and before I knew it everyone was referring to me as the uncle who looked much younger than he actually was.
I found myself reaching for my phone after lunch, but in an instant of disgust, clicked the screen on and off before returning it to my pocket.
Lethargic, slow, uninspiring. That’s how the last few weeks had been for me. I had no doubt this reflected in my work, what with the unforgiving state of the blogosphere these days with people scrolling through a text faster than they could digest its title. No writer was safe from the wrath of commenters who merely skim-read a piece, who judged a text based on captions under images rather than the context of the whole thing. I did of course have my fair share of loyal readers who tended to respond positively in the comments, but seeing as I was still relatively new to the scene, I could not afford to risk losing any of them with more of the same poorly written anecdotes I’d been churning out of late. Something had to change, and it had to change quickly.
My phone vibrated on silent in my pocket, but I had to get my move on. With every few steps a new unread entered my inbox, and with every mouthful I spit I sent flying I felt the urge to hurl the damned thing onto the gravel.
Why’d I have to go and post that picture of my nasi lemak on Instagram? I had presented my phone with the opportunity to ingest the meal before me, and in that allowed it to provoke a greater hunger in the realm of the internet, unconsciously propagating a chain of desire for the spicy savoury dish. What the picture didn’t convey, was that here in China nasi lemak was often obscenely sweeter than it was spicy, though the disproportionately giant serving of yejiangfan was considered so exotic that nobody cared to nitpick at the authenticity of its sambal, or the sorry state the supposed soul of the dish —the coconut rice, was relegated to.
I felt the vibrations pause then slow to a trickle. The obvious question for me was, had Luna texted? I guess that would be hard since I’d blocked her on everything.
As all great stories of love go, there must exist some form of obstacle that forbids two lovers from being with one another— be it class differences, geographical separation, or political and religious beliefs at variance that one would sooner die alone than give up on. But was I in love with Luna? No, most certainly not. What was it then?
What the hell was all this?
I only attended to my phone when I was back at my apartment that night, where I spent a good amount of time scrolling through the unread notifications not smoking a cigarette.
It took me a while to go through the sea of comments, not to mention comply with the meaningless cordialities of exchanging likes that people took way too seriously.
The process was gruelling. From what I’d learnt after years of being on social media, it mattered not whether you tagged a restaurant’s location with the intent for all to see, someone dumb enough was bound to comment WHERE IS THIS, effectively negating any notion of Darwinian evolution. Then there were the emojis too, don’t even get me started on those.
A flood of Zhe shi shen me? comments were written in Mandarin, which I duly skipped past when I’d noticed a peculiar notification in my inbox. Buried in my Instagram message requests was a user I’d never seen before, who in replying to my post had sent a series of pictures of nasi lemak and teh tarik with looks so authentic they were presumably taken at Malaysian mamak stalls.
The account was private, with no pictures and a few bot-account followers to its name. With a jumble of numbers for a username, I was left with no clue as to who this was or why the pictures were sent.
My first guess was some idiot friend of mine back home had sent me these pictures from his xiaohao by accident. It was possible he had found it so funny to see me eating a third-rate serving of nasi lemak that he thought to send me the real deal to make me jealous, only to unintentionally do it using his alternate account he used to flirt with girls he met on the side. Or, it was also possible that he’d gotten so drunk he had me confused with another person, namely one of the many women he gotten to know at KTV lounges and the diaohuachang.
I decided to greet the anonymous sender with a LOL, hoping to gauge from his or her response who might be behind the pictures, flashed so bright it made the mamak stall take on the appearance of a nightclub.
A reply came instantly.
Guess where I am, the message from 02223 read.
Guess where I am, the message from 02223 read.
It could just as well have been any username, seeing those words left me no doubt as to who it was.
Luna. She’d always said she wanted to visit Malaysia again. What was she doing there now? Another family trip perhaps?
Just thinking about her made me feel uneasy, causing me to fluctuate between an emotional state of despair and unhappiness. Why did I always have to get so upset about her? It had taken me long enough to come to terms with the fact that I was in love with a woman I’d never met, drawn out and protracted was my acceptance that in all likelihood, I would never see her face to face in this lifetime. Her hold on me was so strong, I didn’t even care to know for certain if this was her texting me. A simple text was all it took to reverse all of that.
Flicked the lock screen on my phone on and off again, wanted a smoke really bad, wondered if enough time had passed for me to tolerate its foul, repulsive nature again. Sequence after sequence would creep into my head but leave me before I could actually ponder and act on them.
Desire was something that I’d struggled to muster throughout the whole of the Shanghai summer. Now that fall was here I couldn’t tell if all that sense of yearning had abandoned me for good, or whether the converse was true, that I was really that lonely a person?
She was visiting the islands of Semporna 02223 told me, where some parts were so isolated it provided the world’s best spots for snorkelling and scuba diving. You don’t know how to scuba dive, I wrote, I wanted to learn, came her reply.
At a time when I had the chance to put a halt to her garrulity, to ask and confront, perhaps most importantly to ascertain how she felt about me, I kept silent.
“My mother wants to visit China,” I wrote.
“Oh, a bid to haul the prodigal son home?” she said, exhaling heavily via voice note, sounding as though she couldn’t wait to blow the cigarette smoke out first before she spoke.
“She wants to do one of those xungen things.”
“Really? Oh wow. I thought only people from China did that. And where is laojia for your family?”
“Guangdong for mother, but it seems like she wants to visit where father is from.”
“And which province would that be?”
“That… I’ll have to ask when I see her.”
Mother was due to arrive in Shanghai from Kuala Lumpur in less than two weeks.
I was tasked with buying us both plane tickets to Sanya in Hainan province, which had since developed a price premium with the cold setting in around the country. Sanya of course, was the southernmost tip of China off from the mainland, with a tropical monsoon climate that made it a prime tourist destination throughout the year. Even during the colder winter months Sanya’s averaged a pleasantly welcoming temperature of 20 degrees, which based on reviews from the forums, was apparently perfect weather for the beach.
On any given day in Malaysia that was ideal temperature for a thunderstorm.
“Oh God. What have you been eating? So thin!”
“I’ve actually gained 5kg, Ma,” I said, giving her a hug before helping her with her luggage at the airport terminal.
“Feels like 5 kilos of bone to me! Let’s go get some food la. Finally I get to try some authentic mala hotpot!”
“We’ll have to go all the way westward to Sichuan for that. How about some xiaolongbao or pork belly herbal soup?”
“Wah… Did I raise a fascist? Any mala hotpot here would be better than that diluted filth they serve you in Malaysia. Your mother wants hotpot, darling. And when you’re free why don’t you order me a few packs of the real paste from Chongqing to bring home?”
“But we’re leaving in a couple of days, I’m not sure if the Chinese couriers are that efficient.”
“Well send it to the hotel in Sanya then! Taobao, no? Come, mommy’s hungry now. Don’t worry la! We’ll order the yuanyang pot so you can take the clear broth and leave the good spicy stuff to me.”
It didn’t take long for mother to settle in and get going in China. I loved her, but most of the time she was so difficult to be around.
Not that she was the type of asian mother who would disapprove of everything her son did because it wasn’t good enough for her, but rather it was quite frustrating when she saw no point that I did anything at all.
Could I blame her?
I had never explained to mother my reasons for moving to China in full. Not why I chose the city of Shanghai, or why I was working as a content writer when I could be pursuing a more stable career back home in Malaysia, where the developing market made growth more affordable with opportunities aplenty throughout the expanding economy.
She’d never asked me, and that was just the way I wanted it to stay.
Though there were several times in my life when I felt it was obvious I needed advice or any form of guidance from her, she was always only nonchalant about the matter, and maybe even oblivious to how important it was to me. There was the matter of what to study as a major, which she only found time to briefly mull over with her friends at the mahjong table before the symphony of clacking tiles ensued. I couldn’t even get through one movement with mother’s aunty friends, who were not unlike a wake of vultures except they scavenged on fresh gossip and rumours instead of carcasses.
Mother was the type who would listen and laugh, only joining in to make appropriate comments that were never particularly snide nor ingratiating, but sufficient to keep the fire of the conversation burning.
Throughout my years of growing up, she never spoke of any expectations she had of me or herself for that matter. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought her as extremely unambitious and that she didn’t care that much for me at all. But mother had grown up in a vastly different time, of post-war hardship in a land on the brink of creating its own history, where the Malayan people were eager to prove to the world that they could fare just as well without their British colonisers. Back when the line between colonial and free subject was still blurry, marriages continued to form out of the necessity of getting by, and people partook in the institution of matrimony even if it meant that days of economic hardship would become just a little more bearable.
For a long time in postcolonial Malaysia, capitalism and the free market had its say in matters of wedlock. Willingly or unwillingly betrothals took place, whether arranged by birth or deemed suitable enough by the mei po. Today, the people of my generation (whom I felt increasingly detached from) are able to marry for love. Whether this makes us freer than my mother I cannot say for sure. Because to marry someone in the name of love, is arguably one of the more sublime capitalist ideas the world has ever seen.
There wasn't too much to pack for Sanya.
With the region’s yearlong summery weather, I could practically dress as I would like back home in equatorial Malaysia. Into my trusty 30L backpack I threw in a pair of khaki shorts and some tee shirts, along with enough socks and underwear to last me a few days. I didn’t have any sandals or boat shoes for the beach, and so I gave my bathroom slippers a wipe down and wrapped them in plastic. For my shoes I planned to wear that new pair of grey and white Air Maxes I had picked up with Rei, the girl from Tinder I’d run into at Xujiahui Park. Maybe I could ask her for a cup of coffee when I got back from Sanya.
The editor wasn’t too pleased at me asking for a whole week off to go holidaying.
“This isn’t standard modus operandi in China. People don’t just ask for time off on short notice to fly to Sanya with their mother,” she said, biting a cigarette as usual.
“It’s quite important that I do. My mother has been planning this trip for a month.”
“And you only waited till the week before to tell me? I swear, you southeast asians…”
“We’re something else aren’t we.”
“If you know it and I know it, there’s really no need to discuss it further. Tell me, will you be able to write there? I’m still expecting that piece on ShanghaiPRIDE from you.”
“About that… I’m not really sure. Mother wants to do this whole xungen thing, she has seemingly planned out our entire week. The PRIDE piece is almost done. I just have to tune it up a little, to not let it seem that heteronormative, like you said before,” I told her, even though the article was nowhere near complete.
“Waaa eii hold on,” she said, getting excited in a way that made it clear where this was going.
“I didn’t know that Malaysians cared about their roots in China? I asked you before if you spoke any dialects and you said no!”
“Well, I don’t,” I lied again, “but my Ma is making a big deal of showing me where my father is from.”
“Ok stop. Let’s slow the fuck down and take a step back,” she said, on her second cigarette now.
“Your father is a zhongguoren?”
“Actually, he may or may not be.”
“Please. Spare me the suspense.”
“Never knew the man, he passed away when I was really young. But since my mother wants to go to Hainan Island for xungen, we can assume that he’s Hainanese at the very least by blood. Whether or not he was born there, I can’t really say. For all I know the man could have been Malaysian, Zhongguoren, Lizu or Miaozu.”
“Fascinating! A boy is forced on a xungen trip to discover his roots when he actually couldn’t care less about it! How could you keep this from me all this time?” she exclaimed, now onto her third stick.
It was obvious what was coming next, the precise reason why I hadn’t told her any of this.
“Take your time with the LGBT story, and also the week off for the trip. In return, you’ll be writing about your xungen experience on Hainan Island instead.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that.