In the back room of a restaurant – wallpaper simulating bricks around the doorways, plastic strips hung in the front doorway letting in chill night air – Mr. Wang shook his head disgustedly. “I can’t imagine two men kissing. I can’t imagine saying, ‘Brian, I love you!’” Inwardly I smiled for in the states he has “the look” which would bring scrutiny from gay men. His limber, perhaps flimsy body, seems blown about by wind. He has big glasses and eyes on the side of his face which one time, when he bunched his lips, made him look remarkably like a rat. He is curious, it seems, and he is not a malicious man.
It wasn’t long before I was describing the holes men dig in bathroom stalls through which to protrude their protuberances of pleasure. Once he came back with some sheets of paper to jot down terms as I watered him with colorful slang. “Beat the monkey,” seemed to tickly his fancy the best; I wracked my brains for words long since heard and perhaps never used by me. Probably even at the time I thought they were crude or silly but for some reason they were a bridge between this bookish, goofy English teacher and I. Our tea grew cold; we talked and laughed. When I found
he had paid the bill on the sly I demanded the owner return me his money and let me pay. This is the guy who absolutely refused compensation for the bike I had borrowed and gotten stolen, the guy who makes sixty dollars a month, the guy who wears long underwear knit by his mother, who had not eaten a bite of dinner – he pushed me protesting outside, my face slipping through the thick plastic strips.
We wandered past streaked humble windows of “small food” establishments and rounded a dark corner. “I drank too much tea,” he said, peering toward an anonymous brick structure, “I have to piss out. . .Now which side is it for men?” He took out his lighter and held it up, revealing a small cement plaque saying, “women.” We did not get far into the entrance, a putrid stream trickling through the dirt down to the road seemed to indicate an impromptu urinal right there – the lack of light inside and the astounding inaccuracy of Chinese anuses had discouraged night pissers from tiptoeing far into the hell hole, which is both slippery slopes and good intentions. So we stood at the entrance and pissed toward the wall.
Toward home, walking down a street lined by fort-like homes turning cold shoulders to the outside, he repeated his satisfaction with his new vocabulary. “This is very useful,” he said.
“But you can never use it,” I said.
“In secret, its very useful,” he insisted. He leaned toward me and whispered, “Do you know ‘kan chuanzi’? It is like, ‘beat the monkey.’”
“What?” I said.
He uttered the phrase again, louder, for me to repeat, and slapped a hand over his mouth, staring around. “It means, ‘split a slat.’” I repeated it several times, enjoying the new knowledge.
“Oh, do you know, ‘one-eyed warrior’?” I asked. He stopped, fished out his pen and wrote it on a paper in a faint light, laughing.
This is the same Wang who, a few weeks ago as we sat with his wife watching a bowling contest on TV, leaned over and said confidentially, “Did you know bowling is good for the stones?”
“No. . . “ I said, puzzled.
“Do you know stones?” he asked.
“You mean ---“ I said glancing at my crotch.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Why – where’d you hear that?” I asked. “Are you sure its good for them?”
“Francis Bacon wrote that,” he said, “Maybe I can remember it. . . . no.” He ran and brought back a book and, indeed, Francis Bacon 400 years ago hypothesized that “bowling is good for the stones, and hunting for the liver.” Then I taught him the double meaning of ‘get busy,’ and his wife, roused to curiosity by our laughter, asked in Chinese, “What’s the meaning, ‘get busy’?”
“It means you have a lot to do,” he said, raising his eyebrows at me, lighting a cigarette.
“Are you smoking again??” she said fiercely.
Saturday he brought me to his wife’s hometown, at the foot of some barren hills. After we drank tea in the spacious, clean house and I took a shit in the warehouse-sized bathroom with no door, we walked out across the fields toward the hills. Mr. Wang exclaimed, “I forgot my cigarettes! Wait for me here.” I waited on a bridge over a river as he asked a little boy in school-issue green sweats the way to a store. We reached the nearest hill and started to climb, Mr. Wang, smoker and non-exerciser, lifting his feet as ambitious as a mountain goat. When we stopped to rest he turned and saw a group of boys sitting at the bottom, watching us. They had followed us across the fields. He waved his arm once and the boys sprang to their feet immediately and started climbing, as if they had been puppies, or soldiers tuned to an officer’s slightest gesture.
I hung to Wang’s heels and finally we sat on the grassy ridgetop, which led, dipping and rising, barren like some Scottish peaks in my imagination, to the north. The boys were soon with us, and they leapt with vigor to everything: searching the trees for nuts, chasing the length of cassette tape they threw trailing through the air, setting afire the dry grass. Mr. Wang said, “You know I’m a teacher, don’t you? Don’t be burning the grass, what if it spreads to those trees? What does your teacher tell you?”
“To sit quietly. . .to value labor.”
“Well then,” said Mr. Wang, “Don’t burn the grass.” The boys obediently followed the letter of the law and simply set fire to their boxes of matches. One boy seemed to be the leader, in a striped red and white shirt, green sweatpants pulled high up his belly and knit blue undies hanging out the top. His head was shaved bristly and Mr. Wang rubbed it affectionately, and patted his belly. “Very good,” he said, “nice and fat.” He pulled up the boy’s shirt and poked his belly button and nipples. Wouldn’t that be considered child abuse in the US? The boy had a big grin and a foul tongue for such a little boy. Mr. Wang kept breaking out laughing at things he’d say. “tear your eggs,” and “fuck ass,” were how he translated them.
Mr. Wang stood behind Xiaofei and lifted him by his head; he looked like a rabbit grinning in pain. “This game is called, ‘pull up the carrot,’” said Mr. Wang. The boy sat next to him and played with the scanty wiry hairs on Mr. Wang’s white calf – his pant legs were pulled up. I pulled up my pant leg and beckoned the boy over, and he marveled at the dense hairs.
“What do you like to eat?” I asked him, resurrecting my Chinese from dormancy.
“Big chicken legs!” said he. I made a grab at his leg as he went by.
“Like this one?” I said.
He yelped, “Hey, that’s my leg, not a chicken’s!” For a while Mr. Wang encouraged the boys to stand on their heads, and do flips and cartwheels, which they did wholeheartedly, and Mr. Wang removed his sport jacket and flipped and stood on his head. I had to try too, raising my legs slowly into the air, blood rushing to my head, legs wavering, toppling on my back in the rough grass and pebbles. I also tried cartwheels, ridiculous attempts of flinging my legs about like noodles, the boys laughing. The boys cursed each other and Mr. Wang smiled affectionately.
“Rustic boys,” he said.
Coming down the slope, Xiaofei said to another boy, “I’ll cut a fart so stinky it’ll kill you!” I tried joking with him as Mr. Wang did, grabbing his hood from behind, making him protest, “I’m not a donkey!” or rubbing his bristly head, tugging his ears. He hung onto my shirt tied around my waist as we walked back through the village and suddenly the memory of Bobonaru, East Timor came back to me, and another group of boys, nimble as goats and also humorous, and a teacher. What reminded me of them was Xiaofei saying, “Your shirt’s tied around you like a skirt,” and that boy long years ago (in 1994), carrying my big boxer shorts spread across his shoulders, saying, “This is like a skirt!” I thought of the good teachers around the world.
The boys said good bye once and followed us “secretly” and finally bid us another farewell at the big green door of Wang’s in-law’s house.