Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Arc Moment

He pulls his goggles over his head, adjusting for maximum suction. Neck cranes right, suspending his head at an unnatural sleeping angle, then smoothly swings down and left then hangs. Rib cage puffs out  hungrily as shoulders roll back, gently guiding the tension, letting it ripple through the shoulder blades, muscles, lower back, and releasing it into the flowing water. His vision is tunneled through the grey tinted lenses, seeing only the wall on which his feet will push off, maximizing short bursts that will propel his tautly streamlined body effortlessly through the water, before he emerges once again, breathing in life greedily.

He is ready. He glances back briefly, to check that she is still working on her promised routine in the width of the pool, at the only section where she could touch the bottom with her pointed toes. He tugs on his goggles again and disappears under the water.

I throw out a few more pretentious strokes while bouncing on tip toes, edging my way back to the welcoming ladder. With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I hurry back to my novel about 14th century monks and the plague.

As I wiggle onto the dry wooden beach chair, still slightly warm from the morning sun, I notice that J has switched to the back stroke. Right. Left. Right. Left. His winter white torso glistens while his right arm stretches out, fingers tense and at attention. At the critical moment, right before he is poised to slice through the water, his hand flicks, barely perceptible, allowing his palm to curve and cup the surface.

An unexpected turn; a sudden grace. Beauty so subtle and so rare in his precision and control.

My breath got caught, just a little bit.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Third Time Lucky

J and I are complete opposites so we are constantly venturing out of our own reassuring comfort zones to meet the other more than half way.

I pulled him to the local Fruit Music Plaza for a mind-blowing night of KTV and dancing while he slowly warmed up his side to side shuffles with Katy Perry favorites. He, the high school swim team star, invited me, who frequented the handicap lap lane, to early morning swimming. I often joked about 5 languages of love as a gentle (or pouty) reminder that I needed my words of affirmation for the day, when he would rather take out my trash to show affection.  And when I casually interlinked my fingers with his in the Shanghai metro, he shifted uncomfortably and saved his "I don't believe in PDA" speech for the privacy of a dark cab.

While we grabbed Uighur food with our work friends the other day, in the middle of my 5 love languages conversation with a colleauge who was conteplating divorce, J cleared his throat. A little too loudly.

He held both hands out, palms down, and with a conspiratory smirk, he announced that he had a secret. In a smooth move, he put his hand on the back of my neck, and pulled me in for a kiss.

He missed.

The table went wild. Amid cries of "I knew it!" and "So you're not gay!?" J tried again.

And missed again.

Even my thick skin was not hiding the red that crept up my cheeks. So the third time, I tried to ignore the flashing cameras and the rolling videos that would probably be uploaded to the company QQ group, and held still.

J, the boy known for not dating in the Flagship program, hated hand holding in public, and avoided me when he first moved here because I was a girl, beat me at the PDA game.

Check mate.

Confession: I've never read the 5 Languages of Love

Friday, June 15, 2012

Super Size Moral

For an end-of-year party at school, Jody watched Super Size Me, a documentary of a guy who eats McDonald's every day for a long time, with detrimental health consequences.

Apparently, they even show the chicken nuggets production process, starting from clipping chickens onto the conveyor belt by their beaks, then culminating in a drop into the vengeful grinder and poofs of feather.

Her comment on the doc?

"Sisi, when I was watching Super Size Me, I was only thinking of one thing:

Chicken Nuggets. Mmm!

McDonald's every day? Lucky!!"

Seems like we need to accompany each scene with the correct moral in subtitles.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I remembered her because she refused my chocolate bar.

Jonathan and I were in the taxi line at the Suzhou train station, slowly shuffling along, while fanning off cigarette smoke that was being blown in our direction. She weaved through the crowd, slow enough to make sure that people saw her deformed hand and collected the occasional coin, but quick enough to dodge the verbal abuse or move past the indifference.

She stopped in front of me and asked me for a little something to help her. Once again, she raised her hand - gnarled, like chicken feet that has been cooked in curry stew for way too long - callously, as if it's a mere chip to leverage human emotions. I gave her some money. Then as she was about to turn away to move to the man in front of me, I asked her to wait. I fished out a bar of rich, creamy milk chocolate bar that I had been saving from Hong Kong, and offered it to her.

Her eyes darted around the crowd, seeming to look around for approval. She glanced back at me, with a shocking familiarity, and refused. She had a cold and couldn't eat chocolate; I should give it to the young man next to me instead.

Later, while sweeping my floor at home, I snapped my head back from the realization that I had seen that look before on a different girl. The same hard eyes. A whispered confession at the homeless shelter for children in front of the barred windows. A plan to track down the restaurant owner who made her pick up broken glass with her bare hands and make him swallow those cutting shards one by one.


Last week, after a sales pitch in Shanghai, I returned to the Suzhou train station, competing with the old ladies for an early spot in the taxi lines.

I noticed the bowl first, the few coins, and finally the written petition describing the accident that left her with the horrific mutilation on her hands.

Then I see her eyes. And her gnarled hand. But this time, instead of the smooth skin of a child, there were angry, vengeful burns.

All of a sudden, I tasted the bitterness of chocolate in my mouth and gagged.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When a gangster becomes a landlord

My friend's landlord already had two months of deposit (~ 5000 USD), but he was kicking my friend out of the house early and he wanted another 1500 USD to cover potential damages. The answer was no, so the landlord came and crashed our office. He smoked. He yelled. He threatened. 

We called the police.

Hour 1. Police station.

The landlord took a long puff at his cigar ("my own brand!") and scratched his beer belly. He wore a woolen version of a wife beater, a baseball hat, tinted pink glasses, and therapeutic shoes. He wagged a finger at me, "I came fully prepared!" as he poured himself a cup of tea from his thermos. His wife was clad in a purple leotard, mini skirt, and crocs. All dangerous signs that she intended to be comfortable for a long day.

They played good gangster, bad gangster. Or rather, mob boss and crazier right hand.

They claimed Canadian citizenship. The police spat and cursed them as "running dogs."

Hour 2.

The policeman questioned us individually while sipping his oolong tea. He nodded and drew a lot of diagrams. Finally, he sighed, leaned in, and told us that while he was sympathetic to our side, he could do nothing. The law was weak. The police were weaker. This was China.

He said it without frustration or indignation. It was simply a fact. He had probably said it many times to many different faces sitting across his table.

He then gave us tips on dragging this out with the landlord. He wanted us to stick it to them.

Hour 3.

The police told the landlord to settle with us peacefully. The landlady sat back, folded her arms, and told me that this was China. She would have their people stalk us 24 hours a day. Disrupt every meeting. Smoke in every room. Drag us to the police station every day. Until we pay.

The landlord then winked at me and whispered that he would probably be delegated the stalking duty. He asked me about our working hours and the company cafeteria food.

Hour 4.

In between negotiating terms, the landlady and the housing agent broke into another fight. After I calmed them down with a joke, the landlady suddenly turned to me.

"Do you know why I called you so often?"

"Because you didn't like calling the agent?"

"Well yes. But everytime I got so mad and wanted to yell at somebody, I called you, and then I felt so much better. Your voice is so gentle. You should switch jobs. How about going into counseling?"

She turned to the agent.

"You need to change your temper. This is why you're still not married. In fact, you should call Sisi more often. It's a great way to release stress."

While I was processing this dreaded compliment, I overheard the landlord telling my friend in the background that all this - the police  involvement, threats, extortion - was just business as usual and that he really liked him personally. He also offered to consult our company ("for small fee only!") on collecting defaulted micro-credit loans from factory workers. After all, he specialized in debt collection back on the streets of Hong Kong.

Hour 5.

I wrote out the new agreement, squeezing out as many pretentious "such as, but not limited to" and "Party A hereby agrees . . .," as a previous lawyer-wannabe would under duress.

We finally left the police station. I handed over the money. The landlady wanted my friend out by that night, otherwise he would incur another fine. So I called up all the boys I knew in the area and we packed and heaved and carried and shoved while the landlord worked on his third cigar.

Hour 6.

More of my friends piled into the house to help. The landlady kept thinking we were going to beat them up. So she had her cronies on alert, ready to come in and balance the numbers. She had security guards physically block the door and even turned off our electricity.

Hour 7.

The police was called in again. He came in, yelled a little bit, then paused to ask me if I had cried. He also asked the landlord whether he could take a tour around the big house. He even took off his hat reverently.

The landlord told me that I was silly for caring so much. He told my boss that I was a good worker and that I deserved a year-end bonus. He also offered to come and collect on my behalf if that bonus never materialized.

Hour 8. 

Last packing van pulled out. The landlady said she wanted to take me out to dinner. For once, I didn't feel guilty saying no.