A true story from China
|The Melon Man by Chris Goddard
I yanked open the flimsy wooden door that led out to my balcony, hoping that they had disappeared. But, of course, they hadn’t. From the corner of the balcony, the six of them stared back at me as if to say ‘So what are you going to do with us?’ I had absolutely no idea. No-one had faced this problem before. I was stuffed.
Feeling very foreign, I turned away and looked out at the early afternoon. The summer heat hung over the ancient walled city of Jingzhou, in central China, like the heaviest of blankets, slowing all underneath. It was June and I had been there for nearly a year but this was my first searing hot summer. I was in China through Voluntary Service Overseas on a two year contract to teach English to local teacher trainees. VSO send their recruits to those parts of the developing world that other agencies don’t and so I found myself in Jingzhou, Hubei Province. It was a sleepy old town, framed by a spectacular crumbling, two thousand year old wall with four ancient Chinese gates - the North, South, East and West Gates. The North, East and West led to the deepest, poorest Chinese countryside. The South Gate faced the banks of the mighty Yangtse River, the third longest river in the world, only a half a mile away. My small second floor flat sat in a block close to the South Wall on the campus of Jingzhou Teacher Training College.
Most days, I would venture out into the town on my bicycle, a ‘The Flying Pigeon’, famous in China for being the Rolls Royce of bikes. Sometimes it was to explore the tiny, winding back streets, to pedal through the teeming mass of cyclists, past people squatting on their haunches shovelling rice into their mouths at lightning speed from hand held bowls or just contemplating the world in front of them, bare-chested men with a single trouser leg rolled up above their knee playing cards or mahjong as loudly as they could, children happily playing badminton in the street or small crowds gathered to exchange stamps or show off their caged birds.
Sometimes it was to shop in the chaotic local street market full of every kind of animal, vegetable and fruit you could and couldn’t possibly imagine. I would slowly pedal my way past small squat bananas and shiny watermelons, whole pigs dangling from hooks in the sunshine, exciting the flies to the point of madness, bunches of chickens hanging upside down squawking their objections, red plastic bowls full of fish, frogs, eels, lizards, snakes and creatures which had clearly escaped the evolutionary forces of Darwinism. It was me, however, who was probably the strangest creature in the market. There were people there who would have paid three times the price of a decent turtle to take me home to announce excitedly to their families: ‘Look what I found in the market! A foreigner!’
I was the first foreigner that the college had hosted - indeed I had been told I was the first foreigner ever to set foot in the city, which had, up to then, been designated a ‘closed city’. I was always aware, and VSO had taken great pains to tell me, that I was, first and foremost, a ‘guest of China’. I was almost famous, certainly gossiped about in the local tea houses and everybody, from the mayor of the town to the lady at my local noodle stall, was anxious to show China and the communist system in the best possible light.
I would then meander back to the flat on my bike, through the campus gate, past the electricity generator building, which slept solidly, like everyone else, from 10pm to 6am, with a lunchtime siesta, around the utilitarian box buildings that were the teaching departments, the ubiquitous small piles of rubbish populated by clucking, pecking, scrawny chickens, the enormous student canteen where over a thousand slurping, chattering mouths sat at one sitting and the open-air washrooms, where, even in sub-zero winter, the students would wash their hair in freezing water without so much as a hint of complaint. After parking my bike amongst the others outside my block, I would slowly, sweatily climb the six flights of stairs to my flat, hoping that Mrs Yu, my nosey next door neighbour, wouldn’t come out to advise me on my personal development - I shouldn’t wear jeans on a hot day, I should eat more rice or I should go to bed earlier. And I would stumble into the flat, collapse in front of my solitary, grinding portable fan and wonder…..
So, on that June afternoon, I burst onto my balcony and glared at a pile of six watermelons, some fresh and shiny, some dull and wrinkled, all fat and green with red flesh inside, as big as boulders.
Two problems confronted me. The first was that I don’t like watermelons at all. Never have and never will. I put them on a par with celery and cucumber – I don’t like the taste and find them, well, pointless.
The second problem was that it was absolutely impossible to either throw or give them away.
Eleven days earlier and the sun was, as usual, pouring its heat on to all who lay below. It was 3pm, a Thursday and the town was stretching itself out of its lunchtime sleep. I was pottering around my flat doing a bit of washing up, a bit of mosquito-chasing, a bit of cockroach-checking and cursing my radio for again not providing the World Service.
A rat tat tat tat on the front door broke the cicada-filled silence. Praying that it wasn’t Mrs Yu, I opened the door to find a man filling the doorway with two baskets of plump watermelons attached to a pole balanced across his shoulders.
‘Gei ni xigua – qian zi! Take your water melons – sign here!’ he barked, thrusting a completely unintelligible form in my face. This was the first time I had seen anybody from the local market touting their business door-to-door. Very uncommunist, I thought.
‘Bu yong, xie xie. No thanks,’ I said, in my politest Chinese, ‘I don’t like water melons’.
‘Take them,’ he growled as he pushed past me and placed two rather impressive, I had to admit, 3lb melons on my kitchen floor.
‘Sign here,’ he repeated with a second shove of the form.
What was I to do? Tell him to bugger off and perhaps start ‘an incident with the foreigner’? Shout to Mrs Yu for help? God forbid, no, she would love that! Or….
‘How much are they?’ I asked. He looked at me as if I was from another planet, which, on reflection, he probably thought I was.
‘No money, sign here.’ His obvious frustration was accompanied by a final thrust of his form. We looked at each other across an unbridgeable cultural divide. There was only one thing I could do, so I grabbed a pen and squiggled a squiggle on his receipt. Then, in a flash, he was gone, leaving me with two large, unwelcome melons as the only tangible proof that the surreal encounter with the Melon Man had happened.
Suddenly, reality returned. I realised, with a start, I had about fifteen minutes before having to teach so I humped the melons onto the balcony, out of the way, a small problem to be solved later. I headed off to the classroom.
I forgot, surprisingly in retrospect, about the melon incident within a few hours. I didn’t return to the balcony again until….
A week later and it was another Thursday. It was again 3pm, dripping hot and the town was once more waking up after its siesta.
Rat tat tat tat the door exclaimed. The word ‘melons’ flashed through my mind.
A dutiful squiggle and there they were, on my kitchen floor.
‘Must remember to do something about these,’ I told myself, as I hurriedly dumped the new melons in the corner of the balcony with the others.
But now I was intrigued enough to ask my students if they could explain why a man was coming to my flat every week and giving me 6lbs of watermelons for free.
‘Teacher Chris,’ my class told me excitedly, ‘Our government gives all the citizens of the town free watermelons to keep us cool during the hot summer! How wonderful they are! How lucky we are! Does your government in England do this?’
Now I understood. I knew that everybody had free ‘rice tickets’, free ‘cooking oil tickets’ and even free ‘cinema tickets’ but now we all had Free Melons For The Citizens.
And it was becoming obvious that it was completely impossible for The Melon Man not to give me the melons. This was Government, this was Bureaucracy, this was More Than His Job Was Worth.
My melon problem was growing. The fruit were now rather political and represented, from the Chinese point of view, an example of the ‘benevolence and glorious, patriotic spirit’ of the Chinese government. And it was extremely important that the governmental concern for its citizens was seen and appreciated by all foreigners. In Jingzhou, though, all foreigners meant…er… me. The thought, then, that I could just dispose of my melons somewhere, throw them away willy-nilly, was fading fast. How disrespectful that would seem! How unpatriotic! After all, I was an honoured guest of China.
Then, three days later, another rat tat tat, another squiggle and two more melons were added to the collection. Now, suddenly, I was faced with the very real prospect of a growing pile of rotting, smelly fruit, with a complimentary horde of flies and other nasties. In fact, a quick inspection of the first consignment revealed that they were, to be sure, maturing rapidly. Action was needed.
‘Hello, Mrs Yu,’ I said to my next door neighbour as she opened her door. Mrs Yu, incidentally, liked nothing better than to eavesdrop outside my door and report any juicy titbits about ‘The Foreigner’ to anyone who would listen. ‘Hello,’ I said to her, ‘Would you like a couple of melons by any chance? Of course, I’m really grateful for the government giving us all melons to keep us cool during the hot summer. It’s fantastic! My government would never do this! But, as you know, I live here alone so I’ve been given rather too many melons and would like to share them with you and your family.’
‘Thank you,’ she said as her eyes made the quickest of sweeps up and down my body to check out my shoes, trousers, t-shirt, the state of my finger nails and anything else that might be of importance, ‘Yes, our government is wonderful! How lucky we are! But we have enough melons for us. Try Teacher Zhang. He really likes melons.’
So to Teacher Zhang. No luck. And Teacher Zao. And Teacher Wang, Vice Secretary Hu, Dean Ting, Party Secretary Cao, Vice Dean Zhi…….. And they all spoke as one: ‘How lucky we all are! But I have enough melons for me. Try Teacher X, Y or Z. He really likes melons.’ Teachers X,Y and Z had no need for melons either.
What was I to do with my growing store? I couldn’t give them away to anybody. I could have perhaps thrown them on the little campus rubbish dumps but that would have been risky in the daylight even during the deserted lunchtime siesta. What if somebody saw me? What if, horror of horrors, Mrs Yu saw me? I could imagine; ‘Ungrateful foreigner, wasteful westerner, selfish citizen!’ I could have done it, I suppose, in the middle of the night but ‘they’ still might have known, the next day, whose melons they were.
But I really had to ditch them somewhere, somehow and soon.
However, as I stared out from the balcony with the six green mounds to my side, the where and the how evaded my poor, heat-addled imagination. I was trapped by my melons, by prying, gossiping eyes, by potential misunderstandings, by embarrassment and guilt. Or perhaps I was going mad? Was this all a figment of my imagination? I had absolutely no way of telling, no points of reference at all.
Then it hit me – an energizing rush of an idea that made me jump out of my sweaty lethargy.
That same evening I dug out my old rucksack, gathered together some old plastic bags, set my alarm for 3 am, flopped on to my bed in front of the rickety old fan and tried to sleep.
The alarm wasn’t necessary. At 2.30 am, I was still wide awake and could wait no longer.
First the older,rather sticky, melons went into the plastic bags. I stuffed these into the rucksack leaving enough room for one of the newer melons. Only three of the fresh melons remained loose. Things were looking good. I glanced out of the balcony to see a beautiful full moon lighting up everything beneath. My nerves tightened.
It was time. With the rucksack on my back and one melon under my left arm, I put my ear to the front door. Silence. Slowly I opened it, as the image of Mrs Yu, in her nightdress, wok in hand, standing outside ready to bash me for being a counter revolutionary, danced in my mind. Nobody there. Very carefully, I tiptoed down the unlit stairs, heart pounding, a Foreigner in China. Down three flights, and the next, the next and finally the last to the ground floor. Leaving the rucksack and melon, I took a deep breath and went back up for the two remaining fruit. The darkness was loud and hot as I came out of my flat for the second time. The door clunked shut far too loudly. I held my breath and….nothing. I crept down the stairs again, down through the blackness with the two melons under my arms back to the front door of the block.
I peered cautiously out into the moonlight, as furtive as a burglar with his bag of swag, and, as quietly as I could, pulled out my bicycle from the fifty or so other bikes parked there.
I heaved the rucksack onto my back, balanced one of the melons in the bicycle’s front basket, the other on the back luggage rack and somehow, shakily, mounted the bike with the last fruit lodged under my left arm. So far so good, I thought, as I set off. My trusted Flying Pigeon, six melons and I wobbled towards our melon destiny in the depths of the Chinese night. ‘Yes,’ I whispered to myself, ‘madness has definitely descended.’
The gleaming moonlight and hot, heavy silence brought a strange new perspective to the familiar campus. I pedalled past the students’ wash rooms and the shuttered up canteen. Becoming more confident and balanced, I rode past the silent English department, the little piles of rubbish now devoid of chickens and around the sleeping generator to the gate of the campus and…..out into the town. There was no-one around. China was sleeping. The hibernating street markets, the folded up mahjong tables, the sleeping birds in their cages, and the absent badminton players slipped silently past me as the silhouette of the South Gate emerged from the night.
Then, out of the shadows, two figures appeared, squatting by the side of the road, chewing long sticks of sugar cane. Two peasant farmers, sinewy and ragged, who, like all of us, had to be somewhere at 3 am.
‘Hello!’ I said cheerfully, as if this was the most normal of situations. No reply was their answer but I could have sworn that fibres of sugar cane dropped out of their open mouths when they saw this foreigner, the first foreigner they had ever seen, with his big nose, yellow hair and fish eyes, riding a bike overloaded with water melons through the South Gate and, to top it all, at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Onwards out of the town, I pedalled along the straight, narrow road heading south, chuckling as I savoured the thought of what the two men would tell their families the next day. Five more bumpy minutes and I arrived.
The immense, powerful Yangtse River was alive and flowing in front of me, the moonlight creating a kaleidoscope of intricate grey textures on its surface. With a glorious, Olympian heave, I shot-putted the first melon Yangtsewards and, joy upon joy, it flew from my hands in a perfect arc and disappeared into the water with a deep and gratifying ‘melon into water’ plop-splash. The fruit in the bags I jettisoned onto a convenient small pile of rubbish on the river bank and then returned to the glorious counter-revolutionary task of hurling the other melons into the swirling mysterious currents of the third longest river in the world, each throw as satisfying as the first.
After a contemplative cigarette under the Yangtse moonlight, I was ready to return. Back up the road to the town, through the gate, exclaiming to the two shocked peasants ‘No melons now!’ as I rode gleefully past them. Relief cut a wide smile on my face as my Flying Pigeon, lightened of its fruity load, flew along the road back to the campus. Bike parked and stairs climbed, I passed Mrs Yu’s door. I was tempted to knock and say ‘Hello, Mrs Yu, all fine on the western front, thanks!’ I didn’t, of course, but just the thought was enough to keep the chuckle in my heart.
Confident that I hadn’t been spotted, that I’d actually done it, I closed the door with a satisfying clunk, sank onto the bed and closed my eyes. The Chinese night gently wrapped its silence around me as, slowly, some kind of sanity returned.
But, tellingly perhaps, I never saw The Melon Man again.