not finished yet. Travel guide in China deals with troubled past.
|"I'm telling you Mr. Ryan, this is not beef."
Mrs. Rickett said this like it was my fault, as if I cooked the noodle soup and inserted the faux beef myself. As she spoke, she jabbed a wrinkled digit into the floating mass of mystery meat. It didn't really look like beef to me either. It was too pink, and had the consistency of spam. I was pretty sure it wasn't dog. Dog meat is so oily you can spot it from a mile away, and, honestly, it's a lot harder to find in China than most people think. In the year that I spent working for the agency, I only came across it twice. I think the meat in Mrs. Rickett's noodle soup was spam, or some kind of other solidified meat paste.
The street we were on was loud with the clashing pans of the food stalls and the shuffling of the crowd. Concrete structures loomed, and you could feel the weight of them pressing on you. From their sides protruded wires, neon signs, and thousands of external AC units, which sent down an occasional drip of water coolant onto our heads, a common phenomena colloquially known as the "Hong Kong Drip." Further up the street, a few construction workers shouted at each other in Cantonese, while other workers nimbly climbed up the bamboo scaffolding that encircled a half finished high-rise. We were in the middle of Mong Kok, Kowloon-side, just a kilometer away from the harbor.
"Look," I said, "you can order another bowl, maybe vegetarian this time, toss that one and get something at the airport, or just eat it as is. Unfortunately, we have a plane to catch to Chengdu in less than three hours, and you need to decide quick or get left."
This wasn't my typical supplicating, "how may I be of service" tone, and I could see that I had ruffled the old bat's feathers by the way she puckered her tiny lips.
"Well let me tell you, Mister Ryan," she said, her voice dripping with indignation. She then launched into a full out self-righteous rant about common decency, my duties as a tour guide, and how I wouldn't be tipped. Quite frankly, I didn't give a shit, and I made no attempt to hide that fact. Already, earlier that day, I had to clean up the sick of two victims of food poisoning, help Mr. Crawford find his lost glasses and wallet, and get a new set of clothes for one elderly woman who soiled herself by accident after repeatedly refusing to use the squatter toilets at the restaurant. Yet, to add to all my troubles, Mrs. Rickett insisted on trying a local street stall, and insisted on choosing which one. As far as I was concerned, if she didn't like the results, that was her fault and no one else's.
As I watched her fume on, I thought about how my life was so different than I imagined it would be. I thought about how I used to be an ordinary high school English teacher, back in LA, when Amy and I still lived together. I remembered how Amy wouldn't marry me because she didn't want my last name, Ryan. I think she thought it was too boring compared to her surname, Winthrobe. It makes me smile, remembering that.
"I don't want that sanctimonious bullshit," Amy had said. "I mean really, what's the point of freaking out over a dress, spending half our life's savings on one day, and then participating a phallogocentric defloration of the bride's maiden name? Huh? That's some patriarchal capitalist bullshit if you ask me." I loved how she was only a feminist when it suited her, and how I'd still catch shit if I didn't open the car door for her. She could pull off hypocrisy in a wonderfully cute sort of way.
Homesickness can be more than a dull ache sometimes. It can come at you violent, like a panic attack or asphyxiation. This happens more often when you know that you can never truly go back.
We ended up making the flight to Chengdu, but just barely. If anyone of the 23 members of my group had a problem with their visa, which was a frequent occurrence among Chinese visas at that time, we would have missed the flight for sure, but luck was with us, and any travel guide can tell you that's the most important thing to have.
Once out of the airport, we got onto a large air conditioned bus provided for us by the agency. Soon we were driving into the city. As we wove and jerked through the heavy traffic, I began to speak through a microphone. Twenty-three pairs of eyes looked at me as I began, one of which were the smoldering hateful embers that belonged to Mrs. Rickett.
I decided to start with a joke, to put us in a good mood.
"They have a common saying here in China," I said. "There are only three essential things you need in order to drive a car here. Good sense, good brakes, and a good horn." Some of the tourists looked out of the windows at the traffic, where dozens of Chinese drivers blared their horns as they zipped by. A few of them chuckled, Mrs. Patterson had riotous laugh until she looked around and saw no one else was doing so. I swear I saw Dr. Spoon fall asleep at the exact moment I delivered the punch line. It wasn't a very good joke. I moved on.
"With a population of approximately seven million within its nine districts, Chengdu is considered to be the eighth largest city in China. However, a recent report by the China Daily, named it the 4th most-livable city in the nation. In fact, the area in which this city was built was commonly referred to in ancient times as the 'Country of Heaven.'"
A meaty hand shot up into the air. Jason. It had to be Jason. I don't remember his confusing last name, but I remember the Texan well. Though a short man, he was big in the chest, and had a resounding baritone. He also belonged to a class of tourist that no tour group did without, the pedantic guide book thumper. I must admit, however, that he did it with his own particular style.
"Actually, Mr. Ryan, buddy," he said with a thick Texas twang, "says right here in this guide book that 'Country o' Heaven' is a common mistranslation. Thang is, recent linguists say the closer meanin' is more alike to 'Land of Fertility' or some such."
That word caught me off guard. At the mention of it, memories began to boil away beneath the surface. I felt that my head was going to explode with them, but I was able to keep the agitation buried, away from my expression.
"Thank you, Jason" I said, as dryly as I could. "I did not know that."
Jason gave an honest smile. "My pleasure, buddy. As my Uncle Willis used to say, the benefits of knowledge are the only currency that multiplies when you share it. By and large, Willis was dumb as a post, but I still believe no truer words e'er been spoken. Smart things sometimes come out of dumb people I guess."
"Indeed," I said, letting only the faintest trickle of irony seep into my voice. During his rambling, I had mastered myself once more. The memories were ebbing away. We continued on with the tour, no one the wiser.
That night, sleeping on the hard hotel bed, I dreamed, or remembered, or both. Call it what you like.
"The thing to remember," said the nurse in a candy sweet voice, "is that stillbirth days are exactly that. They are still birthdays." She was a fat nurse, with swollen sagging breasts and wide, childbearing hips. She probably had multiple successful pregnancies. I tried not to resent her for this.
As she spoke, I looked everywhere around the room except at the other couples. I did not want to meet their searching gazes and see myself reflected in them. Amy just stared off into space, her hands folded and resting on the slight hump of her belly. There was an unspoken gap between us, growing larger by the day. I looked at the walls. They were all painted bright colors. A picture of sunflowers was on one wall, and a picture of a cake with one candle on it was on another. The candle was numbered zero.
"It's important to remember, everyone," continued the nurse, "that a pregnancy is not just about having children. It's a bonding experience between husband and wife. As a woman comes to the end of her term, she swells with not only the baby, but also with all the hopes and fears of the parents. We must honor the memory of this part of the pregnancy, the bond, the baby, and our losses, so that we can bereave, heal, and later grow from our tribulations."
At the end of this speech, Amy looked at me for the first time. "One week" she said. That's when the doctors predicted it would happen.
Her face began to blur, as faces tend to do in dreams. Soon her brow formed wrinkles, her cheeks narrowed, and I was looking at Mrs. Rickett. She still had Amy's pregnant body though.
"It's not beef," Mrs. Rickett said.
"I know," I replied, as if this was an ordinary turn in the conversation.
"It's your fault, Mister Ryan."
"I know," I said.
I woke up, sweating through the sheets, and did not go back to sleep.
In the morning we went to a local dim sum place for breakfast, which was well received by the group.
[still working on it]