Edition 21: Stairwell by Ron Riekki
For a Westerner, the culture of China can be hard to fully appreciate. To become immersed in it, you must do more than just watch. Ron Riekki brings us a dash of fantasy from the misunderstandings of a Westerner in urban Shanghai. SY
I sat watching the girls walk by. This was my second week in Shanghai, my first time in Asia. The girls looked like they were heading to funerals. Their expressions, their clothing, their entire demeanor screamed death to me. In Montréal, where I had come from, there was an equal affinity for black, but the vibe was catwalk. Montréal was runway; Shanghai felt like runaway.
Maybe it was simply because I didn’t understand the culture. I was thoroughly Canadian. I grew up in Sudbury, which got me used to air pollution, the way that the sky can look like artistic renditions of lung cancer, beautiful gray carcinoma mornings.
The boss told me to get out of the office. He said my hyperactivity would scare the clients. That I didn’t know how to shut up. The Chinese like silence. First person to talk loses. He told me to roam the streets.
A Chinese coworker warned me of “the three hands.”
“The three hands? What’s that?”
He put his hand in my pocket, took it away.
I was dumbfounded.
I went back, asked my boss what it meant. My boss was German-Japanese. He was perfectly fluent in Mandarin, but the hint of his Japanese background put him at a loss with the clients. Due to atrocities of war, many Chinese hate the Japanese. It’s a subtle subtext. Sometimes not subtle.
I asked the boss what three hands meant. He told me to get out of his office or I’d be fired. The makeup company was due to arrive. All female clients. All Chinese. They would hate a jabber-mouth male American. I was being paid to get lost.
On the very last step of the stairwell, my boss yelled from a window, “Pickpockets!”
Shanghai swallowed me.
The city is hungry for foreigners. Starved from its days of isolationism.
China is schizophrenic with need for other cultures. The Beijing government has bans on foreign words in the media; CCTV news anchors are fined for saying iPhone or NBA. Comically, CCTV uses the alphabet and not Chinese characters. It’s a culture of contradictions and the streets show it.
I headed for the temple, the center point of my Shanghai orientation. Co-workers told me the temple has the power of feng shui, and that I should go there as often as possible. Never been inside; I don’t have the money to do that. I merely walk by and watch the circus outside. The strange show of multiple-amputee beggars, and monks walking with basketballs, and people standing in a line that never seems to move. I touch my hand on the temple the way that a child walks with her hand touching a fence.
Prostitution massage parlors and Indonesian restaurants fill nearby streets. A dentist is in an alley doing work on someone’s teeth, the way you would go to a back street mechanic; his tools look like they haven’t been cleaned since the beginning of the Xia dynasty.
I could go back to my apartment, but during the day the old man in the apartment next to mine smokes constantly. During work hours, it’s not a problem, but on the weekends I have to wander the streets until the evening, when I can breathe again.
I’m used to this now; the feeling of homelessness, directionless.
The craving to live in China came with a fantasy of meditation and acupuncture. I thought I would turn into a ganjin, a life of worship and revelation. For a city of over twenty million people, I was amazed at the boredom.
From the moving crowd, a woman approached. She took my arm.
She was skeletal, looking like she’d just gotten out of her deathbed. The makeup caked on her bones. Her intensity I unwisely allowed myself to feel. I gave way to her pull as she led me down an alley. It felt very Epcot, something so Disney façade about it—the hanging laundry, the background actors in windows making two-second cameos.
She took me into a garage.
There was a car the color of ice, without any wheels. I wondered if I was going to my own murder. I didn’t mind.
At the back of the garage, she pressed a button. Elevator doors opened. She pulled me in. Her neck, her face, resembled a chimney. The soot of her hair. Her excitement rose when she realized I’d actually follow her inside.
The doors closed. She looked at my feet, up at my head, and then at my feet again. She said something in Chinese, put her hand in the air to show how impressed she was with my height.
I wondered if she was going to sell me.
I wondered if she was attracted to me.
I wondered if this was her job.
The doors opened. We were on the fourth floor. The inside of the building was a maze. A restaurant to the left with a plate of what looked like deep-fried honeybees. She took me to the right, by a row of pool tables problematically placed too close to each other. To play a game, you’d have to wrestle for space. We walked by a room filled with women, just standing there, waiting, dressed in something similar to airline stewardess uniforms with mini-skirts. They waved to me, all of them. I waved back.
She took me down a hall. Or not down. There was only straight. Everything so flat and cramped together. China is not a place for the claustrophobic. Claustro- doesn’t come from closet. It comes from locking, or bolting. The feeling that someone has a key and they have you trapped in a space. You need the key.
She had the key.
We got to a room filled with rooms. All black. The light bulbs gave it a prison feel, poverty to the air. The entire walk, everyone knew I was her possession. The authority with which she led me, the safety of that. She opened a door and pushed me inside and the door closed. I was alone. The safety was gone.
Two men sat immobile. One Chinese, one Japanese. The difference in their ethnicity was apparent now, the distinctions clear. They were barely dressed, staring at each other.
The door opened. The woman walked in. She had a girl with her, about fifteen, completely obedient, fear in her face, eyes to the ground, lipstick painted on her like blood. She leaned into me and there was a sensual shock to my system that I was completely uncomfortable with.
She whispered in broken English that the two men were involved in a staring match.
“And?” I said.
She kept her eyes to the ground.
“Why am I here?” I said.
“Watch,” she said.
I looked at the woman who led me here. She looked incredibly pleased that I had made the journey, that I would witness what was in front of me.
The two men stared, deep into each other’s eyes.
“Do you have any questions?” the girl whispered.
“Thousands,” I whispered back.
“We should not talk much,” she said.
“Why do they do this?” I asked.
She lowered her head down further. I couldn’t see her eyes.
The men’s ribs poked through their chests, faces devoid of fat.
“How long?” I whispered.
“Years,” she said.
She looked away. The woman motioned for us to stop talking, for us to watch.
I noticed they weren’t staring directly at each other. I tried to measure their exact place of eyesight, but there wasn’t an exact point being fixated on.
“How do you win?” I whispered.
“Win?” she whispered back.
The woman took the girl by the arm and led her out. The door closed, but I didn’t hear it. I looked back and they were gone.
The smell was of faint urine, a gentle bamboo incense, skin, something like vinegar or flowers, opiate-like.
The lack of sound alarmed me. The pool tables, the girls, the restaurant, the honeybees—none could be heard.
I stared at the men staring. Beauty was in the act of living. With the fear, the danger, the insanity, the religion, the godliness and the godlessness of it. I found myself unable to look away. I sat, as they sat; a third. I looked in the center of us, where we would meet in the middle of the newly formed triangle.
Part of me sensed that their eyes shifted as well, took on this new spot, this nothingness between us.
And for the first time, I could see it. Nothing. So clearly visible. I could see the air, the argon, the dust, the molecules, the nuclei. My body locked. Time faded. I could sense my bones changing; shadows that would come into the room, whisper, and leave. I could sense a fourth person added, years later; perhaps a fifth. Someone fed me. Someone cleaned me: brief, tender, the clothing sliced off. A beard.
Until, eventually, no one.
There was only breath. And nothing.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P.: a novel, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book, Wayne State University Press), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (May 2015, Michigan State University Press). You can follow him on twitter at @RonRiekki.