“It is an angel,” Ruibao said softly and he pointed to the drawing of a beautiful foreign woman with long legs and a cloudy-looking dress.
“What?” Mark looked at the box and where Ruibao’s finger pointed and the picture on the box where he pointed.
The music was loud, a tape of recent Hong Kong pop songs alternating with syrupy, Liberace-style ballroom music and the Chinese kids loved it all and all had been especially screened by the college administration for this first ever, experimental Welcome Back to School Dance. Some electrically minded students had patched an enormous Korean boom box into the school’s ancient, Soviet surplus vacuum-tube amplifier to pump the music through a brace of large, trumpet-shaped speakers.
“It is an angel,” Ruibao repeated just as softly.
“What?” Mark asked again. “I can’t hear what he’s saying.”
“He said, ‘It is an angel,’” Karen supplied.
Ruibao smiled shyly.
“It looks like a ballerina to me.”
“It looks like a dancer, for sure. A human being dancer. Nothing supernatural about it at all.”
“How do you say ‘ballerina’ in Chinese?”
“Fuck if I know. ‘Dancing’ is tiaowu.”
Ruibao frowned. Couples scuffled around the cafeteria, a lot of girls dancing with a lot of other girls and a very few boys dancing with a very few other boys. Ruibao wanted so much to dance with one of these foreigners. It would be such an amazing story to tell everyone back in the dormitory after lights out. It was something he could embellish all semester and take home with him over New Year holidays and tell again and again to the village families.
“Umm…I think it is an angel,” he repeated. Ruibao couldn’t believe a disagreement had arisen, at least so quickly. “It is an angel.”
“No, no, no. Look at it,” Mark insisted and, grabbing the box out of the startled Ruibao’s hands, pointed to the picture on the box or, rather, thumped his big, fat, foreign finger against the picture. “It’s a ballerina, a dancer, see? Tiaowu. See how she’s standing on her toes, see the skirt here, the fancy skirt, the tutu? She’s a dancer. A ball-er-rina. Tiaowu.”
“Err…I think it is an angel for sure,” Ruibao repeated and his smile was enormous. Maybe the foreigner was asking him to dance. Ruibao had wanted to lead, but he’d take anything at this stage in their relationship.
“Drop it, man,” Karen said. “If he says it’s an angel, it’s an angel.”
“Whatever. It’s pretty much a non-issue. Angel or ballerina? Ballerina or angel? Maybe she’s a Russian hooker. Maybe this is Russian hooker candy. How do you say ‘Russian hooker candy’ in Chinese?” Mark said. “Should we go get one of our tapes? This music kind of sucks a lot.”
“I don’t think so, man,” said Karen. “No convulsive dancing.” And then she said it again in Chinese. “Bu fengkuangde tiaowu.”
“No convulsive dancing. That’s what they call anything other than ballroom. Anything sexy or chaotic is forbidden.”
“Sexy or chaotic?”
“Disco dancing. You know, free-style. Punk. Solid Gold. Soul Train. American Bandstand. Whatever. Anything that isn’t a waltz or a foxtrot is convulsive and they aren’t having it. At least not at school.”
“What are they going to do about it? Do they have some kind of dancing jail?”
“Probably. All these kids could end up doing hard time in some Convulsive Dancing Re-education Camp on the Mongolian border. But who knows what they’d do to us? They already think that we’re hopelessly corrupt.”
“I’m starting to feel hopelessly corrupt and we’ve only been here nine days,” Mark said. He absently held out the box of candy to Ruibao. “Here, take it. Here’s your candy. Here’s your ballerina candy.”
“Well, we are corrupt. And we’re decadent, too.”
“Damn right. And proud of it. I wanna hear me some Ramones.”
Ruibao backed away from the two foreigners who now seemed to be ignoring him, but his hands kept pushing the candy back at the one called Mark.
“No, no, no,” he said. “It is for you.”
“Huh?” Mark asked, adjusting his attention back to Ruibao.
“The candy is for you, man,” Karen snickered.
“This guy looked around a while. He looked at a lot of fellows. And then he saw you across the crowded dining hall. And he knew that you were the one for his candy. Please don’t break his heart.”
“Shut up,” Mark snapped. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Be sensitive to each other’s feelings? Cuddle? There’s no problem that can’t be solved by talking it out, man.”
“Asshole, I’m serious.”
“So is he.”
Ruibao still stood with the foreigners and he could understand every third or fifth word of the English they spoke but none of it held much meaning for him. The candy seemed to hover between them, neither fully received nor fully given, though still fully in the foreigner’s hands. It was an expensive box of candy, too.
“C’mon, man.” Mark reiterated. “Let’s get my Ramones tape. I wanna be sedated.”
In counterpoint, the sound system delivered a scratchy version of the Blue Danube waltz.
“I’m telling you,” Karen answered, “it’s way too early in the school year for us to be doing stuff like that. We need to figure out what’s going on and shit. We don’t even know what the rules are.”
“Are there any rules?”
“For them?” Karen swept his arm to include the entire dance floor. “Hell, yes, there are rules. For us? Who knows? The same rules? Who knows? I don’t wanna be deported.”
“Annoying little fuck.”
And there it stood while Jiao stood by in the dining hall semi-darkness, waiting for a break in the foreigners’ conversation while the scuffle of the dancing students’ shoes. The candy was a lost cause, but the dance was still a possibility. As with so many other things in this world, Jiao knew that perseverance through suffering was most often the only course of action that might result in success. Almost every other strategy led to disaster and more suffering. Jiao had seen it played out many times in his village. The crushing weight of state-imposed quotas that robbed the peasants of everything they’d grown, the Red Guard and their witch-hunting for anti-revolutionaries when only they knew what anti-revolutionary meant, the hopelessness of a life of ignorance and dirt. Jiao wanted to dance.
When the music changed to a Hong Kong pop song, a song about a young boy’s life on the street and his love for his grandfather, the candy box hit the floor and opened, a few paper cups of stale Chinese chocolate tumbling free. Jiao began to move.
“Hey, foreign man,” Jiao called. “Dance with me.”
He began to swing his arms and make them do the things he’d seen on the videotapes of Japanese rock stars. He kicked his legs up and out and back again. Jiao pushed his hips out lewdly. He jumped up and down, spinning in the air and landing with loud thumps.
“Check it out,” Mark said.
“Whoa,” Karen replied. “My man’s got rhythm.”
“My man’s got crazy.”
Jiao spontaneously reinvented the twist. He danced a new dance no one had ever seen before. He did the monkey. He did the fly. He walked the dog. He strutted and he pouted and he wiggled his ass. There was no limit to what he could do with his body and the music and the way they’d become intertwined.
The other students began to stop their dancing to stare at Jiao, some giggling and others just open-mouthed. And just as quickly, two uniformed school security guards came running across the hardwood floor and tackled him. Hard. Once on the floor, they smothered Jiao, punching and kicking him until all the dance moves had fled his body. Rising from the floor, they carried him between them, his toes dragging against the floor and drops of blood falling from his brow and his mouth. The guards kicked the outside door open and they were gone. The music continued though no one danced anymore or in any way.
“Shit,” Karen said.
“Really,” Mark answered. “I guess there are rules about dancing.”
“About convulsive dancing.”
“God, that seems extreme.”
“I wonder what’s going to happen to that kid.”
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t get your Ramones tape?”
“I am now. Think they would have done that to us?”
“Me. You. Whatever.”
“I imagine so. Or something like that.”
“Man. This is going to be a weird year.”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Let’s get out of here. At least we can listen to the Ramones in our room.”
“We can drink beer for sure.”
“Then let’s go do that. I’ve had it with dancing for one night.”
The two foreigners left the darkened dining hall. The Chinese students began to slip away in twos and threes and fours as well. The music continued to wash over the dining hall and the dwindling, shuffling crowd of students. As they left the building, some of the students stepped on scattered chocolates and, eventually, the box with a picture of an angel or a ballerina got kicked to the side.
***The music from the dining hall was a dull murmur as it passed through the brick wall at the back of the building.
“What is this crap?” Mark asked in the near perfect darkness. “What are we standing on?”
Karen bent down and sparked her lighter.
“Bones,” she answered. “We’re standing on bones. This must be kitchen.”
“Jesus. How many pigs is this? There’s like 50 skulls here.”
“I guess they don’t have dumpsters in China, the People’s Republic of.”
“If they did, someone would move in.”
“Move in and open up a noodle shop.”
“Move in, open a noodle shop, and sell inflatable Santa Clauses.”
“Move in, open a noodle shop, sell inflatable Santa Clauses, and fix bicycles.”
Karen’s lighter flared again, illuminating her face as she hit the pipe. She passed it to Mark and he drew in a lungful of hashish.
“Do you think the limbo is considered convulsive?” she asked in that funny way people talk without exhaling.
Mark blew out his chest full of pungent smoke.
“If they beat the crap about of Candy Boy for whatever it was he was doing, I’d imagine the limbo is on the list.”
“Well, that’s just stupid.”
“Do you even know how to ballroom dance?”
“I learned to foxtrot and waltz for my cousin’s wedding two years ago. I’m sure I could pull something together.”
“Do you want to try?”
“Sure,” Mark answered. But, instead of walking away, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled music.
“Wait a minute.”
“Listen. I think they’re playing the Ramones.”
Karen snorted her laughter through her nose.
“C’mon. Let’s dance convulsively.”
“It’s not the Ramones.”
“I know, I know. But, I still hear them.”
“I think it’s Phil Collins.”
So, the two of them danced convulsively in the pitch-blackness behind the dining hall kitchen with rotten pig bones crunching beneath their shoes.
Excerpted from Artificial Rats & Electric Cats: Communications from Transitional China, 1985 - 1986 (2008) available from www.camberpress.com.