14 April 2009

The Memory Of Peaches In Post-Maoist Revolutionary China

It was Professor Chou again, this time and again, and again he was perched in every sense of the word, actually "perching" on the edge of our "shofa" and again he had another ream of forms and instructions for filling out forms spread across the coconut-fiber chest we used for a "ka-fei" table.

"Whatever you can do...," Professor Chou again said again. "It doesn't matter...anything...whatever...you can do..."

These particular forms were from a Swiss industrial firm that had somehow enmeshed itself in a joint-venture enterprise sponsoring geological research aimed at expanding the utilization of natural resources along China's western frontier. These particular forms were applications to a two-year executive training program, intensive language workshops and international business and management classes on the shores of Lake Geneva. I wondered where Chou got forms like this.

Professor Chou was in the Political Theory Department. His degree, apparently, was in Revolutionary Agronomy, whatever that might have been. His danwei , on the other hand, was based on his wife's employment in the Physical Education Department as a swimming instructor. However again, she actually worked and got her meal tickets and ration cards at the Foreign Language Institute across the road that connected the Number Four Road with the Number Nine Road since our school, Shaanxi Normal University, had no swimming pool and the Foreign Language Institute had a swimming pool (though, not surprisingly, the pool at the Institute was empty). On the third hand and because of shifting political winds, the Chou's assigned housing unit was actually part of the service staff and they lived among the cooks and groundskeepers who maintained the campus, faculty, and students. The Chou's was not an unheard of situation.

Lao Chou had joined the Red Guard when he was eleven years old, over 20 years ago. As a matter of fact, his initiation into the beautiful movement had involved the torching of his own school's Principal's family's collection of counter-revolutionary, priceless scrolls and prints. His current dependence on academia, especially the arcane academia created by the flourishing of decadent Western academic models and academic organizations, struck even Chou as ironic, considering how warm he remembered the flames from his ancient teacher's ancient library to have been. If Chou had been able to read well, he most certainly would have moved his lips. As it stood now, then, in 1985, Chou was most anxious to really put his university degree to use before it became a hindrance.

"What exactly is it you would like me to say here?" I asked him and his tea-cup had been empty for a good five minutes and there was no way I was going to move to refill it and we both knew what that meant, that it meant that I didn't want him to be there anymore and we both knew he was ignoring good manners and we both knew why. It was pathetic.

"The good things...errrr...," Chou said, the big smile spread across his face and his eyes out the window, on the desk-top's clutter, on the rug, and anywhere but at me. "The things that will make the Swedes accept me."

"They're Swiss," I told him again.

"They are," he replied and for several long and steadily getting longer minutes, he and I sat there, Professor Chou and I, and listened to the rattle of autumn leaves, big ones, hit the concrete as they fell from the maple trees that had been donated to the university years before by a Canadian delegation.

I still had my official student papers to look at, to mark upon, for tomorrow's classes and I also had a lesson to prepare for the following evening, for the "homen" night school inside the city walls where we moonlighted for wads, for fistfuls, for month's and month's wages of renmenbi .

I was going to be late meeting my wife and the African students at the College of Highway Knowledge dining hall for a Muslim dinner and bike ride into the city to watch the monkey opera in front of the State Department Store. They would wait, probably, until I arrived but the monkey opera guy had a strict schedule and would be gone eating snacks with his buddies at stalls set up under carbide lanterns, would be letting his monkey have sips from the tall green bottle of counterfeit, homemade, bootleg Xian Beer by 8:30 p.m.

Professor Chou had spent the 60s and 70s traveling the length and breadth of the People's Republic of China for free. Any train anywhere at any time was obligated to provide transportation to members of the beloved Red Guard; every restaurant, every home, every communal kitchen and warehouse was obligated to feed and clothe the vanguard of the beloved Chairman's thought.

Lao Chou's first sex had been one clear Mongolian night with a savage girl, a girl raised among the great herds of horses and shaggy two-humped camels, who'd braided red yarn into her hair and smelled of butter. They'd invaded the second-class cars of a westbound train and ridden for a week straight all the way from Nanjing and then they'd climbed aboard trucks, singing revolutionary songs, until they saw yurts and they'd jumped from the trucks to stand for a moment blinking in the middle of the great Steppe, alone together and come to bring the Great Helmsman's genius to the people who roamed there, tidal like the animals they tended.

I would not speak no matter how awkward this silence became. Whoever spoke first during this strange contest would lose. If I, no longer able to stand the tension building between us or the relentless and unbearable pressure generated by the steel will of Chou, cracked up and uttered human speech, I would be expected to neatly and carefully type up his application forms, his visa forms, his resume, his cover letter, and a letter of recommendation. If, however, I was able to withstand Chou's onslaught of manners, custom, "guanxi" , it would be unlikely that he would be spending any time in Zurich for a two-year training program.

We could both hear the early students, in pairs and in small groups and never under any circumstances alone, begin to leave the dormitories for the dining hall. The air began to glow as the slanting sunlight illuminated the dust and coal smoke hanging. I crossed my legs.

"I suppose you like peaches," Professor Lao said though he was looking at the quilt on our bed.

For a heartbeat, I thought he was referring to our housemaid, the country girl we'd nicknamed "Peaches" and who slept on a mat in the linen closet.

"I think maybe just about everyone likes peaches," the professor continued. "It's a pop'lar fruit."

It took another heartbeat for me to translate "pop'lar" into "popular." I was also inwardly ecstatic for having defeated my enemy.

"This time of year, errr...," Chou was practically babbling, pathetic. "This time of year...errrr...those peaches are ver' good. A lot of peoples are eating those peaches."

"Oh, yeah," I answered and I was struggling not to laugh, to jump on the coconut-fiber chest and dance across his sheets of blank spaces, to make up a victory aria and sing it, loudly. "Oh, yeah. Peaches are a hell of a fruit."

Lao Chou began to gather his paperwork and stuff it back into the baby-blue vinyl book-bag he used as a briefcase. It was the kind of "briefcase" a lot of the faculty acquired from the campus police lost and found department.

He stood up. I stood up and opened the door. Chou paused in the hallway, the book-bag against his stomach and the oily dandruff on his shoulders.

"Maybe...errr...I would please bring some of those good peaches," he almost whispered, eyes almost closed and looking down the hallway at the bicycles on the landing under the stairs and the refrigerator and the gas-ring.

"Thank you but please don't trouble yourself," I replied, my hand quite firmly on the doorknob.

Chou remained.

"My cousin's husband in the south has those kinds of trees," he said and I could barely hear him. "Maybe those fruits are ripen."

I looked thoughtful but I sure wasn't going to say anything and start things up all over again.

"Maybe they're ripen a long time ago."

We stood like that for a while and I suppose he was thinking about peaches because I was, strangely enough, thinking about Sweden.

"Okay," Chou finally said and in a normal voice. "Err...good bye." And he shook my hand and he waved at me standing there eighteen inches away before he turned away and walked away down the hall, the metal taps on his shoes snapping on the concrete floor.

From Artificial Rats & Electric Cats published by Camber Press, New York. (Click on the cover image for more information.)

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