01 July 2009

Cold White Fungus In Heavy Syrup

Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, the People’s Republic of China, February, 1986

It had a name, a real name, a name like Pearl Music Garden or Fragrant Gardens, but the foreign students had begun calling it The Hey! What’s Happening? Some of our Chinese friends picked it up and the name spread until it soon seemed as if Xi’an’s entire demimonde called it that although we never knew what the owners thought about that nickname or if it was good or bad for business.

“Where do you want to go tonight?” a foreign student might ask.

“Let’s go to the Hey! What’s Happening?” another might answer

“Again? We went there last night.”

“Peace Café?”

“We went there two nights ago.”

“How about we just hang out at Jiaoze Hut with Madame Liu?”

Jiaoze Hut is a little hard to explain. I was visiting the city one afternoon with my new Chinese friend, Mr. Zhang, and we stopped to have a snack at a brand-new roadside snack shack that had a brand-new sign saying something like Six Felicitous Portents but also had a stencil of a happy, fat, Italian chef with a thin twirly mustache. The name Jiaoze Hut seemed almost mandatory with graphics like that. Jiaoze Hut was wobbly wooden stools and a dirt floor inside and wobbly wooden stools outside in the dirt proper and all under the diamond glare of carbide lamps. Half the ownership of the restaurant, the half that cooked, came outside to take our order, the first order, the first order of hundreds. She was a peaceful-faced woman whom the boy foreign students began calling Madame Liu. Her name really was Liu but calling her Lao Liu, i.e. Old Liu, just wouldn’t do); the girls ended up calling her Momma Liu or just Mom and we all called her the Madonna of Noodles in private) and she was wore a white apron and a white cotton cloth that tied around her head. She looked like Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa.

Ni ye tongzhi yau shemma?” she asked Mr. Zhang. “What do you and your comrade want?”

Mr. Zhang ordered a half-kilo of jiaoze for us to split and a big green bottle of Fish Hill Beer, two glasses. “None of that horrible Xi’an beer that is always…um…err…fake…um…err…very bad.”

But he waited until Madame Liu turned her back and gone to turn his front toward me and stare saucer-eyed.

“Did you hear what she called you?”

“HUH?” I answered as a truck bounced through our section of potholes.

“Did you hear what she called you? She called you tongzhi. She called you 'comrade.'”

I stayed blank for a second until I could grasp what it meant when a middle-aged Chinese woman called a foreigner, any foreigner, “comrade.” People around here called each other “comrade,” they called anyone in a Mao suit comrade, and they might even refer to their animals as “Comrade Horse” or “Comrade Chicken” but they never ever called foreign student dead demon ghosts “comrade.”

We ate at Jiaoze Hut an awful lot, hung out there for hours playing drinking games with chopsticks with whoever happened to wander in. And then we learned that Madame Liu and her partner, ecstatically skinny Mr. Yue, the chopper and lifter and holder of flashlights when someone needed to piss outside in the pitch-black backyard, had gotten the license to run the Hut for one year only and then, when the year was up, they had to return to their respective work assignments of dormitory maid and truck mechanic. Neither was thrilled to think about going back to work like that and the Hut was making money hand-over-fist from the quality products at reasonable prices, the dozen foreign students who became regulars, and the old regulars, other middle-aged Chinese people who smiled and nodded at us over their steaming bowls of jiaoze. Nevertheless, there was nothing anyone could do and when, without a “going out of business” sign or a melancholy party or a final piss-off, the Hut closed, many of us cried to think of returning to the Peace Café or the Hey! What’s Happening?

But whatever it was called and whoever called it that, the Hey! What’s Happening? was just another low-rent gangster hangout for low-rent, shifting economy gangster pups playing the first act of their version of Scarface or King of New York or Iron Monkey Beats All, the part of the movie where the rising young gangster enjoys nightlife, the drugs, and the chicks. It’s an old story.

Still, even old stories have twists, and, in this one, I’m eating or trying to eat a bowl of cold white fungus soup that some new gangster-type or wannabe friend has purchased for me to enjoy at his expense and, therefore, perhaps, owe him a favor except this girl keeps banging into the table, this chubby Chinese girl who is chubby when Chinese-chubby-anything is still pretty rare considering the recent famines and troubles and food rationing and whatnot. She’s banging into my table because she is dancing convulsively, her sweater riding up over the roll of her belly fat, and, most remarkably, a necklace made entirely of Smurf key chains. Dozens of the adorable and adored Danish cartoon characters dangled from her neck and gnashed and clashed with each lurch or rumble she made in the name of rhythm.

Oh, yeah. She was also crying, sobbing hysterically as she danced for, at the or against the table. My new gangster wannabe friend ignored her so I did, too.

The soup was terrible. On top of being cold and made from white fungus, it was diabetes-inducing sweet, with a heavy lashing of industrial-strength high-fructose corn syrup on top of the reconstituted mushrooms. I couldn’t swallow a second mouthful.

“How is the soup?” he asked me, each word punctuated by a jostle to the table that set my the semi-solid gel in my bowl rippling to the beat of whatever Hong Kong pop music was rippling out of the sound system.

“It’s terrible,” I answered in that way one talks when the terrible food is still in one’s mouth.

“It’s good for your chi.”

“It’s awful.”

“It balances the winds within the body.” And he used a theatrical gesture to indicate the area between his sternum and his groin. The body. The winds. I didn’t know.

I spat the remainder of my cold white fungus soup into one of the waxed-paper squares the Hey! What’s Happening? used for napkins, made a neat little ball of the toxic sugar mush, and dropped it onto the floor.

“That’s it,” I declared and lit a Space Tour cigarette.

At almost that exact same instant, another gangster wanna be came stalking up to our table, grabbed the hysterical Smurf girl, and more or less dragged her back to their table where he delivered four good smacks to her face, two front-handed and two back-handed, in sequence. She didn’t stop crying.

“That’s really it,” I said. “I’ve had it. I’ve really had it.”

(from Artificial Rats and Electric Cats, Camber Press, 2008. Click on the title or the cover photo for more information.)

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