Wang Xiaowu’s facial features all appeared to be aligned upon a single vertical plane, which is typical of East Asian skull types (technically referred to—and this is no coincidence—as “Mongoloid,” though this term has a somewhat stigmatized connotation). His eyelids were covered with prominent epicanthic folds, leaving the skin below his sparse eyebrows creaseless and smooth. With a lower and less pronounced nasal bridge and broad flat cheekbones, his eyes, which were nearly black, seemed isolated from any other part of his face (including each other) as if two small incisions had been made into the skin and then stretched open. He had no facial hair and his tanned flesh looked like it had been rubbed in with loess clay. Another striking feature were his teeth, which were perfectly aligned and stone-like, as they were striated with subtle grey veins, giving them the appearance of being ridged. His mouth was framed by dull-bruised-purple lips that were full and curveless. His hair was sooty and unkempt, the overgrown remnants of a bowl-cut.
So I had agreed to travel with W. back to Tangshan. He told me that he would need my help purchasing a train ticket, claiming that the ticket office wouldn’t give him same-day passage, which they supposedly reserved for foreigners. Whether or not this was true, I can’t say, but I have a feeling that he really believed it. He showed me that he had the money to pay for the ticket, so I agreed, considering it a fairly harmless gesture on my part. With that, he thanked me and pulled a water bottle—half-filled with what I quickly identified as “baijiu,” a popular Chinese grain-alcohol—from an old rice bag that he was using to carry his belongings, which consisted of a change of dirty clothes, some convenient store fare (ramen noodles, pickled peanuts, etc.) and a roll of toilet paper. He filled up a bottle cap’s worth, which I respectfully declined, but he would hear none of it. I wondered if the empty half of that bottle had been a recent occurrence. There was evidence to support this; the way he sort of yelled when he spoke, and laughed heartily while slapping my arm a little too roughly, and didn’t seem to care or realize that I couldn’t understand even half of what he was saying most of the time. He also asked me to help him find a job when we got to Tangshan, which I thought was an unusual request. I really had no idea how I could help him other than pointing out where there was construction going on, which he really didn’t need my help to find. I think he might have expected me to speak to whatever foreman on his behalf, and perhaps my being a foreigner would have given him an advantage despite my deficiency with the language. I told him I would see what I could do. It felt like he was binding me to him, and I had to wonder why. It occurred to me that maybe he would want more than just my company or assistance. Perhaps he would expect some money or a place to stay, things I would be reluctant to give a total stranger, let alone a potential alcoholic migrant worker. But maybe he just wanted to be my friend.
He handed me the money as we walked over to the railway station, and I asked him where he was planning to stay in Tangshan, while trying to imply that he wouldn’t be able to stay at my place if that was, in fact, what he had expected. He said that he would find a cheap boarding house, and I felt relieved that that issue had been addressed. I didn’t have any trouble obtaining a second pass as there were multiple ticket booths—but really, would it even have mattered if I had gone to the same one? It was a fairly simple transaction and they didn’t even check to see any sort of identification. I suppose there’s nothing like adding a touch of paranoia to create the illusion of an adventure.
I met him outside the station and covertly handed him his ticket, though he told me to hold onto it, and then offered to carry my bag of groceries for me (or rather he pulled it from my grasp), indicating that his ticket would serve as an assurance that he would not run off with it. Of course, the value of my groceries exceeded the train fare by about five fold, but I didn’t expect him to know that. The fact that he would even feel the need to assuage any concerns over his trustworthiness raised its own questions, but this train of thought becomes highly speculative. Still, I didn’t like the idea of holding my groceries for me, but he would not give them back. I understood that this was probably a cultural thing, and that he saw me doing him a favor with the train ticket and felt obligated to repay me, so I dropped the issue.
We had about two hours left until our departure, so we began heading back toward the overpass. A small crowd had gathered where a car had apparently dented another car’s fender, and I could see Li Xiaodong among them. W. said he wanted to drink some tea, and I asked him if we should invite Li Xiadong too. He made an expression of distaste and waved his hand by quickly rotating his forearm back and forth like a stopping guard. I wondered if he had any reason to dislike Li, or if he wanted just to get me alone.
We walked down the block and stopped at a small convenient shop located on the side of a bungalow residence, where W. asked if they had any “doujiang” (soy milk, which is popular in China beyond reasons of dietary health or moral standpoints), seeming to have changed his mind about having tea. He also made sure to let the shop-owners, an elderly couple and their son, know that I was his American friend and an English teacher, which he proved by showing them a business card I had previously given him when they looked at him incredulously. I sort of just smiled and nodded dumbly, feeling too embarrassed to say anything. In any case, they didn’t have doujiang, but told us there was another shop down an alley that did. When we got there W. suddenly seemed to lose interest in buying doujiang. He told me we should go back to the other shop. This was just one example of his increasingly erratic behavior.
We went back to the other shop and sat at a table outside. He bought me a popsicle, which I didn’t ask for, as well as two bottles (liter-sized) of beer—again, at his insistence. Before the elderly man could hand us a bottle-opener, W. bit them open. We clanked bottles and he tilted the bottle a full hundred and eighty degrees, chugging beer as it spilled down the sides of his mouth. I was pretty convinced that he was an alcoholic at that point. He asked me if I liked my popsicle (which tasted like sugar and ice) and I said yes and tried to give him money for it and the beer, but he refused. He opened a bag of pickled peanuts, grabbed my hand and dumped some in. I was still trying to finish my popsicle, so I put them on the table, and he seemed almost hurt, asking why I didn’t like the peanuts, and I told him that I was still trying to finish my popsicle, and he nodded and lifted his bottle for another drink. We shared the rest of my coppa and bread, and I asked him questions about his life back in Inner Mongolia. He was thirty years old and had a wife and a newborn daughter, who was maybe two months old at the time. I didn’t find out much about his childhood, other than that he probably grew up speaking Mongolian but fully identified himself as being Chinese. For obvious reasons, I was unable to ask more in depth questions about economic conditions in Inner Mongolia or what made him suddenly decide to quit farming, though one could assume his daughter might have had something to do with it. Did he have to provide more money for his family, or did he want to avoid the responsibilities of being a father? Unsure of what else to ask him I resorted to Mongolian stereotypes, and asked if he liked riding horses, drinking fermented mare’s milk and wrestling, all of which were in the affirmative. I suppose this inquiry into the Mongolian machismo inspired him to challenge me to a game in which you and another person lock middle fingers together and pull in opposite directions. After beating me, he stretched out his forearm, flexing his muscles which actually sort of bulged out of his arm, and explained how he was stronger than me. I nodded in agreement.
About forty-five minutes—which I should add that W. would periodically get up to look at the clock tower above the train station to remind me of the time every ten or fifteen minutes—from our departure, we left the shop as W. said that he wanted to buy me some fruit for the train ride. He did not seem to comprehend the meaning of “Buyao! Buyao!” (“No want! No Want!”). If we had spoken the same language, I could have made a rational argument and exerted more of my willpower through dialogue, but I was finding myself impotent against his stubborn generosity. To some extent I understood that he wanted to thank me for helping him, if that is indeed what I had done, but another part of me suspected that there was an ulterior motive, that he would expect something in return for it all. We went into a small market and thankfully, the fruit was more expensive than what he was willing to pay. Instead, we ended up down another alley where he bought two more bottles of beer from some hole-in-the-wall vendor.
We sat up against a wall and he insisted that I sit on his bag of belongings, to which I protested and said that I could squat like any other Chinese person. He then lifted me and forcibly sat me on his bag. We sat awhile and drank, and I offered to buy him dinner at a “kaorou” restaurant (the Chinese equivalent of barbecue) when we got to Tangshan in an attempt to repay him for his generosity. A good deal of Chinese culture seems to be a never-ending cycle of generosity. I checked my phone for the time and we had about twenty-five minutes left, so I told W. that we should get going, but he seemed to panic when he saw the time, his face flushed with alcohol. He hurriedly gathered up our things and asked to see the train tickets. After digging around in my pockets amidst various receipts and bills, and some hair-pulling from W. (his own), I produced them and he snatched them up, saying he should hold onto them, obviously upset with the fact that I could not immediately find the tickets. So we began toward the station which was just across the street, but he began running and telling me to hurry up. I tried to tell him to calm down, but it was useless.
At the main entrance to the station, we stopped to pull out our tickets. W. began pouring through his pockets frantically and getting very upset and pulling his hair, saying he couldn’t find the tickets and that didn’t I still have them? I sighed, and told him to just stand still, while I checked his jacket and found our tickets. We passed through the security gates and again W. began running. I let him go ahead, and he went to the wrong track and began asking other passengers where they were going and generally acting like a madman. We were the next one over, and I told him to follow me and to calm down. We got onto the platform and located our car, which happened to be the same. As we boarded, I could see that all the seats had been taken and that they were squeezing as many people as could stand in the remaining space. I accepted this as the way it probably always was, but later found out that it was the day of the Qingming Festival, or “Tomb-Sweeping Festival” (a traditional day for ancestor worship in China) and that was likely the reason for the high volume of passengers. We were pushed deep into the car and ended up near a back compartment where there were two doors on each side and no open-able windows. I had to sort of hunch my shoulders and wiggle each arm one at a time just to get my jacket off, and already the air was stuffy and humid with human breath. W. was separated by from me by a few people but he pushed his way through then pulled me back toward one of the side doors where some luggage had been stored and an elderly man was already sitting. He told me to sit upon the luggage, and I tried to resist saying I could stand like everyone else, but he just pushed me until I fell on top of it. Meanwhile, the other passengers began to complain, and W. just shouted at them, saying I was his American friend and that I shouldn’t have to stand like they did, to which they sort of rolled their eyes and I was feeling very embarrassed indeed. W. scoffed defiantly and pulled out the business card I had given with him (and really wished I hadn’t written my cell number on, at that point) and began waving it around like a backstage pass. The nearby passengers all looked at me curiously, surprised that W. wasn’t a complete raving lunatic. With that, everyone seemed to calm down, and I just tried to convey as best as I could via facial expressions that, yes, I knew this man but that I had no control over his actions and nor did I, in the very least, condone them.
I made some small talk with some of the passengers and was generally glad to be around other people despite the sauna-like atmosphere. The train was going to arrive in Tianjin, a port-city along the way, in an hour and many of the passengers would disembark. W. managed to secure some open seats when we made it into Tianjin and we were able sit down. Incidentally, there seemed to be almost as many passengers getting on at Tianjin as had gotten off, and people began to squeeze in again. Apparently, there were actually seating assignments for some people, because various passengers wiggled their way through the crowded aisles to claim their seats which were being unrightfully occupied by people like W. and myself. As to be expected, we were in someone’s assigned seats. W. relinquished his seat readily when the time came, but when another passenger came to claim her seat from me, he explained to her that I was an American and should be allowed to sit and pulled out my business card, and that there was plenty of room to squeeze onto the seat together as it was bench seating. I still tried to get up but now everyone seemed to be telling me to sit down, and they all began asking me questions like why I didn’t look like an American and how did I know this man who claimed me as his friend, to which W. laughingly interjected and told me not to tell them. As it so happens, there was a college student sitting next to me who spoke some English so I was able to relate a little bit of situation to her, which was a relief to finally be able to do. We got into Tangshan about an hour later, and W. asked the college student if she could do some translating for him when we got off the train. After meeting up with a friend of hers who had been on another car, we exited the station together, and W. asked them if they knew where we could find a kaorou place nearby. They agreed to walk us there, though I felt bad that W. was obviously trying to drag them along for whatever evening he had planned. When we got to the restaurant, the college student told me, “You should take good care of your friend,” which sounded almost like a warning, and I think she could see the slight confusion on my face, because she told me next, “What I mean… be careful.” Then she said that she and her friend had to go, and I agreed, knowing that W. was my responsibility to deal with for the rest of the evening. As they were leaving, W. asked why they weren’t staying, but I told him they were very busy and they had to go. He started to become upset and asked what we had been saying and English, and did I tell them to go? and was it because of him? and why would I do such a thing? Now, when this comes from someone who has low self-esteem and is meek in nature, it’s pitiable, but when it comes from someone who is high-strung and physically threatening, it’s frightening (as in fearing for my own very personal safety). I told him that I had invited them, but that they were honestly not hungry and very tired, and were very busy college students, and that he didn’t need to worry about, and couldn’t we just get something to eat because I had classes to teach tomorrow, and needed to get some rest too. That seemed to diffuse his anger for the time being.
We sat down at some tables outside despite the chill weather. The “grill” was outside which consisted of a long narrow trough filled with charcoal over which thin wire grating was placed to cook meat and other foodstuffs on. I ordered what were essentially lamb kebabs, some chicken hearts (you’ll learn to love ‘em) and steamed bread which is then toasted over the flames. W., naturally, ordered four bottles of beer, which I (perhaps hopelessly) told him would be it for the evening, and of course it wasn’t as he later insisted that we finish the rest of his baijiu. Over the course of dinner he asked me again why I had told the girls to leave, which I reemphasized I that had done nothing of the sort. He also said that I was his very good friend and which he had proven by making sure I had a place to sit on the train and by carrying my groceries for me. Then it came, as expected—he asked me for money. I acted like I couldn’t understand him, and he seemed to be getting very agitated about it, though he eventually dropped it for the time being. I went ahead and paid the bill. He tried to order three more bottles of beer. I told the waiter no more, and that if W. was buying me beer then I wouldn’t drink it, and finally he agreed to take two of the bottles back. I helped W. finish the remaining bottle hoping to get the night over with as quickly as possible. I wondered if he was going to let me leave without trying to get some money from me, and if not doing it willingly would be in my best interest. I should have left, but I needed to urinate. I asked the waiter if there was a bathroom, and he pointed to the dark end of the alley that the restaurant was in. I hesitantly began walking down, and W. began to follow me.
He caught up with me as we passed by a brightly lit window where a Chinese woman was sitting on a bed, not seeming to pay attention to what was happening outside. W. stopped me and lifted his chin toward the window, while rapidly sticking his right index and middle finger in and out of a hole formed by his left hand, the international sign for sex as it were. I waved him off and kept walking down the alley, knowing I should have turned the other way. I stopped by the corner of a building and tried to piss with W. stumbling drunkenly around behind me, wondering if he was going to attack me, because if there was any time and place to do it, it was then and there. Was I being paranoid? Did he want my money? If so, did he really have any intention of inflicting physical harm upon me to get it?
I finished, zipped up and walked back down the alley without incident. As we passed the lit window, W. nudged me again but I ignored him and went over and sat down at our table. He said it would probably only be thirty yuan, and that he’d wait for me until I was done. I looked at him very seriously, placing my hand on his shoulder (as people who want to be taken seriously often do) and refused. Then I went on to say that I certainly hoped he wasn’t spending his money on prostitutes when he didn’t have a job and had a wife and daughter back home. He emphatically denied ever having solicited a prostitute, which I was hard-pressed to believe. Now I’m not one to lecture people on morality or personal responsibility, and maybe it was the alcohol, but I felt the need to say something, because at that moment I really felt sorry for his wife, and the woman in the window (was she even a prostitute?) and most of all, his infant daughter. I wanted him to feel sorry too. I tried to explain to him how helpless little children were, and asked him to tell me what it felt like when his daughter was born, and didn’t it feel wonderful? I was damn near in tears with sentiment for a child that I had never even seen and indignant because of principles W. would never have the luxury to understand (as if I, myself, even could). But he looked back at me and told me that he cared about his child, that he never felt so happy as when he held her in his arms, and I could imagine her big dark expressionless eyes gazing up at him wholly dependent and innocent, and all I wanted was to believe him. But all I had was the wanting. There was no certainty, no trust. Was I so cynical? And what could I do? I pulled out a hundred yuan from my wallet and told him to take it, and that I hoped he would be able to find a job and take care of his family. The gesture seemed to touch him, and he sort of sat there looking like he was about to cry. I felt drained and very tired, and told him I had to go home. He walked me down the street to hail a cab. Before I lifted my hand up into the air he pulled me into another alley, got on his knees and kow-towed, calling me “Ge” (“elder brother”), and I felt embarrassed by it. He got up and embraced me firmly, then we went back onto the street and I hailed a cab. As the driver was beginning to pull away from the curb, W. ran up to the window and paid the driver ten yuan for my fare. Driving off down the street, I felt the relief of escaping something dangerous, or maybe it was from having fought it and survived.
The Wichita Lineman Retires
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