The Chinese Lesson (Ryan O’Neill)

In the park, the old women were walking backwards. 

Watt waited beneath the enormous statue of a twenty metre rifle grasped in a clenched stone fist. It was as if China itself was taking aim at God, he thought. He tried to read his book, but the words of the passing Chinese inflected the English, and turned it into nonsense. He pushed his round glasses back on his nose, to stop the world from slipping from his eyes. As he waited he took a chipped blue disc from his pocket and twisted it in his hands. Standing in front of the large painted map of the park bolted to the base of the statue, he looked at the Chinese characters and their English translations. A small, primary-coloured pagoda on a nearby hill was, he discovered, the Chinese People’s Blood-Soaked Friendship Pavilion, whilst the dirty lake at his back was something to do with fragrant happiness. At least he could understand the English. Chinese characters seemed to him to be little mazes, like those he would try in activity books on long car journeys, when he was a boy.

Unable to find a way out of the character for “lake,” Watt looked up and saw Xia Meng walking through the park gates, her textbooks gathered in her hands. She carried these books the way a waiter might carry an overfull tray, afraid of spilling knowledge everywhere. She was wearing a white blouse with nonsensical English printed all over it, as was the fashion. Xia Meng was a translator, and it was she who had composed the English translations on the sign. Watt replaced the disc in his pocket, and went towards her. It was an overcast day, not cold, yet still he walked with hunched shoulders, staring at the ground. Even in sunlight, Watt walked like a man in the rain.

They met, awkwardly, at a mossy bench by the artificial lake, and greeted each other so formally they might have been speaker A and speaker B in an English textbook dialogue. Then they sat down on the bench, the only one in the park unoccupied, for it was a few feet from a choked litter bin which seemed to be breeding wasps. They sat with their notepads on their laps, looking out over the water, which was dark and showed no reflections, as if it had drowned the sky in its murk. Sheltered by the grey blocks of flats surrounding the park, there was little wind.

“Now,” Xia Meng said. She was a pretty young woman, who always had sleep in the corner of her eyes from staying up late to study. “We are continuing ‘To the market,’ aren’t we today?”

“No, Xia Meng,” Watt said. “Today I want to do ‘Travel.’”

“Why, Lawrie?” she asked. Although they had been sleeping together for two and a half years, they still could not pronounce each other’s name properly. Whilst he had given up on hers, she would still practise his every night as she worked on her translations, mouthing, “Red lorry, yellow lorry,” again and again. But the r’s always straightened themselves into l’s, and the l’s stooped over to become r’s.

Watt’s eyes were red. The factory smoke seemed to give the air a grain if he looked closely at it, almost as if it were paper. He remembered a game they used to play. She would pull the skin around his eyes to slit them, so she could pretend he was Chinese, and he would hold her eyelids between his finger and thumb, so he could pretend she was European. But they had stopped that game after a while, for it hurt their eyes.  Watt took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt.

“We studied Travel last month,” she said. “You know, your vocabulary of food is very bad. We should really practise that, so you can start going to the market, instead of me all the time.”

“No. Travel,” he insisted.

Xia Meng’s left foot trembled, making a little grave for itself in the dirt.

“I can never understand you,” she said. “All last week till now, it is ‘I want to study market’ and now it is Travel. I don’t understand you at all. Sometimes I wish I could read a biography of you.”

“You would have to be the one to write it,” he said.

“And I would write only bad things,” she said, frowning.

“I want to do Travel,” he whispered, “for the honeymoon.”

She smiled, and looked past him to watch a little boy as he picked up a pebble, threw it in the water, and then stepped back at the splash as if he expected the lake to overflow. Watt glanced at his watch.

“What time is it?” she asked him

“In English? Ten past two.”

“No, in Chinese.”

“In Chinese?” he watched the boy’s mother pick him up and hold him above the overflowing bin so he could defecate into it. “About five hundred years ago I think.”

“You are very humour,” she said. “Let’s start the lesson now. Travel. Very well. ‘I am a teacher from Australia.’ Say it in Chinese.”

Watt tried the words, and Xia Meng corrected him.  His Chinese was appalling. Shopkeepers and bus conductors assumed he was speaking English, even when he was saying a simple phrase in Mandarin like, “Hello.”

“Your pronunciation is still not very good,” she said. She paused over the characters on the book before them, and then said suddenly, “Tell me again. What is Australia like?”

“Koalas,” Watt said. “Kangaroos. Hats with corks.”

“It is a very new country, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes. My ancestors were the kind of people your ancestors built the Great Wall to keep out.”

She laughed. Watt looked across the lake at the pagoda on the hill, where he had first been alone with Xia Meng. From there you could see into the zoo, which contained a miserable lion in a six foot cage, and a reptile enclosure with a small chair amidst the tree branches and snakes, upon which terrified children were placed to have their pictures taken. Before the pagoda was the playground, where old men hung on the monkey bars, or see-sawed together for morning exercise. He could see a very young soldier sitting on a swing, laughing. The young man didn’t seem to take his uniform seriously, as if he were an extra in a war movie, and his prop rifle leaned against the ice-cream stand.

Watt hated Chinese parks, how they domesticated the landscape, plucked the sting from the drifting wasps, turning their meandering hum into that of a refrigerator. The few gulls in the grey sky were like a child’s mobile. The only trees he could see were the poorly painted ones on the walls of the public toilets. He looked at his watch again, and then at Xia Meng as she wrote the Chinese characters for “airplane” and “ticket.” She had had the left-handedness beaten from her in school and her handwriting was not as graceful as he was used to seeing from his students. After she had written the characters, he took the pen from her, and copied them into his notebook. Occasionally she corrected his strokes.

“Very good,” she said. “It will be funny when my name is Watt because it sounds like ‘what.’ Did you know?”

“Yes, I knew,” Watt said. “How would I say, ‘A one way ticket to Beijing? Hard sleeper.’”

She told him how to ask for the train ticket.

“Can I watch you write it?” Again he watched her, and copied her writing, much more carefully this time.

“How is that?” he asked.

“Excellent!” Xia Meng said. “You are a good student!”

The smile left her face as she saw a pregnant woman walk past. The woman had no belly yet, and would not have for another month, but still she wore large, loose green dungarees with a white rabbit embroidered on the front. Watt and Xia Meng both sat still watching the water for some time, like bored sightseers. Then Xia Meng began to cry quietly, her hands resting in her lap. After a moment, she reached over to his jacket which lay on the bench between them, looking for a tissue. Watt took the jacket away from her and searching the pockets himself, brought out a white clean handkerchief to give to her.

“When can I wear clothes like that?” Xia Meng said, wiping her face. “I am more pregnant than her!”

“Soon,” he said. “Soon. You know you’ll be allowed more than one child because you’re with a foreigner. You can wear clothes like that all the time. I’ll keep you as pregnant as a Catholic, if that’s what you want.”

“What’s a Catholic?” she asked him, sniffing.

“Just an animal,” he said. “It likes to have sex, and then feels bad afterwards.”

Upset as she was, Xia Meng still made careful note of this new word and its definition in her notebook. This yellow book was full of things Watt had made up as a joke. He had often meant to tell her this, but never had. The first time that she used any of his definitions in conversation with other Chinese, she would be humiliated.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked her.

“You know,” she said. “We must tell my mother, and then we must get married. Not to get married after all this, it is impossible, you know. My mother will be happy.”

Watt thought of Xia Meng’s mother, a bitter old woman whose face was not so much wrinkled as creased, like the lines on the palm of a hand.

“If your mother is happy that you’ve a bastard with a foreigner, then I’m a…” he laughed. “I’m a bloody Chinaman.”

“Do not swear, Lawrie, please,” she said.

“Don’t cry,” he said. “We’ll tell her tonight, if you want.”

“Do you mean it?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Oh, Lawrie! Red lorry, yellow lorry!” she took his hand under the wooden table. “I love you. We will be happy every day!”

A bald man carrying a newspaper hawked and spat a little China of bacteria at their feet. Watt looked at him in disgust, but Xia Meng hadn’t noticed.

“You should go back to the flat, and change,” he said. “I’m going to buy a new shirt. We should both look our best tonight.”

“Yes, wonderful!” she said.

They walked together to the park gates, past the crowded shops with the names that had long since ceased to amuse him, “Classy Lady,” “Soft Lass,” “Smelling Beautiful Food.” Watt gave her the hundred yuan for the lesson, which she would then pass on to the agency she worked for. As she took the money from him, she squeezed his hand. Then he watched her get on a bus. She waved to him from the window as it drove away, but Watt couldn’t see her face because he found himself trying to make out the words on her blouse.

As the bus turned the corner, he tore a page from his notebook and then threw the book in the bin. He walked towards the crowded square in front of the train station.  Passing the rows of hairdressers that were really brothels, he glanced at the prostitutes standing behind empty chairs, playing with scissors and pretending to cut each other’s hair. In the square there were hundreds of men and women sitting or standing beside enormous striped plastic bags. All the men were smoking, and almost all of them wore brown of one shade or another.  They were like a nation in camouflage. Watt found the left-luggage office and took the blue disc from his pocket to give to the attendant, who wore a surgical mask against the air. He looked in the shelves behind him, then handed Watt a new black suitcase.  Watt hefted the suitcase to the ticket office, and after queuing for a long time, handed over the note that he had copied from Xia Meng, and paid for his ticket to Beijing.

“Thank you,” he said, in English, and the pretty young clerk smiled shyly at him.

As Watt waited on the platform for his train, he took his glasses from his irritated eyes. But no matter how much he polished the lenses, the world would become no less dirty.