Scenes from a Domestic Life in China, Part One: Hosting a Guest

Friday late I received an email from one of the foreign English teachers. She would be flying into Taiping International early Saturday and leaving from Harbin East Train Station late that same day. Did I know if the East Station held luggage? I did not, but offered to hold her bags for her while in town. I knew that this implied I would more or less be her host while she was in Harbin for the day. I replied to her email via QQ, the Chinese version of Yahoo and I hated doing so. Not that I hated the foreign teacher—she was in fact a lovely person—nor that I overly loathed playing host. It’s just that Hobbit has peculiar rules for her hobbit-bolt, one of them being: no human may cross the threshold.

This dictum was somewhat difficult for me as I sometimes but not often must entertain guests. This is perhaps a custom from America. In America, you invite colleagues to your home and show them around, even into the bedrooms and bathrooms: “See? This is where I move my bowels? Interesting, huh? I even put out a bowl of potpourri for your smelling pleasure!”

But, if I am invited into a house and the host doesn’t give me the “grand tour,” I feel offended, slighted, even cheated. “They didn’t show me the bedroom! Or the bathroom!” As if a tour of where they make love or pass water were essential in order to seal the compact of comradeship between us. Instead, I feel that I was treated like a member of law enforcement, someone they had to treat respectfully and allow into the sitting room, but whom they would never—voluntarily—show the rest of the house out of fear that I might discover a body under the floorboards: “And here, Detective Jack Bootedthug, is the dismembered body of my late wife!”

In China, I eventually realized that homes were no-fly zones. I invited friends to my apartment and they politely refused or they begrudgingly acquiesced but then never reciprocated. I felt aggrieved, for many months, until Hobbit pointed out to me that Chinese people usually have “parties” in restaurants. They reserve a room with an enormous round table and a lazy susan and then tear it up. This makes sense. Most people’s homes are small and it would be difficult to accommodate a large party. Then, too, the noise. Restaurants are expected to be 熱鬧 rènào, whereas quiet is (perhaps hypocritically) the default mode in apartments. I parenthetically say hypocritically because my neighbors are usually anything but quiet and I am almost certain the walls while thick were specially designed to conduct sound and not the opposite. That’s okay as I have revenged myself many times over: Hobbit and I generally schedule our violent, ear-splitting battles to commence around midnight and end just before daybreak. To their credit, my neighbors have never complained (to my face). We have noticed, however, a marked increase in refuse, chewing gum, and spittle on our doorstep.

“Hobbit, don’t get upset. Remain calm.”

Despite the fact that I prefaced the news with this sincere, passionate entreaty for calm, Hobbit, diminutive little Barbarian that she is, flew off the proverbial handle. I dodged her blows and missiles and begged her to not take this “surprise” so hard. She zoomed about our small apartment like a whirling dervish, trying to tidy things up, and then stopped. She stood stock-still in the middle of our living room, neat little bags of out-of-season clothing heaped on every side, inches of black-grey dust piled impossibly high on every level surface, small mountains of out-of-date textbooks and ungraded student papers occupying every probable place to sit, and said in a quiet hobbit voice with a demonic gleam in her eyes, “I am not going to clean this place up!” And so saying, she scurried off to her bedroom to continue to do whatever recherché things English professors do on Friday afternoons.

I was not about to break up my plans just to clean house either. Our uninvited guest would just have to make do. In any event, the often-used parts of the apartment were in fact clean. Mostly. We maintain a certain level of hygiene in the bathroom and in the kitchen. Where we normally walk (or rather the pathways available for walking between the pyramids of old ice hockey equipment, stacks of print material, and masses of justplaincrap) I sweep with this adjustable cloth, microfiber swifter-thingie. Weekly or perhaps biweekly. At least monthly, I try. I really do.

As a longtime bachelor, I was always quite proud of my neat little domicile wherever in the world I happened to hang my hat. After becoming a husband, an admittedly terrible husband, I have been mysteriously transformed into a disgusting pig and below average lout. I am not sure how decades of rigorous habit were dismantled in a space of weeks. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is some consolation; some, but not much.

Hobbit said, “Let me know when she is coming so I can plan.”

“And what in fact do you plan?”

“I plan on not being here.”

Fine. Very well. She was ditching me. Good to know my hobbit-wife will be there for me in a pinch.

My colleagues, both foreign and Chinese, already suspect that my wife is a fiction and in fact have accused me of making her up since a misanthrope like me could never be married, or, perhaps, I have married but have already done away with her in some Poe-esque-like manner, something a strange and violent guy like me would do.

My director has invited my wife to numerous functions (to which Hobbit never attends) and she always sends her a gift at Christmas (for which Hobbit never offers the customary 谢谢 xièxiè). No surprise, I never fail to catch the ever-so-slight glint of uncertainty in my director’s winsome eyes whenever there is mention of my dear little diminutive wife. To make matters worse, Hobbit has the uncanny ability of being able to drastically change her looks. She is not merely mercurial in demeanor but downright chimerical in appearance. Thus, the two times she made a public appearance with me at some political function, she looked radically different. No one believed she was the same person, thus adding fuel to the already high-burning fire of suspicion that my “wife” was actually a hired actor or an escort and that my matrimony was a carefully created figment of my overactive imagination, a ruse I have concocted to make me appear more human-like and less, well, less like me. What am I to do? I suppose it would bother me if I cared what humans thought.

The next day I got a text from the foreign teacher. She was already at the gate to the university! She had arrived early! I barked the news at Hobbit and bolted out the door. I retrieved the foreign teacher, shouldering her pretty blue and yellow backpack, and returned to the apartment, expecting it to be empty. When we got to the third floor landing, the door swung open portentously: there was Hobbit to greet us.

“Is this it, then? Where you live?” the foreign teacher asked me. She looked perplexed and I supposed this is because I looked perplexed.

“Yes, yes! Please come on in!” said the Hobbit.

My wife had metamorphosed, yet again. Normally, at home, my wife has two states of dress, both a bit eccentric to say the least. She is either dressed or shall I say undressed au naturel, or she wears a clown suit. I know this seems bizarre, but she likes to walk around at home in a comfy colorful one-piece clown suit. I balk at revealing this odd idiosyncrasy of my spouse. After all, I myself have many, many queer and even virulent habits that would shock, outrage, and frighten the average human, but wearing a clown suit is not one of them.

Now however, we were not greeted by a hobbit in parti-colored jumpsuit nor thankfully were we greeted by birthday suit hobbit. We were greeted by amazingly-done-up stylish wife-hobbit, replete with dulcet tones, amiable smile, and an indefatigable eagerness to host. Who was this lovely person and what has she done with my disagreeable Hobbit!

Life never ceases to surprise and amaze. Hobbit took over, and after we got over the initial mortification at the state of our untidy, chaotic hobbit-hole, things went quite swimmingly. Hobbit made coffee and brought out sliced fruit and delicious Chinese sweetcakes from some magical hidden repository. Best of all she was an absolutely magnificent conversationalist, keeping the chit-chat rolling along, always interesting, never over-bearing, pausing and withdrawing to allow our guest to recharge her batteries, in a word: perfect. I was flabbergasted beyond all flabbergastification.

Harbin New Concert Hall

Harbin’s New Music Concert Hall

Hobbit even sent me out for a few hours to purchase some concert tickets for the New Harbin Concert Hall. On the long cab ride downtown I tried to cajole K to sneak away for a much-overdue rendezvous, but she stuck to her guns. This actually made me happier than if she had caved. She has left the nest as it were and I am proud of her. Lost in thought, I didn’t pay attention to the driver. The moron went the wrong way and I ended up having to walk ten blocks. By the time I returned, our guest was able to shower and get cleaned up without the presence of a man hanging about. Hobbit had some heretofore-unknown (by me in any event) talent in make up and dress. After twenty-four hours on a plane, everyone looks like the rat the cat dragged in. Under Hobbit’s gentle but firm encouragement, our guest took Hobbit’s advice, cleaned up, tried out her make-up kit, changed clothes, and was in a word transformed. Everyone was feeling just fine! I could not help but look at Hobbit with fresh eyes. Impressive.

Rejuvenated, our guest was ready to run a few errands. While Hobbit stayed at home doing whatever it is that hobbits do, I took her out to pick up coffee at the local supermarket since real coffee cannot be purchased in her home city of 七台河 Qītáihé. Foreign imports are limited to instant coffee. We also stopped by my buddy’s cell phone store to pick up a new power cord for her iPhone. Everything went smoothly and as it was time for dinner, we grabbed a cab back to the university to pick up Hobbit and head off for the splendid 莲素 空间 Liánsù Kōngjiān, the Lotus Su Vegetarian Restaurant!

After we had yet another mouth-orgasmic experience at the Lotus Su, it was time to dash out to the Harbin East Train Station. The taxi cab driver was very accommodating and waited while we dropped off Hobbit and retrieved our guest’s backpack. The trip took about forty minutes even though there wasn’t much traffic because snow had begun to fall thick and fast, and that always gums up the works. I walked our dear guest to the gate, gave her a quick earnest hug, and exhorted her to text me as soon as she was safe at home. She promised to do so, thanked me, and disappeared into the roiling, bilious crowd of Chinese travelers.

Since it was an expensive cab ride, I opted to take the subway home all the way from 哈东站 Hādōngzhàn (East Train station) to 和兴路站Héxìnglù zhàn (Hexing Road station). It was a quick twenty-minute ride and then another few minutes by cab to the Main Gate of the Forestry University. If anything will save Harbin from its HELL of air pollution and traffic, it will be the new subway. Soon I was home and could finally relax. I was very pleased. Everything went so well. I was truly grateful to Hobbit for her incredible efforts. I had just eased into my office chair and propped up my feet on my desk, ready to open up my VPN and watch Dexter on Netflix, when Hobbit rapped her tiny knuckle on the doorjamb to my office. I could just barely see the top of her head over my toes.

“I have a few things I would like to say to you.”

I looked at the time. Ten o’clock. She was a little bit early tonight.

This evening, our regularly scheduled cutthroat battle was reduced to a mere skirmish. After all, I was still effervescent with gratitude for Hobbit’s miraculous and (for her) Herculean labors. Tears were shed of course on her part, but I refrained from breaking anything or thrashing anyone. I did rant for a while, threatened divorce as usual, but I quickly quieted down and just listened to her cry herself to sleep in her bedroom. Then, I crawled into the spare dog-bed in my office, put in my earphones, and allowed myself to be transported away from my pathetic life, away from this desperate Ice City, to sultry sunny Miami, where serial killers prance gaily and happily under burning cobalt skies, stalk gorgeous women with heaving tanned bosoms, and remain ever ten steps ahead of the legal apparatus, remain ever beyond reproach of plebeian moral codes, remain ever victorious, remain ever.


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