Zen had not finished the last post on his junket to Zhuhai and Shenzhen. He was procrastinating. Instead of doing what he should have been doing—writing—he was fussing over his goalie equipment, trimming the loose threads, folding and even re-folding the black long johns he wore under the bulky ice hockey gear, taping the plastic cords neatly together, as if all of this foofaraw would improve his gameplay or draw him any closer to finishing his writing assignment.
Something was bothering him and he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was an itch, but physical. It was…ontological? Existential? It was something unnamed. Deep down, Zen had a phobia of completion. This phobia was buried deep and inextricably tied to his core fear of death that no psychologist at $135 an hour was ever going to find. Perhaps a crack team of Nobel Prize-winning psychoanalysts might have been able to locate the neurosis (had they been so inclined), but such gifted men and women would more than likely politely decline to squander precious hours on what was an otherwise common and thoroughly banal case. Not everyone could be saved.
Zen, congenitally prone to fruitless daydreaming, gave in to one of his flights of fancy. He imagined that “Not all will be saved” as one of the original thirteen commandments (instead of ten) that Moses brought down from the mountain. Filled with both compassion for his long-suffering people and also corrosive doubt concerning the propriety of his messianic path, Moses opted to conceal three of the most disheartening divine utterances. Some were a bit ambiguous and Moses wasn’t at all sure of his hearing. The roaring of the Red Sea still reverberated in his ears. In anxious and dreadful uncertainty, his people grumbling mutinously, it was better to stick with the first Ten Commandments that were fairly clear and direct.
After this reverie, Zen began to ponder why only a select handful of the world’s population could be saved. Why must the lion’s share be doomed to unmitigated misfortune and fruitless toil? His Devil’s Advocate, munching on a pomegranate, one leg dangling over a purple and white lama wool hammock slung between two enormous kapok trees in the forest of his subconscious, said, “Why? Oh Zen. You are a buffoon. Simple. Most people are a bunch of worthless losers. And you ought to know. You’re one of the them.” The Advocate smiled, his mouth half-full with juicy purple flesh from the pomegranate fruit.
Zen went off on another metaphysical tangent. His Advocate made sense. Paradise was probably like life on earth: only the crème de la crème gained admittance into the country club. He thought about the billions—no—gazillions of dead losers. Perhaps their souls never even made it off the planet, their ectoplasm decaying into dust. Probably, most of the world’s dust was composed of untold billions of insignificant and unremarkable individuals, persons who when alive imagined themselves as worthy and deserving, but who ultimately died thwarted by their own feckless venial natures, unmourned, and quickly forgotten. Every day roughly 10,000 tons of dust sifted down on the heads of the living and most of it the putrefied remains of failures, freaks, and flops. It might very well be possible that inhaling the vestigial motes from these ancient underachievers contaminated the hale, brave and ingenious and infected their chances of success with debilitating lassitude, enervating fear, and paralyzing antipathy.
Actually Zen tried to have these thoughts, but he was impervious to sustained and penetrating critical thinking. He might every well have possessed a case of PISD—Philosophical Ignorant Sloth Disorder. Although he could not conceive of such sophisticated thoughts, but he did feel a malaise creeping through his body like an ague or as he imagined it: weird extraterrestrial paramecium nesting in his bone marrow and feeding off his creative soul. In actuality, he thought he was a tad lazy or perhaps had a weird fear of success. But no, a genius could legitimately fear success. A dunce only indulges in pipe dreams when he attributes his self-destructive behaviors as a fear of success. Zen was a bit of a dunce.
Being moronic and rather than rolling up his proverbial sleeves and putting proboscis to grindstone, he made another cup of green tea whose leaves were so old they were both brittle and moldy depending on what side the sunlight had fallen on the recycled glass coffee container. Then he read online analyses of yet another black man’s life snuffed out by the callous brutal hands of the American law enforcement. Then he re-packed and re-taped the homemade arrow target made from Danny’s second-hand baby clothes and his yellowed threadbare judo gi (long in disuse). Finally, he reviewed his Russian grammar self-study textbook. None of it helped to dispel the ontological or existential itch blistering his spirit.
His small Apple laptop, slightly oily from the constant dusting of cancerous particulate matter that seeped through the shoddy weatherproofing on the windows, its fan whirring quietly as it uploaded pirated items into the Cyber netherworld, sat on his broad desk like a crying baby whose evident distress stemmed from that familiar and horrendous odor wafting evilly from between its legs. Zen, slothful incorrigible miscreant that he was, knew what ailed him but was reluctant to take action.
He thought about his successful larger-than-life brother. How much he loved him secretly. Actually everyone loved him. Of course, there was the obvious familial love that everyone espoused on birthday cards or at holidays or when enough intoxicants had been imbibed, but Zen loved his brother on another more profound level, an existential level (he thought). Born a Gemini, Zen had always yearned for a twin, an identical and physical brother that complemented all of his attributes, counterbalanced all of his faults, making him whole and meaningful, the two of them bonded like fraternal signifier and signified, an unbreakable dyad released into the world, an irrefutable text, langue and parole bundled in one cosmic pair, absorbed by the masses, understood by every individual, perhaps even adored by all women. (Women in Zen’s unconscious tended to default back to a bathetic stereotype of young, comely, conciliatory, and slightly Asian-looking females.) More than all that, he felt that an existential and real twin would give him peace.
Not having a twin brother who could psychically intuit his every mood and gesture, Zen looked to his older brother for occasional camaraderie. This was a fool’s errand as the two siblings could not have been more different. This Zen knew and yet being a dunce, it deterred him not one iota from wishing that his older brother would give a dog a bone and spend a little more time with him, despite the fact that any more time spent together would only increase his older brother’s contempt for his younger brother’s irrational iconoclasm and generally progressive Weltanschauung.
Zen was basically fucked.
At last, he sat down in front of his MacBook (Pro) and decided he owed it to his miniscule readership to at least try to finish the bloody post on the abortive junket down to Zhuhai and Shenzhen. He would cogitate. Cogitate. Cogitate. Elbow on lap, fist under clenched jaw, he cogitated.
If Zhuhai was a pearl, he thought, then Shenzhen was the oyster shell. Probably this generalization was as fair as it was inaccurate, but it sounded good. He would sing the praises of Zhuhai. Glorious and Splendid Zhuhai!
He was not feeling particularly generous of spirit, however. His body was very sore from the past two days of ice hockey. It was Zen’s first time to get back in goal after almost three months. He had to wear a knee brace for six weeks because he had sprained his MCL falling into the Chinese splits while making a save. The Chinese medical doctor, coincidentally a teammate and orthopedic surgeon, had found some other irregularities in Zen’s knee, but Zen couldn’t be bothered to translate exactly what the doctor had told him. He got the gist: stop playing ice hockey and wear a damn brace. He did stop playing, but Zen was too cheap and blockheaded to buy the damn knee brace, and then he determined, based on his vast knowledge of common sports injuries gleaned from the infallible and ever-accurate Internet, that weight lifting wouldn’t hurt his knee (too badly) and might even make it heal faster. After his knee got worse, and after his teammates discovered he wasn’t convalescing in the prescribed manner, they forced a knee brace on him. The Harbin City “Old Warriors” descended en masse on Hobbit’s apartment (after she had left to give her weekly lecture to the graduate English students), pinned Zen to the floor, stripped him of dignity and pants, and strapped the knee brace to his leg. It was not that they loved Zen overly much, but, one must understand, goaltenders were a precious commodity in Dongbei.
After the required six weeks of convalescing was up, his hockey buddies called him up and reminded him it was time to get back between the pipes. But an unseasonably warm spring had descended on Harbin and Zen was not feeling particularly inclined to put on the stinky equipment and stand half-frozen in front of the rusty iron cage while his “friends” fired pucks at his benighted (block) head and magically hit every inch of unprotected flesh.
“Look at these bruises!”
“Don’t worry. You just need to get used to playing again.”
“And my knee still hurts.”
“There’s only a few days left of ice anyway. You can rest all summer. You’ll be fine.”
Zen didn’t think so, but he caved. He always caved, dammit! Anyway, the season would be over in less than a week. The rink ice would be allowed to thaw and all hockey and skating activities would be suspended while the annual repairs and repainting were undertaken.
His fresh bruises had given him a metaphysically thuggish and cruel disposition, however. It was in such a crotchety irascible mood that he recalled that last day in Shenzhen, recalled with loathing. It was totally unwarranted as that last day was relatively relaxed and work-free.
After that abysmal dinner and tense confrontation with Professor Dickhead, Zen woke up early to do some calisthenics to try to cleanse his body of the nasty intoxicants. His mouth had a foul taste and his muscles ached to be stretched. His dear nephew, his brother’s oldest son, had sent him a humorous page of freehand exercises. Each cardiovascular circuit workout was based on a different comic book character. Zen tried the Batman circuit in his hotel room. In his mind he was six feet tall and two hundred pounds of martial arts elastic steel, but the mirror revealed the desperate truth: a short paunchy middle-aged man, gray at the temples with knobby knees that were exhibiting the inevitable onset of osteoarthritis. Not the Christian Bale Batman, but the Adam West Batman. Zen squinted his eyes to shut out reality as he jabbed his fists into the chilled air of his hotel room. His knee was swollen and hurt like hell, more than usual, but he couldn’t recall why that should be. For some reason Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was reverberating in his head like a broken record. His second alarm went off. Time to get ready.
After scrubbing his tongue vigorously to remove the awful paint thinner/burnt rubber taste of the white alcohol from his mouth, Zen met the young Englishwoman for breakfast. She was late again and Zen could only smile sheepishly at his director when she scowled in his direction. The honeymoon was definitely over in their relationship. Zen noticed that his Director smiled less and less at him. He could not blame her. She had finally seen through his pedagogical parlor tricks. Expert indeed! He felt more like a parrot, repeating the phrases of great teachers. A true expert would be able to synthesize the experience at hand and arrive at an effective solution. Unfortunately, the only solution he could come up with was “pack my bags and head for the hills.” He was certain his Director would not want to hear that. In Zen’s mind, he saw himself as a child-sized parrot, an abnormally large red and yellow beak, squawking shrilly, “Reduce teacher-student ratio! Reading is fundamental!” He touched his nose absent-mindedly and winced. It too hurt like hell. He wondered why. At least the other leaders were pretending that last night never happened and seemed willing to chalk it up to “too much liquor.”
Zen of course had conveniently left out certain details from his previous blog post about the dinner in which his nemesis had made the young foreign teacher cry. As the night progressed and the expensive bottles of white alcohol were trundled out by the exquisitely coifed beauties of the restaurant wait staff, the evening devolved into pompous bombastic toasts and aggressive displays of male vim and vigor. The director, paragon of etiquette and pulchritude, sensed where the men in the party were heading with these vulgarisms, excused herself and the other female leader, and retired to the non-drinking room. There they joined the young chatty office girls and sexagenarian female leaders, who were all nodding sleepily together at one end of the table.
The male leaders had Zen all to themselves and decided to bait the diminutive pathetic foreigner who dared to stand up for the honor of the young Englishwoman. They forced him to participate in arm-wrestling and other such contests that determined pecking order. Zen, though drunk and ostensibly choleric, still had enough sense to not get rough with these men. They were, after all, school leaders and party secretaries and most were older than he. There would be nothing to gain and everything to lose by acting tough. But he felt put upon. After Professor Penile-Dysfunction began teasing him for losing at arm-wrestling—he referred to him with a disparaging saying that when translated meant flower fist and embroidered kick, or in other words a paper tiger—Zen got angry and challenged his nemesis to a fight.
“I’m sick of your pathetic shit! You scrawny-necked pencil dick! I’m going to thrash you to within an inch of your miserable misbegotten life!”
Of course, that was what Zen thought he said. The white alcohol having taken effect reduced his words to gibberish and the jovial men guffawed in response, thinking Zen was trying to tell a joke in Chinese. The liquor made his fierce grimace look rather like Bell’s palsy.
In any event, Chinese men may insult and scream and yell all sorts of nasty words to each other, but physical fights are rare. A fight is serious business and assiduously avoided. Everyone in the vicinity will do their utmost to prevent actual fists from being thrown. Zen was not planning on throwing a fist however.
He got up and (in his mind) began to dazzle the male entourage with a stunning display of footwork reminiscent of Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee. What the leaders saw however was a dwarfish drunken American dancing what might have been an Irish jig had the Gaelic dancer been possessed by a Sri Lankan female banshee. They tried to calm Zen down. Zen pirouetted miraculously and dropped to the floor thrusting out his leg in a vicious sweep. It was a beautiful leg sweep; it was a gorgeous leg sweep. It was perfect. It was as perfectly executed as it was off its mark.
The impressive kick struck one of the beautiful slightly nervous Chinese flowers who were standing along the wall, ready to serve the drunken men. They were all of them sharing one collective desire: that this group of drunkards would settle down and go back to their hotel rooms and sleep it off so that they could get off work early. The poor young girl who was struck by Zen’s kick was working her through beauty school and had dreams of opening her own nail salon. She was a thin and slight waif and this diminutive stature protected her from Zen’s ill-timed and ill-conceived leg sweep.
Zen’s calf caught her perfectly where her perfect dainty feet met the marble floor and sent her flying into the air, her small frame describing a luscious impeccable parabola. She did not even have time to throw out her arms to save herself. This was lucky. She sailed like someone catapulted from a standing position and landed supine and stunned, but essentially unharmed onto the Egyptian blue velvet couch. Only one jet-black strand of her immaculately coifed hair was ruffled.
Such an aggressive move startled and frightened everyone and the men all billowed out of the drinking room in a raucous crowd to smoke fancy slim gold-tipped cigarettes in front of the restaurant. The young male servers, also sporting immaculately groomed hair, trimmed eyebrows, and a light dusting of makeup that rubbed off on their black silk collars, lifted Zen from the floor where he had begun to snore loudly, a small bubble of mucous growing and shrinking from his left nostril as he inhaled and exhaled. The stunned Chinese flower allowed her beauteous sisters to help her from the couch. Although she was the innocent victim of Zen’s ridiculous attempt to even the score with his nemesis, she felt not anger nor fear but only pity for the tiny foreigner, now trembling in his drunken stupor as if a winter wind were blowing over his small frame.
After twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds during which Zen belched incredibly loudly and broke several sheets of noisome wind, he woke up in a daze to find the waiters and waitresses clearing the table. The handsome and comely servers were looking at him somewhat disagreeably from the corners of their eyes. Zen stumbled out to the restaurant foyer where the entourage was gathering. Everyone in various stages of exhaustion, food coma, and/or inebriated fog piled onto the tour bus. Zen forced himself into the seat next to K. As the bus gurgled and lolled along the half-empty streets, Zen dared to try to caress K’s pale arm next to him. First, she moved her arm away. Then, she crossed her arms. Finally, she blasted the point of her sharp elbow into the bridge of Zen’s nose. K was not a black belt in anything, but at twenty-six years of age, she had had more than one drunken idiot try to grope her on public transportation. That did the trick. Zen dozed for the rest of trip to the hotel.
Fingering his tender nose gingerly, Zen recalled why K was refusing to meet his glance. Aw, to hell with her. He remembered why he should be angry with her and not the other way around. He was as done with her as she was with him.
After a quick breakfast that only made Zen even more nauseous, they checked out of the hotel (apparently they were going to another hotel after their visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen), left their bags chained together behind the front desk, and piled into a new tour bus. The previous tour bus had to be cleaned, as several members of the group had gotten sick on the way home from the restaurant.
The time spent at The Chinese University of Hong Kong was as brief as it was entertaining. A high caliber of professionalism and erudition was patently manifest. They had a very brief greeting ceremony and then the signing of the cooperation agreement was done tastefully but quickly in order to maximize the time of the group’s visit. The school site managers gave a smart board presentation of their campus so that all members would be oriented properly on the tour.
The campus looked like a small picturesque European village but with all of the modern accoutrements. The young foreign teacher did not understand why such a fuss was being made over a university. Zen had to explain to her that not all universities were equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, back in Dongbei, dilapidated buildings were common even at the university level. There just weren’t enough funds to modernize all of the buildings on every campus. At least that was what Zen was told. It was a common refrain: no money.
The de facto tour guide, a smart (very) young director with excellent language skills who apologized profusely that the university chancellor could not greet them personally, led them into a special building that required a special key card. This was apparently where high level research was conducted in robotics? Yes, robotics!
“This should be pretty cool,” Zen commented to the young Englishwoman, who was trying her best to not whiff any more of Zen’s Godzilla-like breath.
“Yeah, I got it. I can see the pictures on the wall.” She stifled an involuntary gag response.
They were led into a room where a robotic arm was painting gorgeous calligraphy onto rice paper. Through the painful fog of hangover Zen marveled at this amazing bit of technological magic. And it was truly amazing. The angular arm dipped a long wooden brush into a flat broad dish of black ink and then proceeded to write out lines of Chinese poetry, smoothly, gracefully, with confident uninterrupted strokes. In fact, the young female engineer standing next to the display had to rush to scroll fresh rice paper under the robot’s arm. Since “the robot” only had one arm, it could write but could not reach for a new sheet of paper to write on.
The engineers, proud parents of their one-armed baby, took turns explaining the facets of the robot. You could program their robot to write any statement at all. You merely typed the text into the keyboard. Moreover, the robot was learning how to write it’s own poetry. This fact brought a lot of astonished gasps from the group. This was their real goal: to create a robot that could imitate the style of individual poets and then synthesize various styles into a harmonious new style. Absolutely marvelous.
The Calligraphy Robot
Zen tried to make a videotape of the robot, but his own badly outdated digital camera, having taken an ill-advised rafting trip down the Songhua River two years ago, was suffering from technical difficulties. Zen had to be content with just getting some badly out of focus pictures.
There were other marvels in development but the one that stuck out in Zen’s mind was the robot “Petsitter.” Another team of engineers had designed a robot friend for pets. While owners were away at work, the Petsitter would provide entertainment for the pet, rolling along like a metal banana-yellow soccer ball with a golden band running along its north-south axis. The engineer kicked the robot over and like an indomitable R2D2, it righted itself and zigzagged between the feet of the humans, humming happily. Another engineer explained that the Petsitter was able to detect “undesirable” odors and could spray a pleasant fragrance to offset the offending smell.
The robot bumped into Zen, rolled back a few inches, gyrated on its golden axis, and then aimed a sizeable cumulonimbus of rose-scented fragrance at him. Everyone laughed—especially K—but Zen was not amused.
“Seems to me your robot got a few kinks that need to get worked out.”
The engineer picked up his yellow baby, examined it, and then put it back down. “Yes, we has not perfected he yet, but we getting there. He gonna be great one!” Everyone enthusiastically agreed even though only half of them understood the young engineer’s words.
The Awesome Petsitter
K whispered something to the foreign teacher; they both looked over at Zen and giggled. Zen felt his face flush red. Damn that K. He had a desperate urge to put her over his knee and spank her like a naughty child. Zen discreetly sniffed his armpit while the troop filed out. He could have sworn the robot was looking at him.
They were hustled down to the school cafeteria and ushered into an enormous dining hall decorated in what must have been seventeenth century French style wallpaper and curtains. The ceiling had intricate wooden carvings and the football field-long dining table was covered in an incredibly heavy dining cloth. While everyone got seated, Zen begged the young Englishwoman to save him a seat and he slipped out to the restroom. He scrubbed as much of his flesh as he could with the package of moist wipes he kept in his computer bag. It would have to do. He swore he would never allow white alcohol to pass his lips ever again in this lifetime. He imagined kicking a penalty shot with the Petsitter.
Back at the dining table, scrubbed and refreshed, Zen had to suffer further mortification. He had been too hung over to properly read the menu that they had given him in the morning. He was supposed to select items that the school chefs would prepare for lunch later in the day. Zen, his eyelids moving over his eyeballs like sandpaper, just put a check into every box. A train of servers lined up behind his chair and deposited dish after steaming dish in front of him.
“I think,” said Zen, “that there’s been an error in translation.” Everyone laughed.
“Some kind of mistake!”
“Yeah, that’s some kind of mistake!”
“Poor guy. He didn’t understand the instructions on the menu this morning.”
“I guess your Chinese isn’t as good as you think, huh Eric?”
“He can’t read Chinese, that’s what it is.”
Zen tried to make some excuse about categories of food, but the more he explained the more everyone laughed. Though the foreign teacher could not understand Chinese, she understood that the members of the group were teasing Zen by the various shades of purple-red scrolling up and down his face like a broken computer monitor.
“There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to eat all of this.”
It would be an insult not to eat the food so carefully prepared. Then Zen hit upon an idea. This was a Western-style meal in which everyone was given their own plates to consume with knives and forks instead of chopsticks (much to the delight of the foreign teacher who was tired of balancing her food on the wooden implements and more often than not dropping said morsels on the table, the floor, or her lap). There was no reason Zen could not share his meal with the other members. Most of the men were not only big drinkers, but also big eaters. Some of them had ordered too little, so Zen proceeded to push his food onto the plates of those seated around him. He lumped generous portions of baked salmon, Pakistani curry chicken, and New York T-bone onto their plates. At first they protested, but after tasting the delicious meats, they eyed Zen’s plates hungrily. He passed the plates down the table and in minutes all of the food was gone. Zen had not even taken one single bite of any of the food that he had ordered. In any event, his stomach was grumbling in discontent at the awful barrage of alcohol it had been subjected to over the past few days.
Apparently, it was a delicious meal and best of all the directors at this university only plied the table with hot tea and soft drinks. No alcohol in sight. A joyous respite. Zen felt a deep enduring love for the administrators of this university. After the meal, they gathered for one last round of photos in front of the calligraphy exhibit in the main building, said goodbye, and shuttled to the hotel where they would spend their last night.
Before arriving at the hotel, the tour guide offered a list of options that the group could elect to do. At first, it was optional to go along on a tour. Then, after they disembarked, this option was rescinded. This sudden reversal of the program was not properly explained to the two foreigners. Had Zen been paying attention instead of daydreaming of multiple ways in which to exact revenge on first his nemesis and then K, he might have saved them all a bit of trouble. Zen and the foreign teacher had elected not to go along with the rest of group on the sightseeing tour. They hustled to gather their belongings and grab some rest. They both needed a break from this communal experience. Moreover, the young Englishwoman perceived the Chinese contingent as overly controlling. She had trouble understanding why they insisted that she and Zen accompany them to some silly theme park. It seemed even less important since the director herself had to rush off to the airport to go to another important meeting. Surely it wasn’t mandatory that everyone attend this event. Eventually, after an acerbic parley between Zen, K, and the logistics secretary, it was granted that Zen and the foreign teacher would be permitted to go off on their own as long as K chaperoned them. The two foreigners were relieved. (And puzzled: why chaperoned?) Both of them had had enough Mandarin language. While everyone else went to visit the Splendid China Miniature Theme Park, Zen, the young Englishwoman, and K could go window shopping and most important of all find a Starbucks. Both foreigners were going into withdrawal for a decent cup of coffee.
“What! As if we needed babysitting!” she complained.
Zen commiserated with her and made a silly joke about the Chinese wishing to safeguard her English honor from possible American infringement. She looked at him stonily. Oh-KAY. Bad joke, he muttered to himself. Zen turned to K. He tried to present an inscrutable face to her, but she could tell he was upset about last night. She knew him well enough. She felt embarrassed and sorry about the young Englishwoman’s distress, a little worried that Zen might give the director a bad accounting of her management of the situation, and also miffed that Zen treated her like an enemy. It was a bad idea to ever get involved with the eccentric temperamental American.
“May we freshen up a little bit before heading back out?” he asked, the overly polite tone incapable of making his hostility.
“I’ll see. I don’t know if we can check in without the rest of the group.”
“Are you kidding?” The foreign teacher was incredulous.
Since the group had gone immediately to visit the Splendid China Park, they had not bothered to check in. They just left their bags in the care of the front desk. In order to receive the group discount, all members had to be present. How frustrating!
Eventually the front desk got permission from a higher up to grant this favor to “our foreign friends.”
The foreigners were given key cards, but K, being a member of the office staff and not a foreign guest, had to freshen up in the downstairs restroom. Despite his irritation with her, Zen felt sorry and ashamed that K should be treated like a second-class citizen. In the past under such circumstances, they had discreetly shared facilities, but given how things stood between them, this was impossible. Zen wanted to prompt the young Englishwoman to offer to bring K to her room, but she grabbed her card and bolted for the elevator. Zen cast a doleful gaze at K but she quickly dropped her eyes and pretended to look for something in her purse. Zen turned on his heel and followed the foreign teacher into the elevator.
Later, the three of them wandered the clean-swept shopping malls nearby the hotel. It was an amazing and grotesque display of capitalism, capitalism on steroids. First, they wandered into a warren of small narrow stores selling trinkets, gewgaws, and knockoffs of famous brands, each store piled on the other with barely room to draw breath. This crazy labyrinth was next door to an enormous mall that housed many of the world’s most famous and most expensive brand stores. Even Zen, a fashion philistine if ever there was one, recognized many of the names: Yves Saint Laurent, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany’s, Cartier, Coach handbags, the list went on and on. K was not insensitive to the cold shoulder treatment she was getting from the two foreigners and ditched them after an hour. She was particularly sickened when Zen purposefully took them into the woman’s lingerie section and began trying on several items. The silly foreign teacher guffawed loudly while K stood mortified issuing apologies to the saleswomen. The truth was K was jealous that Zen and the foreign teacher were getting on so well. It did not help matters when the young pretty lingerie sellers laughed at Zen’s antics. Peeved, she went back to the hotel to relax and wait for the other leaders to return from their tour.
Zen and the young Englishwoman breathed a sigh of relief. K was acting like such a wet blanket. They found a Starbucks in which to sip coffee and check their email on their respective devices. After they had devoured a blueberry cheesecake and Black Forest Chocolate cake, the two of them went shopping. The young Englishwoman needed a portable cell phone charger and Zen wanted to buy Hobbit and Danny a gift. Zen felt his conscience pricking him that he had neglected to get his wife and stepson anything from this trip. His conscience was not pricking him so much as warning him. The last time he returned from a business trip without a present, Hobbit looked so forlorn and misbegotten that he wished the plane had exploded on the tarmac rather than returning him safely to Harbin. About the time they were done shopping, K sent them a text to tell them when and where they would gather to have dinner.
“God, do we have to?” the young Englishwoman asked.
“I don’t know. Since the Director of the Center has already left maybe we can skip this dinner. It’s been known to happen.”
Zen spoke with K. The foreign teacher could tell from his tone that it was no go.
“Sorry. K is telling me that we have to show up. It’s the last time. Tonight we can go off on our own, though. That is if you can stand my company for another night.”
“Yeah sure. That’s fine. I’m fine with whatever. I just am a bit sick of eating with the entire…you know.”
“Yeah, believe me I know.”
Dinner was much better than expected. Most of the leaders had either gone to dinner with other colleagues or had left Shenzhen for other venues. Best of all, the despicable man who had made the foreign teacher cry was nowhere in sight. Zen and the young Englishwoman were glad and prayed he had left town. Moreover, since the director was not in attendance, no one was forced to drink.
After dinner, the two foreigners strolled around the neighborhood. Zen had the cockamamie idea of sneaking across the border to Hong Kong. They walked down to the Ping Yuen River, but could not see it much less find access to cross to it. There was a tall white concrete wall built along the entire river shore. About every four hundred yards a guard tower snaked with razor wire loomed down on the road. The windows (looking somewhat like gun turrets) were dark. The towers looked unlived in, but that was highly unlikely. There were pedestrians hurrying home from work carrying groceries in plastic bags and cars whizzing along the thoroughfare, but other than that there was nothing to see. Zen noticed that along the shore there were several fancy gated condominium communities that obviously had a great view of the river and Hong Kong. The daunting white wall paused at their entrances and resumed at the edge of their properties. So much for communism.
This part of Shenzhen reminded Zen a little bit of Hong Kong. The roads and pedestrian pathways were designed in such a way that one could not simply cross the street without hopping several ridiculous fences and medians. One had to find a pedestrian bridge or underpass in order to get over to the other side. He thought of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. It felt as if you could get trapped on one of the medians in between the fast-moving rivers of speeding traffic if you weren’t careful.
They decided to be adventurous and raced across the road, dodging Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes Benzes, vaulting over the steel medians until they reached the bus depot. Once there they made their way to the last stop on the Metro’s Green Line. They got on the subway and rode it to the Grand Theatre stop.
They walked over to Lizhi Park and fast-walked around Lihu Lake. It was nice to see so many people out and about exercising this late in the evening on a weekday. Grandparents were playing with their grandchildren, young lovers were either strolling along the lake or finding quiet shadowed bowers in which to sit and enjoy each other’s company. Many sports enthusiasts were jogging around the park singly or in small groups. Zen asked the foreign teacher if she would not mind stopping at the exercise area so that he could stretch his legs.
While Zen was trying to look cool doing the standing splits against the chin-up bars, the young Englishwoman was immersed in cyberspace, taking not the least bit notice of Zen’s physical accomplishments. She was updating her friends back in Wales about this horrendous trip spent in the company of an American blowhard and a pack of uncivilized Chinese bumpkins from the North.
The fact that she didn’t comment on his flexibility stung Zen’s pride until he reminded himself that he was stretching not for applause, but in order to relieve his aching lower back. He consoled himself with the Chinese chengyu 对牛弹琴 duìniú tánqín that meant playing the piano for the bull or cow. The nearest linguistic equivalent would have to be casting pearls before swine.
If the young Englishwoman were hard pressed she could have shared a few choice rejoinders that might have cut Zen to the quick. For example, she could have said, “Every bird relishes its own voice” or “The older the man, the weaker his mind.” Rather than sting each other with shrewd remarks they kept quiet. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other, but travel takes its toll and traveling with workmates can be exhausting. After taking the subway back to the hotel and reaching their rooms both of them found they were glad to quit each other’s company. It had been a long day at the end of a long trip.