When I’m about fifteen minutes away from Mati, I try to call Lao Zhang, thinking, maybe I’ll see if we can meet at the jiaozi place, because I haven’t had anything to eat today but a leftover slice of bad Mr. Pizza for breakfast.
Instead of a dial tone, I get that stupid China Mobile jingle and the message that I’m out of minutes.
Oh, well. It’s not that hard to find Lao Zhang in Mati Village.
First I stop at the jiaozi place. It’s Lao Zhang’s favorite restaurant in Mati. Mine too. The dumplings are excellent, it’s cheap as hell, and I’ve never gotten sick after eating there.
By now it’s after six p.m., and the restaurant is packed. I don’t even know what it’s called, this jiaozi place. It’s pretty typical: a cement block faced with white tile. For some reason, China went through a couple of decades when just about every small public building was covered in white tile, like it’s all a giant bathroom.
The restaurant is a small square room with plastic tables and chairs. There’s a fly-specked Beijing Olympics poster on one wall and a little shrine against another—red paper with gold characters stuck on the wall, a gilded Buddha, some incense sticks, and a couple pieces of dusty plastic fruit on a little table. The place reeks of fried dough, boiled meat, and garlic.
Seeing how this is Mati Village, most of the customers are artists, though you also get a few farmers and some of the local business-owners, like the couple who run the gas station. But mostly it’s people like “Sloppy” Song. Sloppy is a tall woman who looks like she’s constructed out of wires, with thick black hair that trails down her back in a braid with plaits the size of king snakes. Who knows why she’s called “Sloppy”? Sometimes Chinese people pick the weirdest English names for themselves. I met this one guy who went by “Motor.” It said something about his essential nature, he told me.
Sloppy’s here tonight, sitting at a table, slurping the juice out of her dumpling and waving her Zhonghua cigarette at the woman sitting across from her. I don’t know this woman. She looks a little rich for this place—sleek hair and makeup, nice clothes. Must be a collector. Sloppy does assemblage sculpture and collage pieces, and they sell pretty well, even with the economy sucking as much as it does.
“Yili, ni hao,” Sloppy calls out, seeing me enter. “You eating here?”
“No, just looking for Lao Zhang.”
“Haven’t seen him. This is Lucy Wu.”
“Ni hao, pleased to meet you,” I say, trying to be polite.
Lucy Wu regards me coolly. She’s one of these Prada babes— all done up in designer gear, perfectly polished.
“Likewise,” she says. “You speak Chinese?”
I shrug. “A little.”
This is halfway between a lie and the truth. After two years, I’m not exactly fluent, but I get around. “You speak Mandarin like some Beijing street kid,” Lao Zhang told me once, maybe because I’ve got that Beijing accent, where you stick Rs on the end of everything like a pirate.
“Your Chinese sounds very nice,” she says with that smug, phony courtesy.
She has a southern accent; her consonants are soft, slightly sibilant. Dainty, almost.
“You’re too polite.”
“Lucy speaks good English,” Sloppy informs me. “Not like me.”
“Now you’re too polite,” says Lucy Wu. “My English is very poor.”
I kind of doubt that.
Excerpted from Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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