Xiaoli’s hands are sweating. “Yes? You wanted me?”
Her supervisor looks up briefly at her and then back to the newspaper. “The new foreign teachers are coming in tomorrow. Pick them up.”
“Me?” she asks, smiling. “You want me to meet them?”
He shakes the newspaper and folds it up. He opens a drawer to pull out a cigarette. “You pick them up and take them to Hongshanglu.”
“Hongshanglu? Not the university?”
“We don’t have space. All the rooms are filled. Anyway, my uncle has a free flat. He says we can use it and I can pay him under the table.”
“What about the neighbors?”
“What about the neighbors.”
“Should we be concerned about them? Will it cause any trouble?”
“I don’t care about the neighbors. Just pick them up and take them there.”
“Shouldn’t we get them a gift? For them coming?”
The supervisor inhales his cigarette, shakes his head.
The supervisor closes his eyes and exhales.
“I think it would be kind.”
He looks at her. For several moments nobody speaks. “Fine, get them a gift,” he says.
“And the university will pay me back?”
He stubs his cigarette in the ash tray and then picks up the phone. “I have a phone call to make,” he says, waving her off.
She nods, her face burning brightly. She heads down the stairs and leaves the campus to go outside to the small row of shops that cater to the students. One of the stores has items standing on shelves facing the window: assorted coffee mugs, picture frames and small knickknacks. She strolls down the aisles, trying to decide what to buy. And then she comes across what she is looking for: a 3D panda picture frame.
She ends up buying two 3D picture frames; one with pandas and the other one with dragons decorating the frames. The total cost is eighty RMB. She asks for a receipt.
“You want a receipt?”
The middle aged woman takes a deep sigh and underneath the cluttered desk, pulls out a big wad of receipts. She’s filling out the date, price and the items bought when Xiaoli’s phone rings. It’s her mother.
“Did you eat?”
“No? You should eat. Why haven’t you eaten?”
“I’m shopping. I’ll eat later. I’m buying a gift for the foreigners that I have to pick up. They’re supposed to come tomorrow.”
“Foreigners? Tomorrow?” she can hear her mother explaining the situation to her father.
“Make good friends. Your father says to be sure to make good friends. If you make good friends, maybe one day you can go to America.”
Her father’s yelling in the background. “Are they American? Of course, they’re American! Every foreigner is American.”
“No, they’re not American,” Xiaoli says. “One is from Canada and the other is from Russia.”
“What a shame not from America,” her mother says, full of sadness.
“But they lived in America.”
“She says they lived in America.”
“Oh, wait, Mom. I could be wrong. Maybe they are Americans and they lived before in Canada and Russia.”
“I told you,” her father can be heard saying. “Everyone’s from America.”
“Your father says to be sure to take them out for dinner. Or buy them a gift.”
In the airport, she waits eagerly in the arrivals lounge. She presses her new slacks down and pats her newly cut bobbed hair. When the sliding door opens and people stride through, she holds up the sign with the foreigners’ names across it very high up in the air.
After ten minutes, a middle aged foreign couple walks through the door. She waves her sign, hoping that it is them. They pause just outside the sliding door and the woman looks through her bag. The man looks up and around and sees the moving sign Xiaoli is holding. He elbows the woman, who quickly looks up, blowing her nose into a Kleenex. They walk toward her.
“Hello and please welcome to China,” Xiaoli says.
“Oh, god, what an awful trip,” the woman begins. “It was just so much turbulence.”
“I need a drink,” the husband says.
“This way please,” she says, escorting them to the waiting van outside the airport terminal. They settle in.
“How long is it till we get to our place?”
“We’re on our way now,” she says, smiling.
“No,” the woman says, waving her hand. “How much time will it take?”
“What she means is,” says her husband. “How long will it take to get to our apartment?”
“Oh. Not long. Should be about twenty minutes.”
The woman groans. “Twenty minutes?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be fast. Twenty minutes flies by fast and then we can lie down for a while and relax.” The man is patting her as he’s saying this and then looks at Xiaoli. “We had a very awful flight. Very noisy. It was very long.”
“Oh,” says Xiaoli. “I’m sorry about that.”
The van pulls into a large apartment complex and parks in front one of the buildings. The couple gets out and looks up at the old depilated building.
“Does this have an elevator?”
“No,” says Xiaoli.
“What floor is our apartment on?”
“The sixth floor.”
The couple looks at each other and raises their eyebrows. “Six floors? And no elevator?”
Inside the flat, Xiaoli and the driver wait for them to catch their breath. Once their faces are no longer red, Xiaoli shows them the place. As she’s showing them the place, their complaints increase.
“The bed’s hard as a rock.”
“There are dead cockroaches in the refrigerator.”
The woman looks out of the windows into the facing building. “The neighbors are looking at us. Why is everyone looking at us? Was there a local announcement about us coming?”
“It’s too dark here,” the husband says. “I get depressed when it’s too dark.”
The first week the calls are daily.
“The washing machine is not working.”
“Where is the store to buy things?”
“Aren’t we supposed to get a free lunch card?”
“Where are the other foreigners? I thought they would be more foreigners.”
“Where’s the mall?”
“Is there anything else besides KFC?”
The second week the Xiaoli is called up to her supervisor’s office again. He tells her to take them down to the visa office.
“Which car do I use?” she asks.
“Car? What car? There is no car. You use the bus.”
“What about a taxi?”
“Taxi?” He shakes his head violently. “No, use the bus.”
“Taxi?” they ask her.
“There was no car available. We can take a bus and besides it’s not too far,” explains Xiaoli. “It’s very close.”
“How close?” they ask.
It takes more than fifteen minute to reach the bus station, because they walk too slow. The wife keeps stopping to look into her bag to see if she has everything. They also stop every now and then to look up into the sky and point around. At what? Xiaoli doesn’t know. As they get closer to the bus stop, the sidewalk becomes more congested. Xiaoli then has to stop to wait for the couple, because every time someone bumps into them, the couple make a short cry and turn around to look at the offending person who rudely bumped into them; staring at the backs of their heads until they disappear into the crowds.
When they finally arrive to the bus stop, Xiaoli tells them to stop and wait. The woman digs into her bag for a fan and begins to fan herself. She puts the fan back into the bag and pulls out a water bottle. Xiaoli sees out of the corner of her eye a beggar working his way through the crowd. The beggar’s eyes get big when he sees the foreigners and immediately comes toward them, shaking his tin can.
“No money,” the man tells him in English. He turns to Xiaoli, “I just got here. And I got to give him money?”
“He doesn’t know that.” She tries to tell the beggar to go away, that there is nothing for him. The beggar then looks at the woman who’s clutching her water bottle against her chest. His hands reach out toward her.
“What the hell?” the woman says.
“What is he doing?” the man demands.
“He just wants the water bottle.”
“I still got water in it,” the woman says, shaking the half empty water bottle. “Can’t he see that? He’s not blind.”
“He just wants it, because he can recycle it for the money.”
The beggar grabs the bottle.
Several buses come screeching up to the curb.
“Oh, the bus,” Xiaoli says. “This is the bus.”
She runs off and then turns around to the couple calling them to run faster. They reach the bus’s door and people from all sides push and shove.
“Please hurry, get on the bus.”
“Doesn’t anyone around here know about basic courtesy?”
They manage to get on the bus. There is no place to sit and barely any space to hold on to the rails. The bus pulls off and their hands frantically grope the people around them, trying to hold onto something. They violently swing forward and backwards every time the bus stops and takes off. Fifteen minutes later they arrive at their destination.
It is almost 12:00.
“Please hurry up,” she tells the couple and they enter the visa office. They wait at first in the wrong line and then after asking questions, Xiaoli takes them to the appropriate office. But when they arrive, the woman sitting behind the desk puts up a sign that says: Back in twenty minutes.
“Oh,” Xiaoli says.
“What are they, imbeciles?” asks the man.
“Didn’t you know about this?” the woman asks her. “Why didn’t you know about this?”
“I’m sorry. We can just have a nice lunch—”
“Well, what if I don’t want a nice lunch?”
“What if we’re tired? Have you ever heard of jet lag?”
They go down the stairs and wait outside the building. As Xiaoli is scanning the street for possible restaurants to eat at another beggar comes up to them, slowly walking up to them; leaning on his walking stick and clanking his tin can. The foreigners see him.
“Not again,” says the man.
Xiaoli’s can feel her face burning. She reaches into her purse and gives him a mao. The beggar shakes his head, takes his stick and pounds his stick on her shoes. She quickly moves out of the way latching her hand onto the woman’s arm.
“Oh my god!” screams the woman. “Did you see that?”
“Please, let’s have some lunch over there,” she says, pulling her away.
“That guy just hit you in the foot!”
“Is it a Chinese place?” asks the husband. “Because I can’t have MSG. I’m severely allergic to MSG.”
One month later, they still call her. The problem now has to do with the trash. The woman tells her about the neighbors and beggars wading through their trash.
“It’s for recycling,” explains Xiaoli. ”You can get money for the–”
“And what about the smell? It’s just disgusting and rude,” says the woman.
“It’s like I’m hunted for my trash. As soon as I run outside, the neighbors chase me down the stairs and after my trash. It’s degrading. I’m scared. I don’t feel so safe here.”
“No, no please don’t worry. There is nothing to worry. China is very safe.”
“Well, I don’t know about that…”
Two months later, Xioali meets the woman in the hallway and out of politeness she asks about the problem of the trash. She explains to the woman that she had already talked to the baoan about the problem.
“The security guards.”
“Them? Why did you talk to them? They do nothing but play games all day long. They’re just as guilty you know. I see them digging through the trash. We threw away two frames. Ghastly frames. There were pandas in 3D. What the hell are we supposed to do with 3D pandas?”
The woman continues, “They have those 3D pandas sitting in their office window. You can see it. Go there and see it for yourself. It’s like they have nothing to hide. It’s like they’re proud of what they find in the trash. Who’d be proud of trash?”
“I hope the trash is no problem for you anymore.”
“The trash? Oh, the trash doesn’t bother me anymore. I just toss it out the window like everyone else.”
In the third month it is the husband who calls her. He complains to her about their sex life, their lack of sex life. Xiaoli doesn’t feel comfortable, but she doesn’t know how to explain to the man that he needs to stop calling. She dreads meeting the woman in the hallways. The woman has not been so friendly to her lately. She is afraid that the woman suspects her and her husband are having an affair.
Xiaoli has taken to memorizing the foreign couple’ work schedule, making special arrangements so as not to cross their paths. She has also has become more adept at typing English messages to the husband: “I’m so sorry,” “I’m busy right now,” or “I’m in class” and in last desperation she has even referred her supervisor’s phone number to him for future problems.
After Christmas, things are quiet until New Year’s Day when the police call her supervisor who then calls Xiaoli. “They have a problem with the new laowais,” he says. “Fix it.”
It is her day off, ten thirty in the morning. Nevertheless she gets up, gets dressed and goes to the foreigners’ place. When she walks to their apartment, she sees the police car waiting outside and several neighbors standing around looking up. She looks up and sees the sixth floor, the foreigners’ flat. The kitchen window is cracked and broken. A microwave hangs dangerously halfway out of the broken window. Her shoes step on broken beer glass bottles and notices more things of the apartment are lying on the ground shattered: a rice cooker, an iron, assorted silverware, a basket and other odds and ends.
The neighbors recognize her.
“There she is!”
“You’re from the university, right?”
She nods her head, looking at the policemen.
“Tell your laoban, we don’t want no more laowai here anymore. Do you hear that? No more laowai!”
She follows the policemen up the stairs to the foreigners’ flat. The neighbors on each floor stick their heads out to look at her.
“They had a fight,” the policemen tell her. “They threw things out of the window.”
They pass by open doors on their way to the sixth floor. “They were running around naked,” says one old lady, her head peering out of her doorway.
“Up and down the stairs naked,” adds another. “All naked!”
“We could hear them screaming your name,” says another neighbor. “Your name is Xiaoli, right? Yeah, well they were screaming your name. Throwing stuff out and running up and down the stairs naked.”
The policemen stop and look at Xiaoli. “Are you having an affair with the husband?”
She shakes her head no. The policemen look at each other and continue walking up the stairs. They finally arrive at their apartment. The door is open and Xiaoli can see them. The neighbors behind them push them in the entrance room and they all spill into the entrance room staring at the foreigners. The foreigners stand there covered in towels, shivering.
“Tell them we’re sorry,” says the woman. “We just got carried away.”
“Yes,” says the husband. He gives a shy smile and then looks her up and down. “You look nice today, Xiaoli. That color looks good on you.”
The woman looks at her husband, closes her eyes and inhales deeply, then walks away to the living room.
“What?” asks the husband, following her. “I can’t say anything nice about another woman? Come on, you know I love you. Didn’t we just have the most amazing sex ever?”
The woman turns around to face him, smiles and begins laughing. “Yes, we did.” He puts his arms around her and they begin making out, kissing and groaning. The towels drop, exposing their nakedness.
The policemen look at Xiaoli. “Could you tell them to cut it out?”
But Xiaoli doesn’t move. She’s paralyzed, watching them. They moan some more and stumble backwards into the wall. The woman yelps. The man digs at her neck. They slide down from the wall to the floor. They’re both yelping now.
One of the neighbors, an old lady, shakes her head and leaves. She comes back in, struggling to carry a large red bucket full of grease and rice—the community’s left overs bucket that is to be given to the farmers when they come by later.
The thick sludge in the bucket swishes back and forth, spilling on the floor. The old lady manages to lift up the bucket and pours it over the naked couple. They scream and stand up, covered in slime and fish heads with empty eye sockets.
“You’ll be hearing about this from my lawyers!” the man screams, pointing at Xiaoli. The policemen arrest them and lead them outside, naked and stinky, into the waiting van.
The foreigners are deported. Their visas cancelled. Barred from China indefinitely. It is later found out that they had the same problem in Beijing.
Xiaoli’s phone rings. It’s her mom. “How is everything, dear?”
“I just took them to the airport.”
“Did you get their phone number?” her dad yells.
“Your father wants to know if you got their phone number.”
“No, I didn’t…”
“Well, how about their QQ. Did you get their QQ?”
“They don’t have QQ, mom.”
“Email. Your father’s asking about their email. Did you get their–”
“No, I don’t have anything—“
“You don’t have anything? Well, then how are you supposed to go to America?”
“I’m not going, mom.”
“Not going? Well, then how are you going to—”
“Mom, I don’t care about America. I really don’t.”
Xenia Taiga lives in southern China. Her work is in Asian Cha, Fourway Review, Pithead Chapel, The Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. She’s a contributing editor to Eastlit.