A backpacker's last night in China – fiction by Aaron Fox-Lerner
Ed: This was the final story read out at Scotch & Stories night, accompanied by a peaty Laphroaig 10
The guy I went out drinking with was a hostel buddy, one of those strangers temporarily united with you only in the shared purpose of wanting to party and maybe even get laid if it’s a good night. It wasn’t a good night.
The guy was an American like me, but he spoke Chinese and had been living for five years in Zhengzhou, which is a city in China that must be the real deal, because I’ve never heard of it. I felt like he looked down on me slightly for being just a tourist in Beijing, but we were both there in the common area and I had extra beers and we got along alright. I'd only been in China six days, I hadn't planned on staying long since all I'd heard about China was how fucked up it was, but I figured I should hit up the nightlife on my last day in Beijing before traveling on to Korea.
After knocking back a few beers with him, we go to some bar district and I pull him into the first dive I see. The music’s loud and there’s a few girls in the place, but the other guy looks all snooty about it, keeps saying it’s full of foreigners like that’s a bad thing, personally I’m surprised there’s any Chinese people out partying at all. I didn’t know they were allowed to do that in totalitarian countries, I don’t see how they can live like that, really. Anyway, we have a glass of scotch before going to another bar where the drinks are suspiciously cheap. This time there's more Chinese people, but they're all either playing dice games or staring at their phones or playing dice games on their phones. I figure the gender imbalance in China must be as bad as everyone says because every bar I've been to has two or three times more men than women.
I end up talking to some Chinese people there, and then I’m sitting at their table and they’re trying to teach me this dice game, and it's fun but I keep losing and every time you lose you gotta take a shot, so I’m taking some shots of this clear, throat-burning stuff, and then my buddy from the hostel’s sitting at our table too and everyone’s trying to explain this liquor to me, they keep on telling me it’s called “Bye, Joe” and I keep on laughing, they don’t get it and I tell them that it’s my name, it’s like they’re telling me goodbye every time they say the liquor’s name.
Then we end up at at some restaurant where a woman in a headscarf brings us kebabs that I can see some guy outside is cooking over a grill with a fucking hair dryer and everyone acts like this is normal so I don’t ask about it. There’s only a few of us now: me, the hostel buddy, a little Chinese guy with glasses whose name is Kobe, like the basketball player, and his friend whose name I can’t remember, a broad-shouldered guy with an abominable Kim Jong-Un haircut. We've got tall bottles of beer standing like a miniature city erected on the top of our table, and then there’s also a glass flask full of that “bye, Joe” stuff, which Kobe also says is white wine but seems a lot more like vodka mixed with antifreeze to me.
I’m real drunk now so I don’t feel uncomfortable asking Kobe about politics. Once I do that I can see my hostel buddy looking judgmental again, like I’ve done something wrong by asking about this, even though earlier he felt free to tell me about all the shit he hated in China, but that was before there were any Chinese people around.
Thing is, though, Kobe agrees with me. Slurring a bit, he tells me how he thinks it’s all bullshit here, how the politicians are bullshit, how Mao was bullshit, how it’s all bullshit. His friend doesn’t really understand much English, but he’s nodding along and then pours us all more shots and I cheers to bullshit and we all drink to bullshit.
I’m telling them I can’t imagine how they put up with it really, how at least the Tibetans are resisting, even if they’re too noble for violence because they’re Buddhist although I never got that because isn’t everyone in China Buddhist, is it some kind of racial thing or what? And now all of a sudden Kobe’s getting angry with me, he’s saying that there’s no racism here, not like America, and then he’s talking about Tibet, how Tibetans get all this money and then give it away to monks, and then he’s saying something about surfing which makes no sense because I thought Tibet was up in the mountains, and I say so and he gets confused and says “surf, surf” like he thinks he’s pronouncing it wrong until the hostel buddy clarifies that Kobe means serfs like Russian serfs, and then for some reason this makes Kobe bring up how America is racist again and the hostel guy says that’s whataboutism and I say what about what and he says whataboutism and I say what ism and he says no, the thing is called whataboutism, and now Kobe’s even more confused than me, and the hostel buddy tries to explain it by saying “what about zhuyi” which doesn’t fix it for anyone.
I figure the tension’s been defused by confusion and we can get back to drinking but then the bad haircut guy asks Kobe what we were saying, and once Kobe translates, his friend jumps up, falls over, gets up again, and starts shouting at us. I don’t understand a word he’s saying, but then he breaks a bottle and my hostel buddy looks at him, shakes his head, turns away, throws up all over the floor, and all of the sudden the police are there.
I kind of fade out but there’s a lot of talking in Chinese from Kobe and his friend and the hostel guy and the restaurant owners, basically everyone but me, and somehow I’m the only one who gets taken back to the police station. I have to wait around until a cop who can speak English comes, an angry-faced middle aged guy with a short haircut. He takes me into a room and starts asking me sternly why I’ve been causing political trouble. I say I don’t know what he’s talking about and he says he knows I’ve been talking about Tibet and revolution against the government and that as a foreigner I have no right to get involved in Chinese affairs and they should lock me up. I’m still really drunk and I try pleading but that doesn’t work so I switch tacks and pull out my phone and show him the reservations for my flight out tomorrow and ask why they’d hold me in the country any longer than they need to and this seems to work, because he finally agrees that they’ll let me go the next day.
I have to sleep at the police station and when I get up my head’s pounding like Athena's about to spring fully formed from inside of it and my mouth’s all dry but I feel like I’ve won. I’m not going to go to jail after all, I’m a free man, I’m not like those Chinese people getting pushed around by their government, I get to leave. Then the cop smiles and says “bye, Joe” as he sees me off, and all that triumph dries away inside as I find myself wondering what he means by that, if he knows so much about last night that he even knows the story of my name and the drink. As I head to the airport and tense up passing customs and make it onto the plane, those two words follow me the whole way, as if the entire country is sending me off or mocking me or both. I look out on the smog over Beijing and realize that the only thing I’ve truly learned in this country is that send off: “Goodbye, Joe.”
Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and lives in Beijing