A prophesy comes true in Shanghai – fiction by Tom Mangione
When I first came to Shanghai, I was a young man with a full head of hair and a bare chin. I could grow a beard, but I always thought it a bit gauche. Back home, everyone was growing beards, but the trend was lost on me. Clean-shaven felt classic, and I was a classic kind of guy. Maybe I was more classic than I knew.
I spent my first weekend in town at some local bars that I'd heard were cool. Everything about me gave away the fact that I was new to Shanghai, new to China, new to all of it. I fumbled with the novel currency, studying Mao’s smirk each time I pulled out my wallet. I tried out my nascent Chinese – wo yao yi ge pijiu – only to have the bartenders answer in calm, steady English. I was the proverbial deer in the headlights, and Shanghai was the Mack truck ready to splatter my assumptions all over the pavement.
At the bar, I took up conversation with a middle-aged, white American guy, sitting sad and alone. He was bald, bearded and quite skinny. He looked like he had no one to talk to, and I felt sorry for him. I don't remember anything we talked about except for one thing. He said that every white man who stays in China long enough becomes bearded, bald or both. Usually both. When he said this I assumed that this was just his way of coddling his fragile middle-aged ego. He was, well, bald and bearded himself. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was wrong. Deer-in-the-headlights-meets-Mack-truck wrong. A chin full of prickly pear stubble is fate. A shiny bowling ball of a pate is destiny.
I began my overtures into China by studying Chinese. I enrolled at a well-known university and found it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It wasn’t because it improved my ability to interact with a fascinating and rich culture, or that it became easier to communicate with everyone. Studying Chinese electrified my social life. I was suddenly chumming with students from across the world, making merry on Friday and Saturday and often weekdays too, learning the rituals of modern debauchery. I mastered how to properly disarm a sake bomb (by drinking it), how to confiscate beer from a friend who's had too much (by drinking it) and how to throw up without getting caught (well, you get the idea).
I wasn’t a total lush though. I did manage to study Chinese sometimes, when I wasn't hungover. I eventually felt comfortable enough to carry on basic conversations and take care of most of my needs. My friends and I sneered some things were just too gui to buy or too mafan to do. I also found I had a certain affinity for learning Chinese characters and tones, which surprised me and my teachers. I always managed to pass with minimal effort, but never excel.
Between the carousing and the cramming, I found it very hard to remember to shave. Without noticing it, I fell into a cycle of shaving only once a week, the evening before I taught English for pocket money. It was an assignment that I respected, as a lover of my own language, but that I came to loathe once I realised how few of my students had a real passion for the language. To my students, learning English was a chore, a necessary evil. It was the language you used to impress your boss. It was the language of PowerPoints and immigration officers. I faced this attitude every day, and I became less and less interested in teaching. When I finally gave up teaching for good, I also lost my only reason to shave.
Suddenly, I had a full-on beard. And I liked it.
But more importantly, girls liked it. Or rather, certain girls liked it. My “classic” look might catch the shy eye from some perfectly normal girl walking down the street. But with the beard, I didn't get interest from the passive, the tame or the meek. I got hooked into ladies with attitude. Girls who sang in rock bands, who sported visible tattoos, who dyed their hair streaky blue. Crazy, fun, wild. My beard got me just what I wanted.
As my beard grew longer, so did my ambitions. I stopped going to school and started angling for an entrance into the beer trade. It was an industry that had given me so much; I figured it was time I gave back. I could funnel a gallon of it into my body and still stand. That’s enough, right?, I was growing tired of drinking Qingdao all the time and waking up the next day with the taste of acid in my mouth. I had some contacts back home that knew brewers looking to build a market in China. We talked on Skype. They had beards. I had a beard. It was easy.
I found myself hawking American beers to spots all over town. Eventually I got enough capital together to start a little beer store of my own. I sold beer and potato chips there. That was it. My business plan was to add as many different kinds of both as I could find. I dropped the prices as low as I could and soon I had a loyal retinue of regulars who I'd get drunk with every night. When the neighbours started to complain, I started shutting the place around midnight every night and found another location nearby. Before I knew it, four years had gone by, the way of wake-eat-drink-sleep-repeat.
One morning, after a night of “tequila sampling” (an oxymoron if I’ve heard one), I took a good look at myself in the mirror. Fuck. Somehow in the last four years, my hairline had receded a good two inches. I looked pale. I needed rest. Or better yet, a pick me up. I needed coffee.
I set up a teeny tiny coffee shop in Jing’an with a Guatemalan guy who had some connections to coffee back home. We roasted our own beans, hung up some blank canvasses on the wall and invited some artsy types. One artist used a miniature brush to paint each little pixel of canvas a different color. It was beautiful up close, but looked kind of like a brown blob when you stepped back from it. People called that one “the turd”. Another artist had a picture of his ass printed onto his canvas. He told me it was to match the turd. I think he thought I wouldn’t post it, but I did. Eventually some customers complained, so I had to put a post-it note on it to obscure the ass crack. I called that one the “post-ass”. Another artist insisted on installing a video piece that played a curated assortment of cat GIFs. She was a genius.
Anyway, I could tell that the whole art-and-coffee thing really took off. I could tell when people I’d never met would walk in the door and call me by name. I could tell when the police showed up and told us those licenses on the wall weren’t legit. I could tell when the landlord started telling me that the amount of rent we had agreed to in our contract was just a misprint. I spent a lot of time with Chinese lawyers. They liked the cat GIFs, and they wanted to help me. I drank more coffee. Slept less.
When the coffee shop got going again, we were written up in one of those snarky expat websites that write about artisanal cream cheese and interview European DJs who know more about graphic design than music. In the article they mentioned me by name, along with an epithet that haunted me in my dreams – “that bearded and bald guy”.
I didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. There it was in the mirror, undeniable. What hair I had left on my head had all congregated below my ears. With teary eyes, I shaved off what was left around the back until all the hair left on my head was my beard.
You got me, China. You’ve left your mark. I now stand before you in awe, humbled as I accept my bearded and bald destiny.