A run-in with reality – by Derek Sandhaus



There are few better places to be than Shanghai in the springtime. Sandwiched between the frigid bleakness and sweltering mosquito-infested blanket of the Yangtze Delta extremes are a perfect few weeks of shirtsleeves and al fresco dining. Under spring’s clear blue skies, one starts finding excuses to be outside. For me it was an impromptu editorial meeting with an author.

I had been in Shanghai for just over two years and was attempting to transition from nobody to entry-level somebody; from aimless transient to anchored expat. For the first time I had a job that paid more than subsistence wages and, more important, a title. I was in publishing, a book editor with all of the corresponding gravitas. When my friends invited me out for dinner and drinks, I no longer had to think up an elaborate excuse for my empty pockets. I was finally enjoying all that Mainland China’s most cosmopolitan city had to offer. It was a cool spring day and life was good.

The meeting was arranged at a stylish café just a short walk from my apartment in the former French Concession. The French Concession is patchwork of winding lanes and wide boulevards, spanning the southern half of central Shanghai. It had been conceived of as a suburban European respite from the hustle and congestion of colonial Chinese life. The buildings were low and the streets lined with Plane trees, imported long ago from France. In the time since the French left, the Concession had been subsumed into downtown Shanghai and more recently turned into a gentrified wonderland of wine bars and boutique stores. The Shanghainese never referred to it as the French Concession, but what did it matter, we didn’t speak the same language.

Attempting to maximise my daily sunlight allotment, I decided to arrive early and write e-mails on the deck over coffee. But the sign in the locked door informed me that it would not open for another forty-five minutes. On a day like this, I didn’t mind waiting outside, so I placed some newspaper on the curb, sat down and pulled out my computer.

I don’t know how long I had been staring at the screen when I looked up and saw her. She was a young woman, walking down the street alone, vacantly staring into the storefront windows. Upon seeing a stray kitten, she stopped to play with it. She was wearing a white cotton dress, her shoulders covered by a mustard-yellow shrug. As she drew nearer, I could see strings hanging from the torn hem of her dress. The cloth was cheap, tattered and streaked with dirt. Her dark shoulder-length hair was tangled and unkempt. It appeared as if she had spent the previous night sleeping outside, perhaps the previous several nights.

I pretended not to notice her and looked back at my screen. She kept walking closer and stopped next to me, looked down and said, in Chinese, “Hello.”

“Hello,” I replied, trying to sound polite but uninterested.

“Where are you from?” she asked.


“Are you on vacation or do you work here?”

“I work here. I’ve been here for almost three years."

“What do you do?” she asked.

My stomach sank. We had already reached the outer limits of my Mandarin ability. I wasn’t used to explaining myself in Chinese and I hadn’t been at my job long enough to even know how to say the title I cherished. I had made a few feeble efforts to learn Mandarin, but it hadn't stuck. It just never seemed all that necessary. I inhabited a different world than the twenty million or so natives in Shanghai.

I muttered something incomprehensible that incorporated the words “book”, “help” and “write”, and then I asked her what she did.

She pointed towards a three-story building encased in a shell of inert neon lights at the end of the street. “I work over there,” she said. “At the KTV.” A karaoke parlour, I knew what that meant – smoke-choked rooms full of heavily intoxicated Chinese men with overeager hands. Maybe prostitution. It was around that point that I noticed the dark purple smear of a bruise below her chin.

“What are you doing?”

Words failed me again. How to explain the ensuing meeting or the relationship between author and editor? “I’m waiting for my friend,” I said, adding, “he’ll be here any minute.”

She looked down the street, as if expecting to see him, then back at me with that distant look in her eyes. “I’ll wait with you,” she said and, before I could object, sat down on the curb beside me.

We sat side by side in silence for a few moments. I returned to whatever document I had been working on and tried to appear busy. She either didn’t care or notice, and continued speaking.

“I’m sorry. My Chinese isn’t very good,” I said. “I don’t understand.”

It was as if my words didn’t even register; she just went on talking with that same detached expression. At first, some of the words made sense in isolation: pronouns, conjunctions and verbs – “you”, “at”, “should”, etc. But when I tried to rearrange them into thoughts, I just got more confused, dropping clauses and then entire sentences. Her voice became noise, inflected sound absent meaning. Occasionally she would pause, lean forward and wait for the response I could not form. Then she started talking again.

I felt the need to escape with a profound immediacy. I kept looking behind her, hoping in vain that the writer would materialise, but it was just me, her and words I could not comprehend.

Lacking understanding, I began to invent meaning. She was probably from a distant province, friendless and lonely. She probably needed someone else’s ear. Perhaps I was the first foreigner with whom she had ever spoken. It was possible that in me she saw the illusory promise of money, maybe a way out. I thought of the KTV; was she propositioning me in broad daylight?

My eyes drifted back to the marks on her neck. Deep purple, edged by yellow blotches in an irregular pattern of dots. They looked like fingerprints. Maybe she needed help.

Part of me wanted to do something, to tell someone. But who would I tell? Most of the shopkeepers on this street would probably just tell me to get lost, it wasn’t their business. I could go to the KTV, but what good would that do? The best I could hope for was an angry reproach, and I might invite the same violence upon myself. The police? I knew better than to bother them. Worst of all, how was I supposed to communicate any of this in my broken, ineffectual Chinese?

She was probably far from home and desperate, but so were lots of people. What did I know about her, really? Her alleged employer and that she’d been recently roughed up? Maybe she didn’t even need, or want, my assistance.

But what if she did? Out of my depth and horribly unequipped, what use was I?

She was still talking, but I hadn’t understood a word for minutes. I cut her off, repeating, “I don’t know what you’re saying. What do want?”

My words finally sunk in. She looked back at me, mouth slightly open and didn’t say anything for several seconds. At last, mercifully, the silence was broken by the click of a door lock.

I told her it was nice to meet her, then stood and entered the café. It was a long, dark room with polished wood floors and sumptuous furnishing. I sunk deep into the plush velvet seat, back in the world I knew, a million miles away from the curbside just a few steps away.

A waiter approached my table. He was dressed in a pressed white shirt and bow tie. “Hello, sir,” he said in impeccable English. “Can I help you?”

Derek Sandhaus is an American writer and editor, researching Chinese drinking culture. He blogs at 300 Shots at Greatness and is the former chief editor of Earnshaw Books. He is the author of Tales of Old Peking and Tales of Old Hong Kong, editor of Décadence Manchoue (the memoirs of Edmund Backhouse) and a contributing author to Unsavory Elements

MaLa, the Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal, is a collection of new writing from China and beyond, including short fiction, literary nonfiction, poetry and work in translation, supported by art works and photography. They have produced three print issues, available for 20 RMB at the Chengdu Bookworm, or by email order