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Pass the Salt

It’s New Year’s eve 1998. I’m at a party in the capital of Hunan Province, Changsha. The locals say “Fulan, Zahnsa.” Since I moved here in February my world has been quite different, to say the least.

Most of the attendees at the party are English teachers or university students, but there are also two scientists from the World Health Organization. They are a welcome change of company so I am eager to chat with them. After our introductory formalities, they quietly ask me something surprising.

“Don’t you find the people here a little slow?” One of them says.

The question admittedly catches me off guard, especially given from whom it is coming. Without jumping to conclusions I confirm that I am following him correctly and I limp in reply, “What do you mean?”

The other one says, “Well, you know. Don’t you think the people here are kind of dumb?”

I almost cannot believe what I am hearing, or rather that two WHO scientists are opening a dialogue with such a gambit.

The first one pipes in again and informs me how the soil in Hunan is depleted of iodine. Then the second one takes over, explaining how iodine is a key ingredient in the brain’s early development and without which results in notably lower-than-average IQs in grown adults.

I’m still not sure what to make of this though I am now intrigued.

She continues to tell me that they are researching whether an iodine-deficient diet amongst pregnant women leads to giving birth to children with low IQs as well. Their hypothesis is that this known defect gets passed through the fetus.

In a flash my near-year of endless and inexplicable Changsha foibles rushes through recollection: the Asahi tuna wrap I ordered at a five-star hotel restaurant when the chef forgot the tuna; the penne carbonara with bacon and mushrooms that was prepared at another five-star restaurant but delivered without the bacon and mushrooms; the countless store merchants who got my change wrong, like the one just yesterday who amazingly returned two quai on a nine-quai purchase with a 10 RMB note.

As I remember this array of regularly bizarre mishaps, it dawns that I may have been miss-assessing my time here all along. So much of the struggle and joy I have perceived as communication or cultural differences might have, in fact, been due more to simply having to navigate and tolerate idiots.

I ask them whether their findings have confirmed their hypothesis. But then they continue in a wry tone.

“You see,” the man carries on, “according to the sample of pregnant women provided to us by the Hunan government, we have actually concluded that over 80 percent of people in the province are geniuses.”

“That’s right,” the woman chimes in. “Our experimental population was rigged by the State authorities. They cherry picked all the women we were allowed to meet. So our conclusion is now unpublishable, and the WHO can’t take further measures to try and eradicate the problem.”

They both chuckle, and I too finally give in.

The New Year hour soon tolls, and I mingle back in with the crowd for rounds of toasts and good wishes. I don’t speak with the two people again or see them leave.

Fifteen years later I still have a special place in my heart for “Fulan, Zahnsa.” It was my first home in China. And with all of the changes that I have seen across the country, returning to Changsha brings me much comfort, for it is very much the same place I grew to love now so many years ago.

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Getting Off on Eight

I get onto an elevator, I can’t remember where. A Chinese man in his late middle-age steps on. He is toting a Prada handbag that is tucked under his arm and behind his wrist. He is wearing a shiny watch, I think it’s a Rolex. It is just the two of us. I ask him in Chinese which floor, and he says eight. He makes an obligatory comment about my Mandarin and the doors close.

When he learns I am from the States he beams back that his daughter is studying there. I ask him where and he says she is at the number-eight ranked university. He glances at the eighth floor button lit on the elevator panel as if it is somehow auspicious, and he then looks back at me to see if I too have taken notice. I don’t give him anything.

I ask him the name of the university and he repeats that she is at the eighth-ranked one. I again ask the name and a little deflated he now admits he doesn’t know.

“Where is she studying, in what city, in what place, in what part of the country?” He is still smiling but he looks uneasy now.

“It is ranked number eight,” he now feebly bleats.

“You don’t know WHERE your daughter lives in the USA?” I semi smile and look up to see which floor we are on.

The elevator arrives on the eighth floor and the man doesn’t say anything and gets off.

“Bye, bye,” I say in English. “Nice to meet you,” I say in Chinese.

The doors close and moments later I get off on number nine.

A Curry and a Beer in Suzhou

I know Alban from around the circuit. We work in the same industry and occasionally run into one another at events and catch up for dinner or beers. He’s a bit younger and more mild-mannered than I, and in keeping with his English roots he speaks with purposeful reserve. We also both have young kids and Chinese wives.  I don’t know Alban well but I like him. He’s the perfect companion with whom to unwind after a long day on the road.    
 
He’s recently broken off on his own to try his hand at a business. The decision centered around his relocation from Hong Kong to Suzhou, where living costs are lower and the market conditions for his new endeavor are apparently ripe. I haven’t seen him in nearly a year so I am keen to learn how things have been going. Leaving a good job at a multinational firm to go solo is a bold and respectful move. He’s the type of guy for whom you can only wish the best. 
 
Over a curry vindaloo, I am happy to hear that his business is doing well. He shares innocuous details about his clients and his plans for development, and it sounds like he made the right move. His daughter is also happy in Suzhou, and he enjoys the now extra time to commute her to and from nursery school. He also now has another child on the way. 
 
Alban has a prominent scratch or perhaps scar across his forehead. The lighting is too dim to tell. It’s a feature I don’t recall from before though possible had always been there. Given our relaxed conversation, it seems too abrupt a change in topic, if even inappropriate, to say anything. We finish dinner and he suggests an expat bar he’s been meaning to check out.     
 
At the bar he soon discloses that his wife has not adjusted well to the move. In fact she was not supportive of the whole idea from the beginning, feeling it was too risky and also much preferring life in Hong Kong. But he had made her come around in the end (he is after all a good salesman), so eventually she went along with it. In recent months, however, she has not been happy. Maybe it’s hormonal, I suggest, but he indicates there is something more. They had an argument a few week back that ended with her hurling a glass at his head. Pointing my attention to the dried gash on his face, the incident resulted in a trip to the hospital for stitches.
 
Alban nervously continues telling me that his wife sometimes gets violent. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I assure him he can talk to me, that sometimes talking to someone can help. He is reluctant. We simply don’t know each other well enough to have this level of trust. But he needs to tell me more. I ask encourage him to without pushing him, or at least not that I am aware. 
 
I want to know the frequency and nature of the violence. And what I soon hear does not sound good. Sometimes she throws things, sometimes she hits him, scratches him. She becomes uncontrollably angry, he tells me. He fears she has a  mental problem. He knows she does. Sometimes his wife beats him. 
 
And this has been going on since soon after they met around two years ago. He had gotten her pregnant within the first few months they were dating. He didn’t know her well. At first he passed off the anger fits to pregnancy hormones, but by the time their daughter was born the episodes had  become bi-monthly or even weekly . And since making the move to Suzhou it has gotten worse.
 
Over the next few drinks I learn about her broken childhood, about her absent father who may have abused her, about her estranged brother, about a lot of unhappiness and darkness. Alban is cautious telling me all this, remarking on more than one occasion how he has not confided in anyone to this extent and how uncomfortable it all feels. But he is amatter-of-fact with the details, and I listen as empathetically as I can. 
 
We soon finish our last-call pints. There are two other patrons at the bar. We have discussed all options, all contingencies, all scenarios, and with the best intentions of reconciling their marriage. But there is sadly only one conclusion. He has to leave her. I have said it to him, and Alban knows it. It was not the thing I would have expected I could say to him only several hours prior over dinner. The separation will be tactically difficult, extremely painful, if even dangerous. But there is no other choice. 
 
The next day from the train station I think of calling Alban. Maybe it’s to reassure him of my trust, to extend a more sober acknowledgement of our night, I am not sure. I want to tell him that his secret is safe, that I support him. But I don’t know exactly what to say or if it will matter. And besides, my train is here, and I was, after all, just passing through while on the road.