The story the government didn’t want to be told
SHENYANG, Liaoning — I expected Mr. Shi to be waiting for me at the train station with a cold beer in one hand and an itinerary in the other. In the weeks leading up to my departure from Shanghai, and during my first month of traveling, he had been by far the most attentive and persistent of my contacts along the route.
He sent long emails and presented a detailed plan of attack for visiting the dozens of attractions Shenyang had to offer (even though every Chinese person I questioned leading up to my arrival in Shenyang had trouble naming one thing worth seeing in the city). He called me weekly, sometimes more often than that, his deep voice checking up on my current whereabouts and my estimated date of arrival in Shenyang. He wanted to make sure he was at the train station to greet me.
In Beijing, I finally had an answer for Mr. Shi. I would arrive on Saturday — at 2 a.m. I felt bad, but there were no other options.
“Mr. Shi,” I said to him over the phone, “we would be happy to get a hotel room that night. You could just meet us in the morning.”
“Nonsense,” his voice boomed back at me. “Saturday morning is still Friday night to us. It’s time to play. We will drink beer while we wait for you. It will be a party.”
There are stereotypes about dong bei ren, people from northeastern China: They are a hard-drinking lot — chuggers of both beer and bai jiu — and they are so amazingly gracious it makes you feel guilty. I can confirm both of these stereotypes to be accurate.
But Mr. Shi wasn’t drinking a beer when we arrived at the train station. There was no party. In fact, there was nobody. We arrived just after midnight. Whoever told us the original arrival time was wrong. But Mr. Shi was aware of this. We had discussed it. It seemed out of character for him to be late … for anything. It was raining. We waited for nearly 30 minutes, telling taxi driver after taxi driver, hotel tout after hotel tout, that we weren’t interested.
Mr. Shi has no mobile phone, so I called his home. His wife answered, and I knew right away that I had woken her up. But, of course, she was as sweet as could be. Mr. Shi, she told me, was waiting for me at the train station.
And, it turns out, he was. There are two exits there. He was at one. We were at the other. We found him, finally, and I apologized for calling his wife so late.
“It is nothing,” Mr. Shi shot back. “She is probably honored to be woken up by you.”
And with that, we headed off to a 1 a.m. dinner.
It is possible that I would not have received such preferential treatment from Mr. Shi had he not studied under my father back in Pennsylvania. The Chinese have a habit of heaping respect onto educators, and perhaps their offspring. But it is also possible that Mr. Shi and his friends would welcome with open arms any foreigner who showed even a passing interest in Shenyang. That’s just the way these guys operate. Give, and then give some more.
In his emails, Mr. Shi mentioned that my every need would be met in Shenyang. I’d have a free hotel room on the campus of Shenyang Normal University, where he teaches. I’d have a car and a driver. Meals would be taken care of. He could be my guide. I didn’t know what to say. I would have been happy sleeping on his mother-in-law’s floor.
But, Mr. Shi informed me at that first early-morning meal, things had changed. The hotel room was still mine. And there was another hotel room for Johnson and his girlfriend Lisa, who joined the trip in Beijing. Since I arrived so close to the start of the school year, however, Mr. Shi said his availability would be limited. Same thing about the car and driver. There was no longer a long set itinerary. And for some of the sightseeing, I might have to go it alone.
Frankly, I felt kind of relieved. I didn’t have high expectations for Shenyang, a city of some 7 million people. From everything I had learned, the city was an old industrial dinosaur, part of China’s rust-belt, with unbreathable air and a typical lack of character. Lonely Planet summed up the city with this sentence: “Shenyang is, for the most part, a sprawling mass of socialist town planning.” So, I told Mr. Shi that I appreciated his efforts anyway, that a hotel room is more than I expected in the first place, and that I am pretty easy to please. And I thought that was that.
Joining us at the early morning dinner table was Mr. Zhao, president of Shenyang Normal University’s international department. We didn’t share a common language, but that didn’t keep him from rattling off machine-gun style all that Shenyang and Liaoning Province had to offer. The first post-Liberation highways and airplanes were built here. In one of the Communists’ very first five-year plans, 56 of the 100 projects were based near Shenyang. Many important fossils had been discovered in Shenyang’s soil. And so on, and so on. He made Shenyang out to be a very happening place 50 or 50 million years ago.
It was almost as if he was trying to sell me on relocating to the city. And maybe he was.
“How long do you plan on staying in Shenyang?” Mr. Shi asked me.
“Well …” I began.
Mr. Shi interupted. “We were thinking six months. You could teach at our school.”
Assuming he had to be joking, I chuckled, before adding, “I was thinking more like three days.”
There was silence. And then Mr. Shi and Mr. Zhu began muttering to each other. I looked over at Johnson. Had I said something wrong?
I whispered to Johnson. “Were they serious about the six months?”
“I think so,” Johnson replied. “These people are famous for their hospitality.”
I first met Mr. Shi last summer in my hometown of Bloomsburg, Pa. He earned a master’s degree at the university there and served as my father’s graduate assistant. He then moved to Hartford, Conn., to assist in the teaching of Chinese at a group of public schools. His wife and daughter moved to Connecticut, too. But they all returned to Shenyang this summer. Mr. Shi’s visa-type stipulates that he must now stay in China for two years. I didn’t get the impression that would be a problem.
“I was homesick,” he said. “They had none of this.” He pointed to the food on our table.
I don’t remember much from our dinner last summer in Bloomsburg. But I remember Mr. Shi seemed genuinely interested when I told him about my plans for this trip. I remember Mr. Shi seemed particularly uninterested in the black beer my father and I ordered for him — Chinese men, it has been my experience, may like to drink, but they don’t trust liquids they can’t see through. And I remember the Mr. Shi in Bloomsburg seemed nothing like the Mr. Shi I met in Shenyang.
Perhaps, the Mr. Shi I met in Bloomsburg was too busy showing respect for my father. Or perhaps it is true that personalities don’t always translate well from culture to culture. For example, I am not exactly myself when thrust into Chinese situations surrounded by Chinese people — I am a confused mute who smiles and nods a lot.
The Mr. Shi I met in Shenyang was a leader, a respected intellectual who everyone, it seemed, listened to. A small man, Mr. Shi carries himself in a big way. He owns a subtle grace and style that, along with his booming bass, adds weight to his character. He is kind, smart and deceivingly funny, with a dry delivery that takes you by surprise. I often had to wait until he laughed, or someone else laughed, before determining whether he was serious or joking. Sarcasm is not something I have learned to expect from the Chinese. I really liked Mr. Shi. I think he would be an interesting person to get to know better — but I am not sure if that would ever be possible. I always felt there was something he wasn’t telling me, some nugget of information he was holding back, some punchline I would never be in on. Well, at least until he started drinking bai jiu.
Mr. Shi was suffering from a fever when he met us in the rain at the train station after midnight. He still had a fever when he met us at the campus hotel the next morning, along with a van and a driver, to show us some of Shenyang’s sites. “This is an American car,” Mr. Shi pointed out immediately. “A Buick.”
Our first stop was the Xinle Ancient Civilization Site, where human beings settled some 7,200 years ago. There are a few holes in the ground called excavation sites and several un-ancient huts with thatched roofs, housing re-creations of what life might have been like way back when. My personal favorite was the “scene of copulation.” There is also a scattershot museum with paint peeling from its walls and ceilings. Wisely, Mr. Shi stayed in the car. “I am not interested in old things,” he said. “I will wait out here and smoke.”
Speaking of old things, per Johnson’s urging, we paid a little extra at the Xinle site to see what was billed, in Chinese, as the “best preserved body in the world,” a 300-year-old woman. And there she was, under a small pavilion with a thatched roof. She was lying on a table, inside a plastic bag with a few of those oxygen absorption packets you might find in a bag of beef jerky. She was covered by a glass dome, similar to how some diners display breakfast pastries or pies. I could have very easily removed the glass because it wasn’t attached to anything. But she was very dead. And she did look very old. Johnson took many photographs of her.
Shenyang, like much of former Manchuria, was occupied by the Japanese from 1931 to 1945, and the city is filled with buildings and monuments that serve as reminders of this period of time. Several buildings built by the Japanese still stand at a part of the city known as Zhongshan Square, which is really a circle, a scary roundabout with no traffic signs or streetlights, and hundreds of crazy Chinese drivers. Crossing the street was a challenge.
I was somewhat surprised that these Japanese buildings hadn’t been demolished decades ago. The Chinese claim that Japan has never formally apologized for war-time atrocities committed in the first half of the last century, and they use this claim as an excuse for a blanket hatred of all things Japanese. Well, not all things. Chinese people seem to really like Japan’s cars, electronics, music, food and fashion. It’s just all Japanese people that they hate. That’s all.
So maybe the Chinese feel a certain sense of nationalistic pride in the fact that they are able to dine and spend the night in a hotel that was originally built by and for the Japanese. Maybe there is an ironic revenge in the fact that a former Japanese security office is now a Chinese police station. Or maybe they just like the buildings. I know I did. Built in a classic Western style, I thought they were some of the best looking structures in all of Shenyang. As we left the hotel, I asked Lisa if she liked the building. “Yes,” she said. “But I still hate the Japanese.”
Standing at the center of the traffic circle, taller than any of the Japanese creations, was Shenyang’s obligatory statue of Mao Zedong. Mao’s right arm was outstretched, as usual, but to me it felt more like a victory pose than usual on this day. There were other human figures statued beneath Mao, and the Chairman appeared to be riding on their shoulders. They were peasants, laborers, intellectuals and soldiers — all bigger and stronger looking than any Chinese people I have ever seen — and they were leaning forward aggressively, proudly, happily. They had been liberated.
It was a gray day, raining. Mr. Shi and I stood in Mao’s shadow holding umbrellas.
“So, what do you think of this?” I asked him, gesturing to the Mao monument.
“Hard to say,” Mr. Shi responded. “What do you think of Mao?”
“I think most Westerners have a negative view of him.”
“Well, I am a Chinese so …,” Mr. Shi, as he often does, was choosing his words carefully. “You know, the New York Times called him one of the 100 most influential people in history.”
“So, at least he is somebody.”
“But, what do you think of him?”
Mr. Shi thought for a moment and said, “Am-, am- … What’s the word that means both good and bad?”
“Yes. Ambivalent. I am ambivalent.”
“Well it sure is a very” — I too struggled to find the right word — “communist statue.”
“Of course,” Mr. Shi said. He paused again, and then added, “You know, everybody makes mistakes.”
It was lunch time, and Mr. Shi casually asked me to name some of my favorite Chinese dishes. I named a couple off the top of my head — a mistake, I immediately realized. Because, not just for that lunch, but for every meal Mr. Shi and I would share during my stay in Shenyang, it became Mr. Shi’s mission to make sure the restaurant could prepare my favorite dishes, no matter how many times I protested, no matter how many times I told him I also like to try new things, no matter how many times I told him I simply named the first two dishes that popped into my head. So, at every meal, we had pork spareribs and lu fish. When they arrived at the table, Mr. Shi would point to the dishes and say, “Dan, these are for you.”
As we entered a restaurant for lunch, Johnson read aloud the English translation of the large Chinese characters fastened to the wall above the main reception counter: “Jesus is my shepherd.” Were we dining at a Christian restaurant? Yes. In fact, Mr. Shi told me that the place used to give out Bibles to customers, but soon after the local authorities found out, the restaurant owners were given “a hint” to stop doing so. “There is religious freedom,” Mr. Shi said. “But only in certain places. Some of my colleagues are Christian, but they keep it a secret.”
We dined in a private room, as we did for all of our group meals in Shenyang. And, from watching Johnson, I learned how a good Chinese boy is supposed to act at such functions. Lots of standing and sitting back down. Lots of acting as though you’re not worthy to be in the company of everyone else at the table. When Mr. Shi, or anyone else for that matter, would refill Johnson’s tea, Johnson would put his hands on either side of the cup and cower like a grateful beggar, nodding constantly and muttering “xie xie” — thank you — over and over again until the cup was full. I tried this a couple times, but Mr. Shi said I always thrust my hands to the cup too violently, too suddenly, making me look even more like a laowai.
Eventually, after some beer, the topic of conversation turned to my trip, and this website. Mr. Shi mentioned that he had seen one of my photos of two shirtless young boys in Shanxi Province’s impoverished Haoyi Village.
“You may feel bad for them,” Mr. Shi said. “Humanitarian. Sad in your heart. But there is nothing we can do for them.”
“OK.” I wasn’t really sure where this was coming from, or where it was going. I could have taken a similar photo in almost any town or city in China.
“We are learning from the Americans,” Mr. Shi continued. “Competition. Those who can get ahead, do well. Those who can’t, starve. There is nothing we can do.”
“So what form of government would you prefer?”
“I prefer socialism. But not the socialism we had. Everyone should be equal. You see, we just had a nice meal. And there are other people outside with nothing. That is unfair.”
We left lunch and headed off to the next site of the day. In the van, I asked Mr. Shi about changes he has seen Shenyang go through over the years. He began with the good: the city’s infrastructure. “Gas, electricity, water,” he said. “Ten years ago, not everyone had these things.” He stopped there.
“So what, in your mind, are some of the negative changes?” I asked.
“Too many cement and concrete skyscrapers,” he said. “It’s inhuman in a sense.”
Mr. Shi continued, “People are becoming worse. They care more about money than human relations. Moral degradation. Cheating everywhere. You” — he motioned to me, the laowai — “will be overcharged. Shenyang used to be famous for heavy industry. But many of the factories have closed down, gone bankrupt. So Shenyang is a city without an identity right now. They say they are going to turn it into the financial capital of the north, but right now that is just a slogan. Many people are out of work.”
Oh, Mr. Shi also said that Shenyang has too many cars. And that the city’s air quality was among the worst in the world … but it had gotten better recently. As a comparison, this is what Mr. Shi had to say about Bloomsburg, my hometown: “I love that town. So quiet, clean and peaceful. It is beautiful. It is the perfect town.” But Shenyang is Mr. Shi’s hometown. And, despite all its faults, he likes it there. In fact, his life in China is much more comfortable than his life in the United States ever was. In Bloomsburg, he figured out a way he could eat for $40 a month, living on rice, vegetables and pork shoulder every day. In Hartford, Mr. Shi and his family lived in low-income housing because his 20-something-thousand-dollars-a-year salary was, well, low.
In Shenyang, earning somewhere between $500 and $1,000 dollars a month, Mr. Shi’s family can spread out between two adjoined apartments. And in Shenyang, Mr. Shi has friends, connections — guanxi — things that, in China, are often worth more than money. Mr. Shi is in no hurry to return to the United States.
I, actually, was pleasantly surprised by Shenyang. It was cleaner than I expected. And, parts of it at least, seemed like a city. Not just another communist-cookie-cutter Chinese city. But a real city. One that you might find in another country, a developed country. Sure, the plastic palm trees that line the roads are taller than the real trees planted alongside them. But at least the real trees are there. They will grow. Shenyang appeared to be a city on the rise.
Shenyang Normal University’s campus is on the outskirts of town, where you might still come across a donkey in the street, or a tiny, brightly colored three-wheeled vehicle the locals like to call san lu beng, which translates into “three mules jumping.” The campus is new and nondescript. It is less than five years old, which, in shoddy Chinese construction years, means that it is about time for things to be cracking, crumbling and falling apart. And they are. The campus went up fast. It will go down fast, too. It was the same way at Shanghai University, where I taught. It is the same at apartment buildings across the country. Forethought, it seems, is still a trait foreign to the Chinese. But at least the hotel for foreign students and teachers had fake deer in the front yard, and sunflowers and trash cans that looked like soccer balls.
My hotel room was big, with an air-conditioned bedroom and an office and a bathroom with a Western toilet and hot water. Definitely nicer than my digs at Shanghai University. I was told if I decided to teach at Shenyang Normal University, I could have my own kitchen. And I told them, once more, that I was not interested in teaching again … anywhere … ever.
A variety of sounds wafted in through my second-floor window. Mostly, they came very early in the morning. And mostly, they were chants of some sort, either blasted by the campus PA system or shouted by freshmen, forced, as they are at most Chinese universities, to go through ridiculous basic-training-type military exercises designed to teach discipline. In an odd break from the norm, one afternoon the school speakers blared the theme from Star Wars.
I never completely adjusted to the school’s time schedule. As is the case at most Chinese universities, students have a curfew at Shenyang Normal University. Dormitories lock their doors at 10:30 p.m. The power goes off shortly after that. And, I learned the hard way, the entire campus locks up at 11 p.m. I spent most of my evenings at an internet bar down the road — where my website was mysteriously blocked, any attempt to load it would shut down all open browser windows. I usually stayed at the internet bar until after midnight. There were times I thought I would end up sleeping on the sidewalk.
One night, I was lucky to arrive at the gate at the same time as a car. It honked, the gate opened, and we both entered the campus. One problem: My hotel was locked, too. I pounded and pounded on the door. No answer. I called Johnson and Lisa on their mobile phones. They were both powered off. I went back to the security office back by the gate, and the guards — college-age kids, really — were all walking around in brightly colored bikini briefs. I communicated my problem to the kid at the window. He made a call, and told me to walk back to the hotel. Someone would open the door for me.
I walked back to the hotel. I waited for 15 minutes. I pounded on the door some more. I wondered if I understood the security boy correctly. And I walked back to the guards’ quarters. He said I needed to wait longer. The man who would unlock the door required time to get dressed. Evidently, he too likes to prance around in his underwear in the middle of the night. I walked back to the hotel, again. And this time the old man who lives in the hotel let me in, but only after closely inspecting me through the glass door with his flashlight. The following day, I learned which window went with the old man’s room at the hotel, and from then on I just knocked on that when I arrived after my curfew.
But, before I could do that, I still had to make it back on campus. Not an easy task when you can’t get the grab-ass-playing guards’ attention, which is what happened the following night. I had to scale a campus wall. And, as I was doing so, I think I figured out why Shenyang Normal University seemed so desperate to attract foreign teachers. Did I mention that this happened on a weekend?
On Sunday morning, we met a young professor named Lawrence, who drove us downtown in his new white Honda Accord. He took us to the second-largest wholesale market in China, which opens at 2 a.m. and closes at 1 p.m., and is very popular with the Russians. Lawrence, at Shenyang Normal School for 11 years, is from Dalian, a glimmering coastal city south of Shenyang on the Korean Gulf. Many Chinese consider Dalian to be one of the best places to live in all of China. I asked Lawrence to name something, anything, in Shenyang that he like better than Dalian. He thought about it for quite some time, and finally offered me this: “The roads are wider in Shenyang.”
We tried to find a place for lunch near the market, but Lawrence thought all the Chinese places were too dirty. After walking around a while longer, he turned to me and said, “How about McDonald’s?” So, McDonald’s it was. And I ate my double cheeseburger surrounded by fat Chinese boys eating theirs. China is quickly overtaking the United States as the most important player in the world economy. Give China and its spoiled only-children another 10 years or so of McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, and they may very well give us a run for our money when it comes to obesity, as well.
Mr. Shi called me that afternoon and informed me that I had dinner plans.
“I will meet you in the hotel lobby at 5:25,” he said.
“Exactly 5:25?” I asked. I was waiting for him to laugh, for him to tell me he was joking.
“Yes,” he said. And then we both hung up.
Mr. Shi was on time, of course. And he walked us out to a giant black automobile.
“American car,” he said to me. “Lincoln Towncar.”
“Nice,” I said. “Whose is it?”
“It is owned by a construction investment company.”
“And what is your connection to the construction investment company?”
“A classmate of mine is on the board.”
Mr. Shi looked at me over the top of his spectacles. It was a serious gaze, one that told me Mr. Shi was either about to scold me — or tell a joke.
“You are learning a lot about China,” he said with a slight smile.
During our drive to the hotel, I asked Mr. Shi about salaries at Shenyang Normal University. He said the average Chinese professor earns about RMB 3,000 ($360) a month.
“Extravagance is impossible,” he said. “But it is livable.”
“If that is the average,” I asked, “what does a first-year teacher make?”
“Maybe 1,400 RMB per month,” he said.
“Can a family live on that in a city like Shenyang? How do they live?”
“There is corruption,” Mr. Shi said matter-of-factly. “If you are not corrupt you cannot survive.”
“How can a teacher be corrupt?”
“You want to know?” Mr. Shi said — he was looking at me over his glasses again. “I will tell you. Sometime. But not now. Dan, you are a laowai. That not only means that you are a foreigner. That means you don’t know the rules.”
I told Mr. Shi about a story I had seen on the television news recently. Professors at a university in Guangxi Autonomous Region had been arrested, basically for blackmailing the families of potential students. They were denying qualified students admission to the school until they received a cash payment from the parents.
Mr. Shi looked at me. And then he looked at my notepad and pen. “Not only in Guangxi,” he said, and turned away.
At dinner, I met Mr. Wu, an administrator at Shenyang Normal University who also earned his master’s in Bloomsburg, and his wife. I also met for the first time Mr. Shi’s wife and daughter. They both said that while they enjoyed their time in Connecticut, they were happy to be back home. Mr. Shi’s daughter, a straight-A student in the States, enjoyed the convenience of transportation in Connecticut, but she really missed books written in Chinese. Mr. Shi’s wife said she never figured out how American hospitals and banks operated, so they just never went to those places. I assured her that many Americans have trouble figuring out the American healthcare system, too.
As usual, we were in a private room, with plenty of food and drink … and a karaoke TV. There were many toasts — even one to my father, recently retired, back in Pennsylvania — but thankfully there was no bai jiu, the vile firewater that helps northern Chinese get through all those long winter nights (and afternoons). But, later in the week, after I had returned from a short stay in Dandong, a city on the North Korean border, after Johnson and Lisa had headed back to Shanghai, there was one final dinner in a private room. The bai jiu flowed that night, and, as the Chinese saying goes, so did the truth.
I was dining with Mr. Shi and three other Chinese men, whose names and images Mr. Shi “requested” I not include on this website. “This dinner is just for fun, not work,” he said. One of the men, I was told, was one of Liaoning Province’s most famous poets. Another was one of Liaoning’s most famous antiques dealers. The other man was one of Mr. Shi’s best friends. He’s the one that bought dinner — an amazing feast that, of course, included pork spareribs and lu fish … for me — and the bai jiu.
Only three of us were drinking bai jiu that night. The poet said he had too much to drink with lunch, so he stuck to beer. The antiques dealer claimed to have recently undergone eye surgery, so he sipped on milk. (Note to self: Remember these excuses for next trip to northeastern China.) Interestingly, it was one of the non-bai jiu drinkers who uttered this gem: “Mao was a very intelligent peasant.”
I turned to Mr. Shi and asked, “Was that a compliment?”
“Hard to say,” was his response.
I felt unquestionably welcomed by these gentlemen. They presented me with a beautiful floral painting, painted, I was assured, by one of Liaoning’s most famous artists. And they all made numerous toasts — directed at me, the American they had just met — that, the way Mr. Shi translated them, seemed so eloquent and benevolent that I felt a bit guilty. I did nothing to deserve such treatment.
But this is just how these people operate. Generosity is not just a trait for them, it is a job. They seemed so sincere when they said things like “Dan, I hope we can be friends forever” and “Dan, this is your kingdom.” I didn’t feel worthy. I mean, I’ve never said things like that to friends I’ve known my entire life. Do these guys say such things simply out of habit, because it is their custom to do so? Perhaps. Would they say such things to any other foreigner who happened to be sitting at the table? Maybe. Do they have any ulterior motive in doing so? No.
So when it was my turn to toast, I told them I had heard rumors of northeastern China’s hospitality, and they had exceeded even my lofty exceptions. I told them they had set the bar high for all places I would visit after Shenyang. I told them they made me fee like a king.
There was another bottle of bai jiu purchased. And there were more things said. This time, some of the statements made me feel more warned than welcomed. The alcohol was starting to do some talking.
I mentioned that I was eventually heading to Ningxia Autonomous Region, a largely Muslim area in northwestern China. Mr. Shi told me to be careful. Things could be unsafe for me there. I told him that I had traveled to Muslim parts of China before, and I had felt completely safe.
“Forget Japan,” Mr. Shi said. “You are the arch enemy now.”
He mentioned the U.S.’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1999. He mentioned the U.S./China spy plane row of 2001. He mentioned the ongoing controversy surrounding Taiwan. Most Americans have probably already forgotten about the embassy and the spy plane. Most Americans probably don’t have an opinion on Taiwan. But the Chinese are famous for having long memories. Just ask the Japanese.
Later, when eyesight was blurry and speech slurred, Mr. Shi pulled me closer. He wanted to tell me something. It seemed serious. It felt like we were in a confessional.
And then he laid it on me.
The reason why he had to scrap his grand touring plan for me, the reason why there was no private car, no long drives into the Liaoning countryside, was not because I arrived too close to the school year. The real reason was because Mr. Shi showed my website to two friends of his, local government officials, and they did not particularly care for my words or photos. Not one bit. They said my work was “anti-Communist.” They pointed to my photo of two shirtless boys in Shanxi and said, “You want us to spend our money on this man for this?”
There was nothing Mr. Shi could do. And I could tell he felt bad about it. He told me he had already told Johnson about this, but he made Johnson promise not to tell me (and, like a good Chinese boy, Johnson didn’t). I didn’t know what to say. I muttered something like, “It’s OK. I really appreciate everything you were able to do for me.”
But, in my head, paranoia was starting to set in — and all the bai jiu wasn’t helping. Did this explain my site being blocked at the Shenyang internet bars? Will these officials now be monitoring my site on a regular basis? If I write about my time in Shenyang, will I get Mr. Shi in trouble? By staying a couple days extra to get some writing done, had I overstayed my welcome?
Dinner was finished, and all the drink had been drunk. As we left the restaurant, Mr. Shi said, “My friend would like to know if you need to go to a massage parlor.”
“No thanks,” I said, inferring that massages weren’t the only things for sale at this time of night. “I’m expecting a call from my girlfriend.”
Mr. Shi and I shared a taxi. I was leaving for Changchun, in neighboring Jilin Province, the following day and I needed some money. So we drove around for a while looking for an ATM. I asked Mr. Shi what he was doing for the rest of the evening, and invited him out for another drink. I would pay this time, I said.
“No thanks,” he said. “I am going home. My friend invited you to a wonderful place, and you declined.”
Then, he turned to the driver and told him to head to Shenyang Normal University. He spoke to the driver in English. The driver looked confused. So did I.
Mr. Shi shook his head and looked at me over his slightly crooked glasses.
“When I’m drinking,” he mumbled, “everybody understands English.”
Click here for photos.