Scene 1: The Hospital
The hospital is located on Wen Er and Gu Cui Lu, just past the post office and the bakery you always go to for garlic bread and milk tea. You bike there around 11am, to avoid the morning rush but before the lunch break. There are lines, yes, but they are not as long as you were led to believe. You check in, pay your 3¥ fee, walk up to the 3rd floor and by the time you find your waiting room, realize your number has already been called. Inside the office, you tell the doctor that one ear needs to be flushed out. As a sidenote, you mention that the other ear hurts. In the space of five minutes tops, you are told that your one ear is inflamed (along with a lot of words you don’t understand) and prescribed both ear drops and oral antibiotics. Then another line to pay for your doctor’s visit and the prescriptions and then downstairs to pick up the medicine. And out into the gray drizzle of the city.
Scene 2: The Cafe, Part I.
Your advisor called you the night before, asked if you wanted to meet up with him and his grad students the next morning, 9am. This is your second time meeting your professor and you’re late, because you biked, because it’s raining, because you couldn’t find the cafe hidden near the library through a maze of hallways. The room is cold but you take off your jacket, you smile as your professor introduces you the way you introduce yourself, the way your housemate told you wasn’t correct because it’s not very poetic: 双木林，舒服的舒，仪式的仪. With him are seven graduate students, most Ph.D. Candidates, all Chinese because the two Malaysian and one Korean grad student have gone home or are sick. You stumble over your introduction of your research because oh, it is always hard to explain what your status is and this whole creative writing business intertwined with folktales, with magical realism, with place. These are modern Chinese literature majors, after all. But they give you their phone numbers and emails and say, we’ll be happy to help you out anytime and you feel thankful although you’re not sure what kind of help you need and want to say, let’s just be friends? How do these things work anyway? Then your advisor starts to grill them on their theses, giving advice and although you can’t understand everything, you can tell he’s engaged, he’s interested and you think how lucky you are to have him as your advisor as he talks about the relationship of new media to literature, guides one girl’s thesis on a particular writer back under the umbrella of literature rather than the writer’s personal philosophy, and talks about Mo Yan’s work. He turns to you and asks if you can understand. You say “About 60%” but of course, it’s hard to gauge. Later, he hands you a bag with Yang Yang (that ubiquitous sheep cartoon) on it which contains one of his published books and an umbrella because it is, again, raining.
Scene 3: The Cafe, Part II.
The apartment is too cold during the day due to the lack of heating so you decide to head out to a nearby cafe. You ask your housemate, let’s call her P.F., if she’d like to join you and she says she’ll meet up with you after she goes to the bank. The cafe, 35mm is huge and clean and beautiful, with couches and lighting that isn’t too dim (a common problem with cafes here in China.) But the coffees start around 35¥ so you order a 22¥ cheesecake slice which is mediocre with a terrible crust. You take notes on the West Lake folktales you’ve been reading. P.F. comes in and you urge her to get a coffee, your treat. Once she hears that, she says no. She doesn’t want coffee after all but she’ll treat you next time. This makes no sense to you and when she leaves, without drinking anything other than the hot water provided, you feel defeated. This is a wall you always seem to run into, this problem of treating and being treated, how it seems as if it always has to be a fight. Is this because you’re a foreigner? It feels like a form of politeness from the other side but not a gesture of friendship. You can’t tell what anything means but it makes you feel as if you can never cross over that barrier of politeness—you can never reach the casualness of friendship where treating is not a big deal, where you, as the foreigner, are allowed to treat other people. You go home and you think about how it is almost Christmas and here you are, with people that you can’t quite seem to reach. And you think about the people half a world away who love you, who send you playlists of Christmas songs, and want to know how your ears are doing, and you finally realize just how hard it is going to be.
Scene 4: The Restaurant
But it is both hard and it isn’t. You, in a moment of selfishness, mention to your other housemate, M, that you’re feeling a bit down. You are terrible at keeping your feelings and thoughts hidden. He arranges a dinner on Christmas Eve because he says that he hasn’t seen his friends for a while. The restaurant is located in a hotel, decked out with cream wallpaper and cloth tablecloths. You give your housemates Santa hats which, P.F. points out, the servers are also wearing. There is crispy skinned chicken, shrimp dumplings, tofu skin in a spicy broth, sizzling beef with onions and an egg, a pile of shrimp with the heads on, donuts, and hot pumpkin juice. Afterwards, you go to an apartment/office building nearby where one apartment has been converted to a shop for drinking tea and playing board games. They have most of the board games you’ve played in the U.S. from Settlers to Dixit to Seven Wonders but the friends you’re with are not as familiar with board games. So you drink barley tea and play a game involving turtles then another one involving the year things were invented which is much more difficult than you’d think since you’re not exactly a history buff. And home by 10:30pm because others have to work on Christmas day and your friend N. is at a house party, debating whether or not to throw up on a Frenchman’s shoes, and your eyes are tired but everything is okay and you will make a chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake tomorrow or maybe the day after or the day after that.
Merry Christmas, everyone!