On to the actual story, which has only taken us six months to recount. I suppose I have been delaying the inevitable for fear of associating my name with such a risqué and disreputable occurrence; we are beginning to verge upon the point when reputations and careers must be taken into account! As such, consider this a second-hand portrayal, an observation penned on behalf of an acquaintance not fit to feign innocence for much longer.
It was a late Sunday afternoon and our protagonist was returning from a day atop the Great Wall, the portion of which they climbed being some 2.5 hours north of the city by combination of train, bus and taxi. He and his friends were tired but contented, having encountered the Sino Wonder of the Early Modern World on an uncharacteristically spectacular autumn day. Southern Manchuria not being a climate known for its kindness, they’d had the good fortune to stumble about the crumbling parapet under a sky of beaming rays and forgiving breezes. By any account it had been a very good day – the kind you forget too easily after a satisfying meal and a good night’s rest.
They returned to the city at dusk in search of suckling pig. Whether they found it or not the author cannot recall. It being the protagonist’s last night in town, the three of them decided to go for a drink in the center of Wudaokou, a rambling ten-block strip in the student district lined with bars and Tex-Mex joints catering to youngish Yanks, Koreans and Euros of every stripe. Though somewhat contrived, the neighborhood wasn’t without its charms. The three of them – our protagonist, his friend and the latter’s Manchurian belle – went for shisha and a quiet beer at the Lebanese joint run by a markedly pro-PLO proprietor (the details that reemerge when pen is put to paper). All rather exhausted, after a short hour they paid their bill and made for the intersection to hail an oncoming cab.
It being a holiday – the commemoration the founding of the People’s Republic no less! – the streets were awash in scholastic revelers. Bad tunes here, worse music there: there is a cosmopolitan solidarity for tasteless ditties that knows less boundaries than the Internationale at the height of the Purges. This being Beijing, our protagonist’s friend would still have to make himself scarce while his girlfriend tried to hail a ride back to the northern district where she lives: no self-respecting man would pick up a ‘local’ suspected of cavorting with a gweilo.
One rejection leads to two and after a while they are left stranded. Nay, not a single taxi would take the young maiden back to her distant apartment in district ____. In some sense it was very understandable: who would take a passenger to an airport with no incoming flights? We stood at the corner and twiddled our thumbs.
At this point I should mention a bad habit our protagonist had mentioned to his friend earlier that week. The former, whenever violently cut off by a motorized vehicle in which the pedestrian normally had right of way, had adopted the courtesy of giving said car a little tap on the back hood as he ignominiously walked behind it. It reminded the motorist, he’d convinced himself, that pedestrians also throw down from time to time. This, however, was not the placid South, the land of moist skin and marble skirts, pleated pants and buffered shirts. It was the northern plain, where Mongols rode and peasants were tamed. Some tricks don’t translate that readily.
In his anguish to put his girl in a cab back home, the protagonist’s friend was on edge. After a delightful, if exhausting, day hiking the continent’s most celebrated relic, the combination of blaring music, drunken students and ill-natured cabbies did less than evoke a midsummer night’s dream. They would rather have been fishing, or wrapped up with a book of Welsh grammar drinking Earl Grey.
Suddenly a ricer came careening down the street. (While the author has been notified that this is an offensive term, he begs to differ: never had he heard the term used in association with any particular race or creed, other than that of poor taste). Since they were 20 meters from a red light, it didn’t seem to matter: surely the motorist would break before coming within striking distance of our protagonists? He nearly ran the girlfriend over.
The reader is now invited to predict the outcome of the next few minutes. We have already mentioned that our friend living up north is a sensitive man: it goes without saying he defends both the honor and safety of his companion with equal vigor. Given the events of the previous week – the crazed cabbie, the constant harassment, the anguished stares and passing utterances – the protagonist’s host was in no rosy mood. Hence he did what seemed sensible at the time and gave the rushing ricer a nice little tap on the back trunk.
This, you may have surmised, is where hell breaks loose. Immediately, the car comes screeching to a halt; two youngish goons hop out. Though making quite a droll entrance, they turned out to be rather serious. Your protagonist, for his part, was entirely caught off guard. A reformist of sorts, he was also lugging around a messenger bag awash with cameras and heavy tomes: hardly the kit with which to beat back intruders. That being said, the moment forced itself upon him like a congressman from Queens. As each goon simultaneously lunged for his friend, he found himself throwing a right hook quicker than you can reject a boat of Haitians approaching Fort Lauderdale. The rest is (not quite) history.
For those who’ve chanced upon such occasions, the ensuing action is somewhat predictable – even anticlimactic. The receiver of the first strike, a very clean blow to the ocular region, spent the next 30-40 seconds dutifully doing his best: alas, to no avail. Such are the risks of bringing about the first punch. At one point all he could do was grab our protagonist’s messenger bag and twist it round him – the latter doing his utmost to wind things down before any uninvited guests joined the melée (more of that in a moment).
The second scrapper to emerge from the car – the one who’d been in the passenger seat when poo decided to hit the fan – continued to pursue the protagonist’s friend with zeal. Alas, he too took something of a spanking, so much so that by the end of the scuffle each character from the car was in a rather sorry state. (The author has yet to divulge the discrepancy in each camp’s size: rather large). Though nothing daytime television-worthy, the brouhaha was something of a one-sided affair. Tant mieux? Not quite.
This being a very public place, the other chief concern was that men of similar ethnic persuasion might decide to jump in. Though doubtful, I’ve been told by various ‘experts’ that in cases of foreigner-v-local this is a very real threat (think Boxer Rebellion, anti-Japanese demonstrations of last fall); no matter how peaceable things may seem between nationals and foreigners, the local mood can ‘shift’ as quickly as it takes the Fed to print a $17 trillion dollar note: damned fast, if dubiously so. The only other cause of worry, the most typical of these sorts of situations, was that of the Law. This being 1am on a holiday in a rambunctious student quarter given to BBQ joints and thunderously bad music, the Man was surprisingly nowhere to be seen.
So our boys prove rather lucky, do they not? They had forgotten one very crucial factor, perhaps the most important of all: losing face. Here they stood, in what might as well be considered broad daylight, two dirty gweilos effortlessly victorious over their local brethren who, might I remind the reader, had blatantly begun this whole affair. Their counterparts, visibly blemished, were not going to wait to dispense of their lost face in the morning. Hence the old Christian adage: if not in this life, justice in the next. In this case that would be ten minutes later and five blocks up the road.
Smelling the sour skittle for what it was, they tried to flee the scene. Their new friends were already frantically on their cell phones, calling Kevorkian knows whom: imagining the possible scenarios was less than edifying. The catch? The girlfriend was in no state to run. Not that she couldn’t – just that these things aren’t done. When was the last time you saw an elegant Chinese girl in a hurry? Q.E.D. Or, as a sagacious Frog once said, “Why would anyone run unless someone were chasing them?” In this case, however, they were.
So there you have it. Two 6’2, 200-pound lads trotting down a back alleyway as their five-foot-nothing nemesis scurries after them, screaming directions into his phone and promising all hell to pay. They couldn’t go fast enough to lose him because of the girlfriend, though they certainly couldn’t leave her behind, either. The other option, of course, was to finish what they’d begun 10 minutes earlier – thereby avoiding brothers, cousins, police, prisons, the whole lot – or at a very minimum rid the gentleman of his cellular device. Knowing very well that (at least) the former wouldn’t do, they continued the charade a few blocks longer, trotting at half-speed while making vague appeals and apologies to the little man they’d just routinely attended to (in self-defense, mind you). Having lost the battle, the Corsican troll was out to win the war. After all it was his country, and he was perfectly well aware of it.
Our protagonist’s friend finally takes a stand. “Comrade, go with my girlfriend and find somewhere to hide. I’ll stall them as long as possible and find you later.” The first two dash across a darkened alleyway and emerge at the nearest sign of life, a modernist complex of 12-story apartment blocks set against a tree-lined courtyard. They scamper into the first door that’s open and plunge down the stairs into the car garage.
Fear has an interesting way of blowing things out of proportion. Like the icicle gathering snowflakes as it meanders down the hill, terror, when seasoned, is granted entirely too much license. In the case of our protagonist, it wasn’t until he was three-stories underground and hiding from an angry phone-clutching midget who’d just gotten his ass whooped that fear gripped him like pneumonia on a midsummer’s day in Minsk. He could already see the show trial, stilted press reports and paucity of judicial review: if not sold into public relations bondage (we all remember the defectors from the Korean War), he would surely face time in one of the famed black prisons or, if he were really lucky, the Political Reeducation camp itself. After 2-3 minutes in terrifying limbo, he told the girlfriend to wait there while he went upstairs to check on his friend.
Back outside there reigned a terrifying calm. No screaming urchin, no sidekick, no car, no police, no phone, no dogs, no friend. Something terribly amiss had just happened. Only a coward abandons a friend in need! – and now the latter was wasting away in some basement on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, being force-fed pickled boar’s penis and obliged to consult his captors on their Second Life strategies. He went back inside to find the girlfriend and ponder a plan of action. She too was nowhere to be found.
Imagine our protagonist’s fear and trembling at this point: alone, abandoned in a Beijing apartment complex, no phone, no Chinese, no contacts, no nada. His friend has been abducted by vindictive lost-face-seeking goons, while the beautiful, street-smart girlfriend with impeccable negotiating skills had similarly disappeared. The end was surely nigh. Is it time to start knocking on doors again? Perhaps. Parading for alms? Seeking out Jehovah’s Witnesses? Anything would have done at that point.
As it turns out, no one was abducted, disfigured or disposed of. In fact, everyone escaped with their dignity intact. The missing girlfriend reemerged five minutes later; she too had been trying to locate her boo. The latter, it shall be said, is the true hero of the evening. After throwing the vigilantes off the scent for long enough to sneak into the same residential building, he climbed to the 6th floor to evade whatever might come next (incidentally he had a friend who lived in the building: out of town that holiday weekend). From a bird’s eye view he was the only to witness the madness that ensued: within moments of our protagonist descending the stairs to the car garage, a riot unit of 20-odd storm troopers burst into the complex from all sides. Swat cars, dogs, lights, the whole shebang. It must have cost the State a fortune.
Erroneously – though chivalrously – fearing our protagonist might face the Law alone, the friend went downstairs and turned himself in. He was duly escorted to the nearest precinct, obliged to make a statement and forced to pay a due diligence tax of ¥1000 ($160 US), the logic being that he who sustains injuries in an altercation (in this case very minor albeit visible) is to receive compensation, regardless of fault, intention or origin of said dispute. Truth be told, it’s not a terrible approach. Like betting against your favorite team: if your squad loses you still get paid.
What became of our protagonist? After finding the girlfriend, he went back to the same street it all began, found a 24-hour café and sipped coffee next to a friendly Japanese foreign exchange student. The girlfriend, for her part, went to the precinct and waxed lyrical, halving the fine from its original ¥2000 (terms are always negotiable). They reconvened at the scene of the crime, hailed a cab and went back home.