A Floating Life (‘The Shanghai Friendship Store’ — Chapter 2)

Shanghai Night View The Bund.

As long as the hackers remain in China, they are not under any threat of arrest. (Image: via Max Pixel)

The following excerpt, Chapter 2: A Floating Life, is from the novel The Shanghai Friendship Store by Susan Ruel. It chronicles the experiences of a small foreign community living in Shanghai in the 1980s (the heyday of Friendship Stores), shortly after the Cultural Revolution.

These state-run Friendship Stores first appeared in China in the 1950s and initially sold Western goods and souvenirs to foreigners and tourists, diplomats, and government officials. Nowadays, only a few of these stores remain.

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A Floating Life

How did we so-called “foreign experts” wind up in China, just five years after the Cultural Revolution ended?

Each had our own private reasons for “pulling a geographic” (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous): relocating in a vain attempt to flee personal problems.  I would try my best to fathom what had propelled new friends from Greece, Spain, France, Germany, and elsewhere to come to Shanghai.

In my case, the move was instigated haphazardly by Liu, one of my new roommates in grad student housing. She was a middle-aged Chinese woman who was having an affair with a married man. For permission to study at the University of Iowa, they’d both been forced to leave spouses back home in Shanghai as hostages of sorts, to guarantee their return.

Liu’s lover was named Lu, and to my ears, their names sounded almost identical in Mandarin — especially when spoken by a “foreigner,” as Chinese call us even in our home countries. I distinguished Liu from her beloved by calling him, Mr. Lou. They were about 20 years older than I, but all three of us were in grad school.

Liu had a cold manner and a sour, charmless face.  She dressed in ill-fitting, faintly mannish clothes that I would soon learn were commonly worn even in big cities like Shanghai back then. Like many Chinese women in those days, she wore heavy, mannish, plastic eyeglasses that disfigured her face.

It took me a while to figure out the true nature of Liu’s relationship with Mr. Lou, though they took few pains to hide it. He kept appearing all winter for long, elaborate lunches or disappearing behind the door of Liu’s plain, rugless bedroom. If only I’d reflected on that anonymous-looking room, with its generic cot and drab fixtures. It was a harbinger of everything I’d dislike in the China of that era.

My first inklings of traditional Chinese romantic love came through subliminal awareness of this couple constructing a domestic cocoon of their illicit passion. Liu hummed sit-com theme songs, perfume commercials, and even “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in a quavering soprano that I later realized was evocative of Chinese opera. She and Mr. Lou revealed in home-cooked meals  (slurping and belching until I couldn’t help but giggle) and evenings spent watching TV, transfixed by old movies like “The Godfather” — everything American men have affairs to get away from.

I knew nothing as yet of Chinese poetry and its lovely comparisons of physical passion to clouds and rain. I was simply aware of the two aging lovers (neither of whom had seen their spouses in years) being faithful to each other in their fashion: Liu, in clothes chosen with no consideration to color or fit, and Mr. Lou, with his gangly, somehow teenaged skinniness.

That semester I was recovering from a failed love affair. After the breakup, I needed a new place to live. In my bedroom across the hall from Liu’s, I spent more time stifling sobs than I care to admit. One evening she knocked on my door to ask about the grammatical correctness of an English sentence she’d written. It struck me then how odd it was that neither of us had knocked sooner.

The impersonal grammar question Liu asked me that night would drift back to my mind less than a year later.  Liu remained in Iowa, but thanks mostly to her suggestion, I was living, teaching, and secretly reporting news in Shanghai. I had just presented my first U.S. history lesson to 250 Chinese college students. They peered quizzically at my jewelry, cowboy boots, eye makeup, and whatever else they were looking at (some even used binoculars) while I talked about the French and Indian Wars and the Puritan dilemma. Class ended, and everyone filed out of the auditorium except for one pupil, who came forward with a slip of paper.

“Might I ask a question?” she said stiffly. Thrilled by her intellectual curiosity, I looked down and saw two lines written on the page:

This hall seats 500 people.

This hall has a seating capacity of 500 people.

“Which sentence is correct?” she asked.

In my first conversation with Liu that night in Iowa, I mentioned that I’d lived in West Africa on a Fulbright fellowship and been back in the States for only about a year.

Liu said that if I liked foreign travel, I could easily get a university teaching job for a few semesters in China.  I’d later hold Liu partly responsible for planting this idea. It ended up triggering yet another mad detour in what a more traditional Chinese might call my “fate.”

Susan Ruel in Shanghai. Author.
Susan Ruel in Shanghai. Author. (Image Credit: Susan Ruel)

Love Comes in Mysterious Ways

There was one more Lou in my life that year: Louis Gichuke, the Kenyan foreign student I was in love with. The more I adored Lou Gichuke, the less he seemed able to tolerate me. In the end, I’d pretty much had to move out of the apartment we briefly shared. It was my first experience with getting jilted, and I didn’t take it well.  At that time, nearly everyone and everything reminded me somehow of something about Lou Gichuke.

Feeling like a real fraud who posed as a serious, cerebral PhD candidate, I had to admit to myself that nearly every waking thought in my head seemed to call to mind a memory associated with him. I’m embarrassed to admit that in my imagination, I obsessively linked him to Kimathi, the Mau Mau leader who ran barefoot 70 miles a day through the Kenyan bush, waging heroic guerrilla campaigns — according to my reading, anyway.

When Liu suggested a fast, easy route to getting far away from Iowa, I impulsively mailed my resume to the Ministry of Education in Beijing — as if daring life to exile me again and let me run from my ghosts, as I had to Gambia. An offer to teach at a college in Shanghai, including air ticket and a year’s accommodations at the Maoming Hotel, was surprisingly easy to get. It seemed to be another one of those “opportunities” for which, at 26, I still felt a bit too young to take full credit or responsibility.

My future was sealed, at least for a time. Straining to come up with a presentable reason for interrupting doctoral studies to work in China, I realized I could actually make a case for branching out into journalism or international trade. The Reaganomics recession was in full sway. Even our professors were advising us to look around for alternative ways to make a living. I contacted a few news organizations and offered to work part-time as a Shanghai stringer. International Press (IP) wire service took the bait and put me in touch with their Beijing bureau chief, a man named Feldman.

I left for Shanghai, my mind echoing with all the libelous words about China that I was reading in books by disaffected Sinologists or jaded foreign correspondents. Already, I sensed they were probably right. As a beginning student (Liu was my first teacher), I thought the phonemes of Chinese language resembled sounds of human pain. The word for the pronoun “I” sounded like “woe,” and the vowel “e” resembled a low groan.

In the months to come, I’d dwell on my last sight of Lou Gichuke, at the university library where he had a work-study job for a few hours weekly.  Knowing his schedule in detail, I stopped by to get one last look at him before going as far away as possible — a moonshot designed (so I thought) to demonstrate the intensity of my wounded love. I couldn’t forget the expression in his eyes when I caught him watching me pretend to use the card catalog, not far from a counter where he stood charging out books. Stealthily glancing up, I found his eyes burning at me across the distance.

“And our souls turned to smoke and mist,” as the protagonist puts it, in the Qing dynasty literary classic Six Records of a Floating Life 

The Bamboo Curtain

In my mind, Shanghai was the deep, crimson color they name nail polish and lipstick after. I arrived at night. All over the world, darkness has a way of glamorizing the shabbiest of cities and slapping a glossy sheen over their daylight defects. Shanghai was no exception.

Not even the unselfconscious airsick vomiting of so many passengers on the Chinese national airline could prepare me for the reality behind what was sometimes still called the Bamboo Curtain. Nor did the way my fellow travelers clutched hot towels provided by the airline and cleansed not just their faces and necks, but shoulders and armpits, too. No one had yet told me that the average Shanghainese got just one bath a month, and cadres (or party leaders) one bath a week. I thought of the Gambians on hillsides upcountry, endlessly “brooking” themselves in small waterfalls.

At Hongqiao Airport baggage claim in Shanghai, I encountered a couple of fellow “experts.” A gigantic American towered over his stocky, tow-headed son and his infinitesimal Filipina wife (about half the size of the boy). I would never have guessed their relationships if the professor hadn’t introduced himself: “I’ll be the first Westerner to teach Chaucerian English in China.”

“Just what China needs!” joked a lanky, good-looking young academic from South Dakota. His name was Jeffrey, back for his second year. Eerily wholesome, he talked nonstop about Chinese porcelain.

“I love it because it’s so fragile!” he said. “Once you break it, that’s it!”

At Customs, a People’s Liberation Army soldier carrying a submachine gun asked what I would declare. “Nothing,” I said, as Liu had instructed. My new interpreter, a young lady named Little Huang, helped me communicate.

“No cameras, cine cameras, tape recorders?” the soldier barked. They X-rayed my luggage and found two cameras and the shortwave radio/tape player that Liu said I could use, then pass on to her relatives in Shanghai.

“You are old enough to know better!” the soldier scolded. It was my first dose of the sermonizing I would find so prematurely stodgy in Chinese youths. It was also my first occasion to doubt Liu’s word.

“A Shanghainese told me I shouldn’t declare anything,” I blurted out after he lectured me for several minutes more.

“Give me his name, please!” The soldier’s eyes glittered.

“Of course I’m not going to tell you her name.”

So, from the outset, I lost face with the soiled, chubby man in Bermuda shorts who came to meet my plane. Little Huang called him Old Chen: chair of the Foreign Languages Department, with whom I’d exchanged so many official letters.

Our taxi sped toward my new home, the Maoming Hotel, and I fought back tears about… something.  My ruined entrance? Why had Liu told me to lie, as if it were standard procedure? Mysteriously, we drove without lights, narrowly missing dozens of bicycles, also without lights. I noticed the scent of human waste wafting over what looked by night to be respectable urban housing.

Two Chinese men conversations in an urban area of Shanghai
Two men conversations in an urban area of Shanghai, 1980s. (Image: via Susan Ruel)

”Do you know a Shanghai person back in States? Have you a Chinese friend who misguessed the advice about Customs?” Little Huang’s heavy accent made her voice sound almost as if she were hearing-impaired.

Trying to dodge her questions, I  wondered if her last name really meant “yellow,” as Liu had taught me was one meaning of the syllable “Huang.” I had no way of knowing that my Chinese welcoming committee was most upset by my sleeveless dress, as improper as if I’d arrived in a bikini.

Every expat has their own reason for exile

Passing cars honked incessantly, flashed their high beams, then went dark. Hearing the horns, I glanced around as if expecting to see friends wave. But once again, I’d come to a place where I knew nobody.

At the sight of so many indistinct human forms outside in the dark, awareness flashed inside me. In this city of 12 million souls, there must be more than enough evil to go around, despite how Chinese propaganda harped on the purity of the “people.“ I hadn’t yet heard the story of a woman who leaped from Soochow Creek Bridge to save a suicide, only to have her purse stolen while she was in the water, diving headfirst from the roof of a certain skyscraper not far from that bridge — nor the tales of victims of the Cultural Revolution. In those years, the building entrance had been left unguarded, as an easy way out of life in Shanghai.

We pulled into the hotel’s South Wing, an older, crumbling section reserved for “foreign experts.” It wasn’t yet clear to me that the Maoming as a ghetto of sorts. No local Chinese besides employees were allowed inside.

Atop four flights of stairs, my room was box-shaped, with closets that contained huge old dressers. Most of the drawers were locked, and the keys long lost. The windows, fogged translucent by snowflake cut-glass patterns, were cracked in six places by typhoon winds. Even by daylight, I would try to peer through them and see nothing of the garden below.

Little Huang, Old Chen, and I took seat in chairs covered with a putrid orange cloth that clashed with the green walls, maroon curtains, and blue bedspread. She said the coolness of night disguised the terrible summer heat wave that Shanghai was enduring. As we talked about the weather, the air-conditioner wheezed. This was a luxury, like heat in winter south of the Yangtze River, allowed only to foreigners.

Old China Hands say that every expatriate has their own reason for exile.

Alone in my room, I had plenty of peace and quiet to contemplate mine. If asked, I’d say I came to China because I was mad at my boyfriend.  It sounded like a joke, but it was basically true. I wondered if Lou Gichuke had thought of me even once since I left.

A thermos bottle on the battered dresser gasped with trapped air, and I jumped. It was the first time I’d been completely out of reach of anyone I knew since my time in Gambia about two years earlier. Not since childhood could I recall hearing so distinctly in my head the small, shaky voice of selfhood.

And now my poor judgment had landed me in Shanghai, to get over a bad love affair. I looked around the hotel room, full of the ghosts of a thousand past visitors. It had the air of a place where life had already been lived, not where it could start again.

About my painful last visit with relatives, the less said the better, but I took real solace in breaking out a farewell gift from my sister Abigail. I used the travel lock she gave me to hide Feldman’s name and the address of IP’s Beijing bureau. Already I felt a slight thrill at defying the authorities since Western journalists were forbidden to report from Shanghai.

The phone woke me up at 5:30 a.m.

“Hullo. This is Little Huang. Did you sleep well? How was the night?”

 “I don’t know. It’s only half over yet,” I said. “I’ll see you at 7, OK?”

Apparently, the air conditioning was centrally disconnected early each morning. In spite of the soggy blanket of hot air in the room, I went back to sleep — and dreamt that the soldier at Customs broke in to seize my books.

At 6 a.m. a loudspeaker woke me again, playing a song I’d later recognize as “The East is Red.” From a nearby schoolyard wafted a squeaky, recorded voice, intoning morning exercises. I got up and showered. The water ran a rusty brown color, so dark I hardly dared wash with it. Two young men in white coats entered without knocking, their arms full of grayish towels. They didn’t speak English, and they didn’t look friendly


The Shanghai Friendship Store: Eleanor Rigby (Chapter 1, Part 2)

The Shanghai Friendship Store: Eleanor Rigby (Chapter 1, Part 1)

The Shanghai Friendship Store ©2019 Susan Ruel, all rights reserved.

About the author

Susan Ruel, Ph.D., a journalist and former academic, first worked in China in the 1980s. She lives in New York and has published several books and hundreds of articles for the Associated Press, United Nations, Time Inc., DownBeat, and others.)

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