The Cigarette

Win­ter morn­ing light had bro­ken clear and cold, so ear­ly that night’s shad­ows were still about and a wispy moon hung in the sky. A small col­lec­tion of street food ven­dors had already parked their hand carts by the col­lege gates, and by this time there was usu­al­ly a crowd of girls in jeans and padded coats hud­dled there, refugees from cafe­te­ria food, scoff­ing thin stuffed pan­cakes or dish­es of steam­ing noo­dles. But today the road was clear of its sui­ci­dal clut­ter of elec­tric bikes and bus­es, and death defy­ing pedes­tri­ans. The girls were still in bed. It was New Year’s morn­ing, and a hol­i­day.

The old for­eign teacher hur­ried through a small gap in the secu­ri­ty gate with his col­lar turned up against the chill. The gate guard always grinned at the oth­er for­eign­er, a heavy blonde lady with a pen­chant for whisky and late night par­ty­ing. He always ignored the old man, who ran laps and lacked vis­i­ble vices. The old man made this brisk ten minute walk every morn­ing before class­es. His route took him between two hos­pi­tals. This was a place of hos­pi­tals, eight with­in two blocks. The road in front of the nurs­ing col­lege was called Recov­ery Front Street in its quaint Eng­lish trans­la­tion. The Chi­nese was more safe­ly opaque to sug­ges­tion, Kang­fu Qian­jie.

Now he edged past a mag­a­zine kiosk, its nar­row counter clut­tered with six dif­fer­ent brands of plas­tic-bot­tled min­er­al water and green tea. Even the street sweep­ers were away this morn­ing. Ten years ago, he recalled, there were few street sweep­ers in their yel­low and orange vests, and the pave­ments in the oth­er city where he had hung out in those days were some­times knee deep in dis­card­ed trash. That was progress. But the grimy side­walk blocks still stuck up at crazy angles to trip the unwary, and he’d long devel­oped auto­mat­ic radar to dodge gooey patch­es of phlegm. The aver­age Chi­nese man, and many a dain­ty lady, did not seem com­fort­able with­out hawk­ing nois­i­ly every few min­utes.

He scut­tled across the inter­sec­tion to Recov­ery Mid­dle Street, try­ing to look as usu­al in six dif­fer­ent direc­tions at once, deeply dis­trust­ful of the appar­ent­ly emp­ty road. Anoth­er awe­some recent inno­va­tion had been the elec­tric bikes, sev­en­ty mil­lion of them in the coun­try now. They were uni­ver­sal­ly unreg­is­tered, cheap, swift, and dead­ly. The road was, he reflect­ed almost a per­fect para­ble for fas­cism. Might was right, mean­ing a truck nev­er gave way to a car, nor a car to a bike, and espe­cial­ly nev­er a bike to a mere man walk­ing. On the prin­ci­ple that it nev­er hap­pens to you, his Chi­nese col­leagues were all con­vinced that they were per­fect­ly safe. As a mat­ter of pride and life­long train­ing not one of them would look left or right before step­ping blind­ly into the mael­strom. Sta­tis­tics said some­thing rude along the lines that 600 peo­ple were killed dai­ly, and 42,000 wound­ed. It sound­ed like a war, so the for­eign­er prop­er­ly con­sid­ered the Recov­ery Streets a war zone, but for­eign­ers were expect­ed to be strange.

The old man’s des­ti­na­tion was a small shop next to a bank at the inter­sec­tion with Recov­ery Back Street. Recov­ery Back Street to the left of the inter­sec­tion was always an impromp­tu farmer’s mar­ket, a road­side col­lec­tion of dried chilies spread on bits of cloth, ped­al carts with the most recent glut of small mot­ley oranges, bunch­es of onions or dried nuts. There would be trail­ers pulled by big, dirty two wheeled rotary hoes in a strange bal­anc­ing act, and lit­tle hand­carts with fried bis­cuits dis­played behind the makeshift clean­li­ness of a glass box in a frag­ile white­washed frame. The mar­ket was stocked by the province’s spe­cial three wheeled blue one ton trucks with their deep throat­ed chunk­ing diesel engines, seen ear­ly in the morn­ing, and usu­al­ly dri­ven by a florid farmer in the puz­zling trade­mark tat­tered busi­ness suit of man­u­al work­ers, togeth­er with his stol­id wife bun­dled up against the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of city air. On this morn­ing though, what was left of the mar­ket was wrapped down with sheets of plas­tic, blue, white and pink.

Recov­ery Back Street had an omi­nous rep­u­ta­tion with the col­lege girls. Few came from the city, and the induc­tion into its wicked ways was rough­ly chap­er­oned by strict cur­fews and long talks on the good deeds of young Com­mu­nist Pio­neers. But girls being girls, they whis­pered about the bod­ies kept in vats of formalde­hyde under the build­ing by the col­lege front gate. As first year nurs­ing stu­dent novices, they got over any inno­cence by cut­ting up live rab­bits. The cadav­ers were saved up for third year seniors to play with. But even the nurs­es’ trained indif­fer­ence to mor­tal­i­ty could not quite over­come the dread of Recov­ery Back Street to the right of the inter­sec­tion. That was where you found the shops for the dead, the cof­fin mak­ers, the sell­ers of wreaths and tas­sels and trin­kets that the new­ly depart­ed would need on their trip to Huang Quan Lu, the road to the under­world. In this place of hos­pi­tals, which are sure­ly the bleak­est of depar­ture halls from life’s gaudy times, they did a steady trade. Yet on this chilly New Year’s morn­ing they too were shut­tered.

The small shop next to the bank was in the hum­ble busi­ness of sell­ing hot flat bread, shao bing, fresh­ly baked in a coal oven, irre­sistible to those raised on its crisp crusts. It opened very ear­ly, and shut very late. The shao bing came pip­ing hot, and sold for a song at five jiao apiece. Yet the cus­tomers were most­ly mid­dle aged, plain look­ing folk on bicy­cles. For the col­lege girls, ‘hot’ was a show-off Eng­lish pop word for their fake brand name jeans and bags, or the new­ly fash­ion­able chain bak­ery shops which sold flab­by pas­tries in cel­lo­phane at five times the price of a shao bing. The old for­eign­er didn’t care for flab­by pas­tries in cel­lo­phane. The shao bing shop front was bare­ly three meters across, crude­ly white­washed wood with frag­ile win­dows of thin glass at chest lev­el. The only thing that looked like a sign was a spi­dery flour­ish of Ara­bic script on a strip of dark green back­ground above the door. Cer­tain­ly no Han Chi­nese could read it, and the old for­eign­er doubt­ed if the own­er knew it as more than a rote mem­o­ry either, yet that lit­tle bit of Ara­bic, so far from its ancient home down the fabled Silk Road, said every­thing that was nec­es­sary.

These were Hui peo­ple, Mus­lims, so inter­mar­ried with Han over cen­turies that any trace of anoth­er racial her­itage had long since van­ished, yet indeli­bly marked as an “eth­nic minor­i­ty”. The old for­eign­er some­times won­dered mild­ly why Chris­tians and mis­cel­la­neous god-lovers were not also eth­nic minori­ties, but per­haps in this coun­try where pigs were sure­ly dei­fied as food, these oth­er out­landers could at least be per­suad­ed to par­take. The oth­er Han odd­i­ty was that they nev­er baked food. This was tru­ly strange, yet it gave a street cor­ner to the Hui. It was more than busi­ness that seemed to give these Hui folk a spe­cial fel­low­ship with the old man. The birthed for­eign­er and the ancient cul­tur­al for­eign­ers could share some kind of iden­ti­ty. Pri­vate­ly he was as hea­then as any pig lover, but they need not know that. At the lit­tle shao bing shop he was a spe­cial celebri­ty. Each day they said kind words, not mind­ing at all his help­less shrug of ting bu dong — don’t under­stand. At dif­fer­ent times he had seen an aging lady with kind eyes, and a younger lady tucked in gen­er­ous rolls of fat. An old­er man had come back from the hajj, proud in his white cap, and for a cou­ple of months got­ten by with a week­ly shave in the Ara­bic fash­ion, but now his wife had him meek­ly smooth again. Nowa­days a lean­er man seemed to be doing the hard work, tac­i­turn, unsmil­ing, per­haps thir­ty. He had nev­er­the­less learned to acknowl­edge the old for­eign­er too, and usu­al­ly had his lit­tle pack­et of four shao bing wait­ing by the time he had crossed the inter­sec­tion at Recov­ery Back Street.

On New Year’s morn­ing a shab­by elec­tric bike pulled up to the shao bing shop win­dow just before the for­eign­er crossed the road. It’s own­er snuf­fled away with the only four shao bing baked at this ear­ly hour. For a moment the dour bak­er glanced at the for­eign­er non­plussed, then he stepped away from the win­dow and slid open an old wood­en door. His invi­ta­tion to enter wasn’t even a ques­tion. There would be a wait, and it was cold out­side. The bak­ery, not much larg­er than a decent bath­room, was dim­ly lit with unlined walls and full of dark cor­ners best not inves­ti­gat­ed too close­ly. To one side stood a low table, tacked over with tin and dust­ed with flour, where the old­er Hui man prod­ded away patient­ly at a large blob of dough. To the left was a nar­row counter where the bak­er formed up the unbaked shao bing, and behind that was the oven. The oven, grub­bi­ly white­washed like every­thing else, had begun life as a forty-four gal­lon drum. Now a large hole had been cut in its side. It rest­ed on a bed of bricks with a grate below, and through its gap­ing hole the for­eign­er could see a glow­ing bed of coals with small licks of blue and yel­low flame danc­ing on the sur­face. The genius of this oven though lay in its cap, a kind of tall mush­room of baked clay that sealed and over­hung the drum. As the bak­er formed blobs of dough, he deft­ly reached into the oven and slapped them onto the inside of the clay dome where they bub­bled and dried and baked. Each was done when it was ready to fall off the clay.

As the old for­eign­er stepped into the shop he turned around awk­ward­ly, look­ing for a spot to be out of the way. He needn’t have wor­ried. There was no false rit­u­al of wel­comes here. The two oth­er men turned their backs with­out cer­e­mo­ny to get on with their work, yet he knew some­how that there was no intru­sion. A batch of shao bing set to the oven’s roof, the tac­i­turn bak­er turned around sud­den­ly. He was hold­ing out a cig­a­rette. The old for­eign­er was star­tled. He didn’t smoke. He had nev­er smoked. Once as a child he had naugh­ti­ly tried a cig­a­rette and hat­ed it. Even at a time in his dis­tant mem­o­ry of want­i­ng to be hot, when hot chicks liked cool guys with fags, he had nev­er smoked. The bak­er wasn’t ask­ing. He knew very well that Han always polite­ly turned down a gift twice. Maybe the for­eign­er had some cus­tom too. He wasn’t ask­ing, but he was offer­ing unspo­ken accep­tance with­out fuss, with­out a blink or a smile. Just hon­est accep­tance. The old for­eign­er took the cig­a­rette and bent over to draw on the flame in the other’s cupped hands. They stood there in the semi dark­ness, smok­ing silent­ly until the shao bing was done.

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