Thor's China Diary

Silk Barrier

@20 January 2000
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Gifts are the bane of my life. Some people love them -- buying them, giving them, receiving them. My friend, LH, never arrives without a new kind of biscuit, or a piece of fruit, or even a piece of clothing occasionally. I agonize about asking to be helped with some purchase in China because, abracadabra, it will suddenly arrive as a gift. Sensing that the universe is somehow out of balance, I will try to pay for this largesse from time to time, but there is no way to turn down a determined gift-giver.

Besides, China is a gift-giving culture. As Rebecca has complained in one of her stories, a good part of her income goes on buying gifts for acquaintances, with the purchase price on an elaborate price scale according to the occasion and closeness of the recipient. Departures, returns from journeys, currying guanxi, visits of any kind, all require gifts. When my boss, professor Z, came for a courtesy New Year visit he bought a weighty and obviously expensive ash tray featuring the figure of some dead immortal-sage. I don't know if the sage left his mortal form with lung cancer; I do know that I wouldn't smoke a fag even on death row. That wasn't the point: it was expensive and therefore showed the due respect.

My own denuded culture does require that gifts be given to certain close relatives for birthdays and at Christmas. So I trudge around stores miserably looking for that special something which will spark genuine delight. It's a losing battle, a bit like looking for the perfect woman, the perfect beer, or perfect happiness. I know this is crazy; much more sensible to work on the price-scale system and to hell with any real appeal of the item. Inevitably there is compromise, some doubtful nick-knack that you spin yourself a story about and say "uh ha, .." with a sinking feeling in your heart that your sister or mother will say "humph! .. typical Thor-present", and put it in the back of a cupboard with all the other hobbit-like bits and pieces.

Sometimes I cheat and actually ask people what they want. Usually this just earns the disingenuous "don't worry about it..". Last week I actually scored a sensible answer though. I'm not sure if it was merely polite, but it sounded like an answer, so my sister will have to live with it. She said she wanted a silk scarf. Silk in China.. what a cliché, how obvious. My inspiration would never sink to silk scarves, .. but she asked for it. So I asked another woman, LH, how you bought a silk scarf that a woman would like...

Of course, I secretly hoped that LH would buy the thing and be done with it. Then I could wave my arms and absolutely insist that I had to pay for it because it was MY sister's present after all. After saying "mei guanxi" fifty times she would carelessly let me slip the money into her handbag.. This time though, LH didn't play by the rules. She rang me up in the late morning from somewhere in Wuhan's urban wilderness. "Get a taxi", she said, "to the Hubei Fandian (hotel) in Se Guo Hu. I'll wait for you." So I walked down to the East Gate and said these noises to the first passing taxi driver. Funny thing about language-like sounds; if you say them to some people they actually do things, even if the sounds don't mean a damn thing to you... He spun the car around and seemed to know where he was going.

I recognized Se Guo Hu when I got there. It's the hidy-hole for all the very important people in Wuhan. All the ones who belong to The Party, that is. If you raked a cruise missile down this street, Wuhan would just be left with ordinary boring people like you and me. Wuhan Fandian turned out to be a largish, Stalinesque looking hotel set back from the street in a very big courtyard full of black limos. A guard stood stiffly at the gate to keep the riffraff and taxis out. I didn't deign to meet his eye and walked straight up to the entrance, assuming that LH was waiting in the lobby (though god knows why she would pick a place like this).

Another poor jerk in uniform stood pasted by the glass doors. I figured he'd do the usual thing and open them for the foreign friend. Instead a kind of strangled grunt came out of his throat. It didn't sound like "huanying" (welcome). It sounded more like the universal "scram scum". Mm. This was a pause for surprise. Maybe my brown cord trousers and big blue shopping bag didn't look VIP enough. Couldn't be careful enough about terrorists.. I looked him up and down coolly. He must have been all of eighteen. The poor boy blushed and made another noise towards the interior. Presently a well-groomed young lady in a black & white two-piece uniform emerged. She was very polite, even apologetic, with a very small collection of English words to play with. She gurgled something that might have been twisted from "conference". Anyway, it seemed clear that I wasn't invited. I tried to combine her English fragments with my tiny collection of Chinese fragments and we established that a certain lady had proposed to meet me in this august establishment. Sounded fishy, didn't it.. The young lady seemed embarrassed.

Then I remembered that LH had given me a phone number as a throwaway afterthought, just in case I couldn't even find something as simple as the Hubei Fandian. Ah, this was a huge relief, a number to call.. The black & white two-piece trotted off to see what voice would come out of the telephone. It worked. Shortly she returned beaming. Everything was solved. "You want to buy silk", she said. "Please follow me". The big glass doors were still closed. Instead, she turned and clattered off across the courtyard, past the black limo's, into the grey shadows of the shopping block whose back doors, I now realized, framed the hotel. We found a kind a tunnel into the street, made a hard turn right, then right again into a small shop full of silk scarves, nothing else.

LH was nowhere to be seen, but they seemed to know about her. My escort bustled off, back to her very important people, and the shop manager sent another girl off to scout. Perhaps they are accustomed to elaborate assignations and pick-up points because presently LH was located. She had been sharing guard duty with the stiff at the gate of Hubei Fandian, and appeared not to savor it as a new career option. In my haughty determination not to meet the eye of the sentry, I'd missed her eye as well.

No matter, we got down to business at once. Circular racks of gossamer scarves hung in shy folds, lustrous silver, svelte crimson, gay splashes of rainbow colours ... Boxes of silk scarves lined the walls. Outside it was a sharp, cold, grey winter's day, so it made sense for the salesgirl to drape a lovely, sweeping banner of tasseled silk over her arm, enough to wrap the swan neck of some lovely in a warm caress. How could I tell her that this gift's destination was the hard, burnt sunshine of an Australian mid-summer? I chose a couple, disappointingly cheap they thought, mere wisps of fine cloth. The marked prices, well, I would have paid, but this was Wuhan, China, and I was under protection. My agent bargained in the proper manner, and when we left the shop people, all smiles, had a bit more than half of the cash I would have coughed up. Happiness all around. Happy birthday, sister.

"Silk Barrier" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved

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