Last Day in Xuchang

Everyday / Thursday, May 12th, 2011

I am so far behind in my posts. Blame it on the non-stop tests here. Monday in Xuchang dawned hazy, cloudy and drizzling. Zhang You’s unbelievable kindness was still lingering on my mind. It was around 7:30AM when the phone rang, and the receptionist at the hotel announced that Lynn was waiting. Lynn was one of Swati’s students, and for a brief period of one class was my student as well. She is tall for a Chinese woman, used to love playing basketball before a severe back problem emerged. Recently married to her long-time boyfriend, she is one of the closest Chinese friends we have.

The Lynn I meet now has undoubtedly blossomed into a woman. She gives Birdy a beautiful bracelet as a birthday gift. Her hair is permed now, although it still has the familiar bangs in front. She is working as a teacher now in Hebi, a small town close to Xuchang. We sit around for a while near the computer while she shows pictures of her wedding, her brother, who she thinks is very handsome. Don’t all sisters do? :-). Her brother is also recently heart-broken after his girlfriend in Sanya dumped him. There were too many language and cultural barriers, apparently. Sanya is China’s southernmost city – and Hebi is almost kissing Beijing. It never snows in Sanya, but it snows a lot in Hebi. The dialect is also different – the only Chinese I understand is the standard Putonghua from Beijing. Slip in any other dialect and its practically impossible for a non-native speaker to understand. The Chinese don’t seem to have problems, although they too admit to a little bit of difficulty. I think it’s a bit like me going to a place like Banavasi in Karnataka or Udupi – the northern Kannada dialects are extremely difficult to understand, but I could. On the other hand, Birdy just about gave up, Malayalam being her native language.

Lynn also has a problem on hand. In the evening we are scheduled to meet Victor, one of my students in Zhengzhou. But Lynn and Victor have a little bit of a history between them. Years ago, Victor ardently pursued Lynn, who was already going steady with her husband-to-be. She turned him down repeatedly. Victor moved on and now has a girlfriend of his own. But according to Lynn, things are still awkward. She didn’t invite him to her wedding, and she hasn’t met him in the past 4 years. As we walk out of the hotel and go to a small cafe to have breakfast – pizza and Chinese veggies, if you will please! – the romantic drama continues. Victor messages me asking me what time I will be in Zhengzhou. I tell him Lynn is coming along too, he says great, and then 2 minutes later, asks me to tell Lynn to give him a missed call as he doesn’t have her number. This throws Lynn off-balance. “He has my number!” she sputters in embarrassment. “He just wants me to call him, that’s all,” as we look on in amazement. She does call him, however, and it’s while she is on the phone that a familiar person enters the restaurant. I have been to many hairdressers in my life, but the best is to be found in this remote little town called Xuchang. Such is life. Mr Huang is a little older now, but has shed some weight. We are now able to talk a little bit more to him, as long as he doesn’t speak Henanese. He immediately suggests we visit his saloon. The day before we had gone searching for his saloon, except that it wasn’t there any longer. It’s sad when certain places you associate with fondness in your memory just disappear. Just how fleeting are these sands of memory then…how fragile these photos…how all these memories are just passing glances, no more no less. However, Lynn being Lynn, had called up the hair saloon – it’s called Lan Tian, and there he was, sitting now in front of our pizza, assessing our hair.

A short taxi ride later (wonderful to be in a city where the longest taxi ride is 7 minutes!), we reach the saloon. Immediately, we are ushered inside for a hair wash. It’s not the 5 minute hair wash we get in Indian saloons. Here, it’s almost 30 minutes with the last 20 minutes devoted to exquisite massage. And then Mr Huang busied himself with Birdy’s unruly mop, while Ali set about styling my own straggly greasy pancake. The result? Stunning. “Just a few snips,” crowed Birdy. I must say that it’s startling. She had spent Rs1500 on the last haircut, which wasn’t handled very well. Here, with little language exchange, she was given the cut she wanted, and the result was beautiful. My hair too suddenly discovered some new bounce, although I knew that it was the result of extensive hair styling – my hair was too short to cut.

And those few years ago, we had also taken a picture with one of the hairdressers. To this day, it stands there in Lan Tian, framed to eternal glory. Since I made this blog private, I can now post personal pictures as well. So here goes:

Guess who?
I like to think of this as my only shot at fame 🙂
Extreme right is the best hair dresser in the whole world. Right behind him is Ali, the guy who styled my hair

Eventually, it was all over too soon. We met Zhang You again – this time to give him the money the hotel gave. And then, back to the Xuchang Train Station. I thought to myself that I certainly will never come back here again. Birdy disagrees. But I feel I have paid my respects here to this place. Once. Enough. I, no doubt, spent some of the happiest moments of my life here, but being here in a way is also cruel – it also reminds you of the happiness you lost. The train to Zhengzhou is delayed almost 2 hours and when it does arrive, I leave knowing that this chapter of my life has been firmly shut.

A short one hour later, Victor is waiting for us at the train station. He looks even more gaunt than ever before. I ask him what’s the secret in being so thin. And he laughs and says, “I always wanted to know what’s the secret to putting on weight!” He works for a college called New Horizon, apparently the manager in charge of sales. As we make our way to a steak restaurant close to the train station, I realize that my hate-hate relationship with Zhengzhou continues. The city is just a magnified version of Bangalore. The same chaos. The same noise. But thankfully, not the same people. At least, I don’t have to worry about gropers here. “I wanted to take you guys to a dumpling restaurant, but I realized that we don’t have time,” Victor says. There aren’t many vegetarian options on the menu, and we manage to obtain some Cantonese style dimsums instead. Lynn, by this time, is palpably nervous. They sit next to each other, and Lynn chooses not to tell Victor that she is married. “Why!” we whisper. “Because he will be hurt, and I don’t want to see him like that,” she says. “You know, he asked me are you still available?” she says. I am kind of surprised at Lynn. “You are just making a huge hill out of this,” I say. He was asking out of curiosity perhaps. “Here he is talking about marrying his girlfriend next year, settling down, buying a house. I don’t think he is remotely interested in you. It’s been more than 4 years,” I try to convince her. But it’s to no avail. Lynn remains under the impression that Victor is still interested in her. It makes the dinner a wee bit awkward.

Victor is candid about his work, meanwhile. He has opted for this position, a low-paying one that pays him just 3000RMB, because it gives him the opportunity to travel. He says that there are plans to go  to the US or Europe maybe in July. In between, we talk about our common dislike for Zhengzhou and love for Xuchang. “I don’t want to stay in ZZ,” he says. “But my girlfriend wants to, so I am stuck,” he says. Somehow, there is this point when this startling sentence props up. “The Chinese government is useless,” he says, with venom. “Why?!” I ask, startled. Lynn and Victor look at each other. “It’s complicated. The inner lives of Chinese, difficult to explain,” Victor says rather ambiguously. They don’t explain more, but it’s the closest I have come to hearing such open criticism about the government. We pose for a lot of photos later, but as Lynn points out later, not a single one in which just say Lynn and Victor are together. “See, there is something,” she says, even as I shake my head. As we make our way to the train station, I see Victor’s gaunt figure recede. Somehow, I think he will always be there. A lone man with lots of ambition. Will he be forever stuck in this city?

One for the albums

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