My Life in the New Old World, by Elizabeth Cunningham [World Class Adventurer #4]

Fireworks light up the night sky as The Middle Kingdom prepares for Chinese New Year. Shanghai — an Asian megacity consisting of more than 25 million people — is more than half empty.  The only ones who stay behind are the locals and foreigners. 2018 is the Year of the Dog. Small shop owners change their signs to “closed” and the local supermarket checkout lines flood with last-minute shoppers planning to prepare elaborate meals for family and friends over the holidays. My Wechat messages overflow with dog emojis and the phrase gongxi facai nestles into the forefront of my brain.

It has been four months since I came back to China from Japan. I stand on the balcony of my newly rented room, near my old club, thinking about what to do next. The Chinese often utter the word yuanfen or fate to describe encounters like the ones I’ve had over the past few weeks. The beginning of my good fortune occurred as soon as I arrived back in Shanghai where the man who sold me a Chinese ID card almost two years ago picked me up from Shanghai Railway Station.

“It seems you’ve gone in a big circle.” He said while digging into the massive feast they’d ordered for our little table of three, “What do you plan to do next?”

I twirled my chopsticks between the grains of rice. “I’m going to start a business. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure how but in the meantime, I’ll go back to my old job.”

“It’s not good to work in the clubs. It’s bad for your health and no man will take you seriously if you continue on this path.” He mumbled.

“Well, I don’t like teaching little kids and the salary for other types of daytime work is far too low to support myself in Shanghai.” I snapped. “Unless you plan to pay my bills, maybe you should refrain from telling me what to do.”

An awkward silence fell between us as his spiky-haired friend continued to play with his phone. We ate at a snail’s pace yet more and more dishes kept arriving on the table, much to my disgust at the sheer amount of waste. A waitress brought out grilled fish which I thought was the final round. We’d gotten about halfway through before steamed buns arrived. The server turned on her heel.

“Excuse me!” I said, arms waving in the air. “Are there any dishes that haven’t arrived yet?”

She listed off three more. I told her to cancel them right away. Bellies full, we waddled like penguins through the door and went to our respective homes for a long rest.

“Long time no see,” I said to the manager of my old club as his eyes widened. Aling was and will always be my boy. He’s the most even-tempered of all the managers, smiling gently when needed but never frowning or shouting. Every day he wears a white button-up shirt and black slacks. His short, straight black hair gelled up and parted to the side makes him look a bit like a character from an old detective drama. He stands at about a foot shorter than me but commands an aura of confidence and sincerity.

“Long time no see.” He said with the most stoic expression he could muster. “Change your clothes and get to work.”

The hordes of girls rushing about doing last minute makeup, eating snacks, playing mobile games, and chatting with friends in between room calls harnessed a feeling of home. I hadn’t felt that way for years. The first time I went to Moonlight at just twenty-five years old, I couldn’t fathom all the pain that would follow my abrupt departure. Had I not gotten greedy and tried the fancier clubs or ran off to smaller cities in hopes of saving on living expenses but sacrificing precious stability and higher income, things might look a lot different now.

I’m glad I’ve got a second chance. On the surface, our club looks like a freshly-dropped dog turd on blacktop pavement in midsummer. Most of the customers are rowdy and ill-mannered. This is why many foreign girls don’t want to work there. We are the rejects; the ones who can’t get work in those top-level clubs that only want bitchy,  supermodel Russian girls. However, we are the only place in Shanghai that can boast having girls from around the world including Turkey, the U.S., Brazil, Georgia, and Kenya. Also, because our club is so large, we have a healthy mix of first-time and repeat customers alike. Many of our guests are foreigners of Asian descent — Koreans, Japanese, and even Taiwanese. My favorite, of course, are the Taiwanese.

I hadn’t been back for more than a couple of weeks before I managed to snag a repeat customer. The first night felt a bit awkward due to one of my coworkers getting drunk and taking off her heavily-padded black bra in the middle of an almost-empty hotpot restaurant. As we sat in his Mercedes Benz at 2AM listening to 90s Jpop and waiting for a designated driver while chain-smoking Chungwhas, I realized that this dude could be my spirit animal. On our next appointment, however, he asked me to bring a friend. Having just come back, I haven’t got many foreign friends here. There’s one South African guy who sold me greens once a few years back who won’t stop trying to get in my pants. As for actual friends of the female and pretty variety, well…we can’t all be so lucky.

Fortunately, my brilliant company WeChat group came in handy. I posted that I needed a girl to eat out with a private customer. Along comes Irine, a lady from Turkey who spoke pretty decent Chinese. The air outside was biting cold but she wore a dress with no stockings. She smoked skinny blue Nanjing cigarettes and after shooting the shit for a while, I realized we had quite a bit in common. She’s doing a Master’s degree in Shanghai and described how incredibly easy it is to go to school in China as a foreigner. That’s when I suddenly had a lightbulb moment. If I went to graduate school for an MBA, not only could I have some great networking opportunities that I didn’t take proper advantage of in undergrad but I’d have a student visa that could last for two years. No more visa runs.

After I went home, I started drawing up a proper budget and making plans to enter grad school this fall. Out of boredom, I played around on TanTan, basically Chinese Tinder, until I found a guy so cool it made my heart sink as soon as I saw him. I like to consider myself a level 99 jaded bitch. Over the years, I’ve had failed relationship after failed relationship. I’m not talking about the cute kind where you break up amicably over some small things. I’m talking straight up abusive, atrocious, and horrible shit. I’ve come to expect one thing from men over the years; either they are going to use me for sex at best or emotionally/physically scar me at worst. I wanna believe they aren’t all like that. Korean dramas tell me they aren’t all like that, goddammit, and what girl doesn’t want a handsome, well-mannered, and financially-fit man to sweep her off her feet? Hahaha. Silly girls and their dreams. Oh, wait…

He took me to see Wonder, which immediately told me that he has excellent taste. After the movie, he took me to a bar, but unfortunately, we were too early so the tables stood empty. The music also lacked oomph. We played dice games and chatted for a bit before heading off. He didn’t ask me to sleep with him and sent me home in my own taxi when I told him I needed to get up early.

The second date we walked around the mall, ate pizza and chain-smoked while chatting outside. This time we would try a bar closer to the city center. I’d looked up reviews online and decided upon one that looked super underground and exclusive. He paid for our lockers and we entered the red-light tinted scene. On a Friday night, the place looked remarkably empty. After a couple of minutes, he came back to grab my hand.

“Baby, we’re in a gay bar.” He said in the most matter-of-fact way. “Let’s go.”

I felt so stupid. The English review said nothing about it being a gay bar. Most gay bars have lit as hell music and enchanting live shows. However, this one resembled more of a boudoir. As a straight couple, according to him, we attracted several stares from the men sitting on the couches holding hands, smoking hookah, and doing whatever else.

“You dumbass,” He said with a grin as he wrapped an arm around me. “Come on. My friend works at another club not far from here.”

When we got to the new locale, the music embraced me. The dancefloor spilled over with young Chinese and most of the tables were full. Only one seat remained at the bar. He asked me to sit down. I protested that we sit together but he told me he’d find another chair. This level of man could woo me easily. He’s just my type. The gentleman. The pretty boy. The dandy type.

While he searched for seating, a portly young Chinese man to my right began chatting me up in English. I told him my boyfriend would come back soon but he insisted and kept asking for my WeChat. I mentioned that Kai might be unhappy to no avail.

Kai returned with a barstool and placed it in between us. The man’s phone lit up displaying his WeChat QR code. I whispered to Kai that I won’t add him and he turned to the man, placed a hand on his shoulder and said in a firm yet gentle voice, “Brother, if you add my girlfriend’s WeChat I might be unhappy.”

The man backed down and turned to his friend to begin a new game of dice. I beamed. This was a man. A real man. A man who spoke gently but got what he desired. Perhaps, they do exist outside of fairytales.

I led him to the dancefloor where we sashayed and shimmied for a bit before my African friend came to deliver some goods, late, as usual. He left the club in a hurry and we went downstairs to hail a taxi back to Minhang. I couldn’t wait for the third date because I knew.

Two weeks had passed before I could see him again. This time we met at the same mall, inside an independent bookstore with a coffee shop inside. He’d been reading a Chinese novel and sipping red tea.

“Let’s go.” He said as he got up to take his backpack and coat.

“Wait,” I protested. “Does this place have English books?”

He thought for a moment before leading me to a tiny corner with all the classics that I’d already read in college as an English major. One tattered book with a blue cover suddenly caught my eye: Alice in Wonderland. I picked it up and to my delight, it was a mixed language book. The original English text appeared on the right pages. The left pages contained a Chinese translation. Seeing how enamored I’d become with the little book, he offered to buy it for me but insisted on buying a new copy.

When we took it to the counter, the staff informed us that it was the only copy left. Without missing a beat, he whipped out his phone to pay by WeChat and told me to keep it safe. He suggested that we see a movie. I agreed. An Indian movie, Secret Superstar, had become incredibly popular in China. Starring a young girl from a small Indian town who loved music yet had to endure an abusive father only to beat all the odds by becoming an internet sensation, the hearts of millions could fall in love with this film. Unfortunately, there were no English subtitles. The first time I saw it in Beijing with my customer a few days ago. The second time, I wanted to see it with Kai. The commercials played on the big screen when he turned to me and said “I can’t look at you up close because if I see you this closely, I will want you so badly,” He kissed me. “Let’s go.”

We walked out of the theater before the film even started and before I knew it, this would be the best Valentine’s Day I’d ever had.


This post originally appeared on Elizabeth Cunningham’s website

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