Another Segment of the Story “Smokes”

I posted this story some time back, but since I’d only started blogging, it kind of went unnoticed. So, for those of you who’ve liked other segments of this story, this is my favorite part.

Pan-Xi, 1982 by Martha Kennedy

Fourteen middle-aged and elderly Chinese men in a private dining room of the Pan-Xi Restaurant. I, the only woman, am a disappointment to them all. I am small, surprisingly juvenile for thirty, and pretty. At least I brought this husband who is tall, gray-haired, dignified. My husband is compensation because, obviously, I’m either insane or frivolous. September, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China. As hot as noon in Hell if Hell is a sauna. The restaurant is very old, famous for at least five centuries, but I don’t know that. I don’t know anything. They sit in a circle, with me in the position of honor, to the East, where the sun rises. All below me, in chairs lower than mine. This, of course, I don’t know, either.

A waiter comes with packs and packs of cigarettes which he sets in the middle of the table on a lacquer tray. Each man takes a pack, opens it, and begins smoking ferociously. The whirling fans shift the smoke from corner to corner, moving the air a little, too.

Waiters bring food, fantastically displayed in impossible shapes, nests of noodles which look exactly like the nests of robins, hummingbirds, sparrows, vegetables cut into the shapes of birds, but there is no aroma, no flavor. The wafting smoke continues filling the room. The fans struggle with the weight of the air.

Tea. Here comes orange soda which we all mix with beer. All bottled drinks in China contain saltpeter. Nothing is cold, nothing is hot. It is the Chinese way, not to challenge the fever mechanisms of the body during the hot months. Scalding jasmine tea, after several pots, draws, the heat into the center of the brain where it disappears as an idea and you are left, surprisingly cool.

We get lessons on using chopsticks, fried peanuts, plates of soft cold noodles with sugar and peanuts, then green vegetable and garlic, mysterious chicken served with bones we repel by putting the whole piece into the mouth, sucking the meat off, then spitting on the floor. Belches, one after the other, more smoke. More dishes, frogs, called “chicken of the field,” and soup with floating noodles, dumplings and intestines. In the middle of the banquet, I’m presented with the menu, beautifully written, just for me, to mark the night. I have no idea what I’ve been given. The room is blue with smoke now, nearly obscuring, certainly dimming, the orange walls.

Outside tinny recorded music plays. The artificial lakes and magical bridges of the courtyard seem remote and impossibly cool to me; this is why they are there, to offer the illusion of space and coolness in a place where there is neither space nor coolness. I have no idea that I am looking at what is remains of a rich man’s pleasure garden from the seventeenth century. The magnitude of history in China is beyond the imagination of most Americans.

My welcome dinner concludes, and we move outside, through the dreamlike garden. I want to look around, but my escorts don’t think there’s anything particular to see. They march purposefully across the bridges, out of the restaurant and onto the street. They got their free dinner (state paid) in the expensive restaurant. I suspect I am a failure.

On the bus, I sit alone by the door because it’s broken and air rushes through it. I want to breathe and look out at everything as we pass. I want to ask questions of someone, but I’ve learned already that everyone gives the same answers. “It is nothing, it is old, it doesn’t matter.”

Then the old Dean, Kewey Tseng, a bear-like handsome man in his eighties comes behind me and sits down. He leans forward, shaking a cigarette to the front of the pack. “Here Martha. You’re among friends now.” Had they thought it was my good manners, my femininity, that made me the only one not smoking at the table? Had they expected someone less old-fashioned, a modern woman, with a cigarette hanging from her mouth? I turn to look at the old Dean and in spite of my ignorance, I see what was in his eyes. Watery, red-rimmed, rheumy, old; liver-spotted forehead, white, white hair, yellow smile, but in the dark abyss of his eyes gleam secrets. “I know who you are,” they say. “Can you see who I am? Can you?” There were to be many secret meetings like this for me in China; this is my first. “You must know,” those eyes say, “that I remember other days, when beautiful women in red silk dresses danced in that boring old restaurant, when real music played all night, when there was money here. I remember the luxury steamer I took to San Francisco where I studied as a young man. These memories I have; I have known your world, and because of that, I’ve suffered all my life. I would do it all again, for the memories alone. You are the same as I; you have come all this way for a memory worth having.”

I take the cigarette. We sit there, he leaning forward on the back of my seat, smoking silently together as the breeze comes through the broken door.

13 thoughts on “Another Segment of the Story “Smokes”

  1. So that one old guy really made it all come together for you.

    Smoking is a social ritual in Israel too … which is how I wound up hooked on cigarettes. It was rude to turn them down.

    Living in another culture is always worth it. The world makes more sense when you know America is NOT the world.

    • He was my boss. He’d been incarcerated during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He sometimes got Hainan Coffee on the black market and hid it away for me in a cupboard in his office. The first time he gave me this coffee is worthy of another story. He was a wonderful man.

  2. What a wonderful picture you paint Martha! Your doubts about your self, with so much secret traditional, unspoken rituals to deal with. I love the ending with the wise old man. Beautiful!

  3. Because I’m sure I shall enjoy this, I’m going to copy & Paste it, and then break it up into par.s. That is to say, MORE par.s
    I find tons of text in a block to be a challenge.

  4. That waterfall is still there. I loved the landscaping in the restaurant. When I talk to Chinese men and women of my age today, I hear from them stories of how narrowly they escaped the events of the 60s and 70s. I wonder whether they talked of those things at that time.

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