[WARNING: This story includes the words “China” and “Chinese” because the story features Chinese people from China]
You meet the damndest people in a second-rate graduate school. Mine was near Preston, England, not far from Manchester, slightly closer to Blackpool. If you’re not familiar with Blackpool… you lucky bastard.
The main administrative building on campus flew an English, a British and a Chinese flag. This struck me as odd for about an hour. I’d soon learn that “UCLAN,” as it was called, offered much lower acceptance standards for Chinese students who came from wealth. There must be an awful lot of wealthy Chinese families as UCLAN wasn’t lacking in Chinese students. A proud and respected people and culture.
After the first couple of weeks of some pretty tricky classes, International Accounting and the like, it became painfully obvious that 8 of the 10 Chinese students in my 28-person course couldn’t read, write or speak English. This was fascinating, not because they all seemed to rely on one person to translate the coursework to them then use the same person to translate their finished product into English, but because the professors accepted this without question.
As the only American, I was chosen as President of the class United Nations – not only due to my ability to charm the course leadership, but the world was in love with our then Democratic president. I was a shoe-in. I didn’t and couldn’t communicate with the Chinese students and they probably could but chose not to interact with me. I knew for a fact at least two of the male students could communicate in English.
Once I was voted in as basically “class president,” a title I didn’t take too seriously as others were taking it seriously enough for me and then some – a couple of the Chinese students had a newfound desire for gaining my favor. Fancy that. Politics.
First, there was “Steel.” The Chinese and Indian students were allowed to give themselves “English” names, not unlike you’ll find today when you call customer service and have your call answered in a foreign country. So Steel chose “Steel.” Went for gold, he did. No messing around there.
Steel came from a province I can’t pronounce and his family was in the… steel business. As he pulled from one of four tall boy beers he’d brought – I was late for class that day so sat in the back row, just happened to be next to Steel – Steel explained that he didn’t really have to do anything, he would get the grades he needed then graduate and return to China and enter his family’s steel business.
Why bother with the middle part? Surely you can buy beer in China. Did his family place that much value on a piece of paper from England? The Chinese hated the English, probably still do. That was my take on the state of affairs at lease. Wouldn’t the fact that he didn’t crack a book present itself at an inopportune time once he returned? So many questions. But aside from that first class, I never saw Steel again.
About a fortnight later, (I was in England, mind you), in a separate class from that which showcased Steel in all his glory, I met Chen Wang. Chen was from Hong Kong and his father was in the glass business. What little I knew did provide me with knowledge that the tiny Island-Province probably went through a lot of glass. I liked Chen immediately, he was no nonsense, I mean hell, he kept his name – no Thunder McGillicuddy or Glass Sharpton, just good ‘ol Chen Wang.
Chen treated graduate school like a job, the way you’re supposed to. He probably studied from 5am to 1am, my best estimate once I got to know him a little. He wanted to improve his English, so we would spend a lot of time together after classes – before he would go study whatever was three-four weeks off in the syllabus and I would hit the pub.
Chen, being from Hong Kong, spoke (speaks?) Cantonese, this made the other Chinese in the course peons, I didn’t know why, but Chen was pretty vocal about how much lower on the ladder they were as humans. This mentality was foreign to me as I attended undergrad at a state school. A bad one at that.
Most of the rest of the class were English, the odd Irish native, a Scotsman here and there, a lady from Burundi, one from Russia, a smattering of this and that and my favorite pair, a blonde couple from southern Brazil – both with German names. They were beautiful inside and out though I always wanted to question them a bit more on their ancestry.
True to Chen’s form, the other Chinese in the class – mostly women – were very quiet around him, as if he really were quite a ways above them in status. This interested me but not enough to learn Manadarin and ask them questions about it.
We were well into the fall semester when I asked Chen if he would like to attend a birthday party my girlfriend and flatmates had planned for me. He nearly jumped out of his skin. Here was the President of the whole fake United Nations inviting him to the Presidential Palace for drinks and music?!
Make a note, to this day I have no idea what my charge was as head of the mock UN. And I’m pretty sure the “president” of the UN is called the Secretary General and always has been. Also, my flatmates and I lived in a drafty three-story flat with tiny, odd-shaped rooms that had ceilings higher than the rooms were wide. Nothing palatial about it.
On birthday party night, the crew were in rare form. I loved them dearly. There was Claire from Sheffield who shouted “oye!” at pretty much anything and everything. Then you had Jen, from a Welsh village no one can pronounce. Paul from London, he was about as private-school London as you get, the others picked at him incessantly for even being in Preston. And Ryan, my personal favorite, a smart-ass of the highest order and ring-leader of flat happenings.
My girlfriend had come all the way from her college in central Wales to attend the event and spend the weekend with me, she was really quite something, way out of my league.
We’d just cracked open some bourbon and board games when the bell rang.
Of course it was Chen Wang and he’d brought a friend. At first – and for a couple of hours – none of us caught the friend’s name. He was beyond meek. In fact, he’d driven a few miles past Meek and taken a left onto Submissive and – best we could tell – was looking to park and retire somewhere near Footrest or Doormat. I’d surmised that Chen’s friend must be from mainland China. He was also a few years younger than Chen, we all assumed Chen must have found him amongst the undergraduate ranks.
At any rate, here they were, gifts in tow. A box of something, wrapped by someone in a store somewhere a few years back, an obvious bottle of liquor and a card. How thoughtful.
Chen and his companion wore ties and jackets and we would have felt underdressed had we not been Western heathens. And been drunk. First, I opened the card. Everything inside and out was written in the traditional Asian-to-English stick figure chicken scratch. But it was legible, far more impressive than my Cantonese.
The card depicted two precious kittens in an artform made popular in the 70s and said something along the lines of “thank you for let have us during honorable presentation of the annual birth.” Which is pretty cool. I still have the card, I need to dig it out and double check that.
There was a very sturdy bottle of Bacardi rum under the light blue wrapping with white bow, duly noted. And the box held… we still don’t know. Seriously. It might have been candy, or candles, or glassware, but he and his man-servant beamed from ear-to-ear so I held the box with both hands and performed a half bow, thanking Chen profusely. I sat it on the mantel where I would smile and glance up at it with respect every 20 minutes or so, overwhelmed by his generosity, wondering what in the hell it was.
The night progressed, Claire became more vocal and racist. As the president of the fake United Nations, I couldn’t tolerate such behavior so I would laugh her comments off – it was all in good humor, surely. Then Chen had his sixth shot of rum. His manchild friend nervously looked at him in disbelief then went deep inside himself as he looked at us for a reaction.
What did we give a shit? We were all half in the bag before the rum arrived.
Upon announcing James Joyce the answer to the center-board, final question, my girlfriend smiled and toasted the room. I rarely lost a game of trivia and I never once beat her in any form of trivia or word games. Not once. She and the girls had won, handily. Chen’s mood deteriorated rapidly, Paul and Jen had even escaped to the kitchen to avoid some skirmish I’d managed not to notice.
Chen, now without his jacket, the room sweltering in the late-November evening as our 1880s furnace worked overtime, screamed something in (presumably) Cantonese. His little buddy stood shocked. Chen stood, not shocked, and yelled, “You English think you better than Chinese!” That’s not verbatim, use your imagination.
Now the room was empty, save Ryan, little buddy, Chen and I. Chen added, “We Chinese will dominate you! You not better than us!” (Hand to God, word for word) Ryan couldn’t help but smile while still wearing eyes of genuine concern. Peas in a pod, Ryan and I, facing possible danger but laughing about it. I insisted that we take the remainder of the party outside.
With this, Chen Wang raised the empty rum bottle – a seriously stout glass bottle, different from our thin American glass – and repeatedly hit himself against the temple, hard. His glasses flew off his head and hit a wall, little buddy retrieved them post haste. I grabbed the bottle arm and, with much effort, helped Chen lower it. Soothing him however I could, wondering what in the hell happened in a matter of 15 minutes.
The little guy expertly and politely forced the rum bottle from Chen’s grip as if he’d taken extensive classes on the practice.
Chen now sobbed and screamed, “We will dominate you English!” Not sure when Chen found the time to workout, what with his class schedule and doubly staggering homework regimen, but that little son-of-a-bitch was ripped and strong as two oxen. The pleb and I managed to escort Chen to the door while he disrobed, his shoes and belt were now off and he was working on the tie and shirt while we passed the threshold.
It was cold but not bitter cold, evidently warm enough to go shirtless for the few Hong Kongese who now called Preston home. Chen was still on his diatribe of domination as I had no alternative but to force him against the brick facade of our flat. He was now using his own belt to try to hang himself. Which, had it now been what was going on right in front of me, would have been kind of funny.
Ryan now took the role of hailing down a cab. One-by-one, a taxi would reach our front garden steps, see the Chinese man attempting to hang himself with his own belt, shirtless, shake their head and pull away. Now Chen had to be dealt with more forcefully. The discussion in my brain went something like this, ‘he’s strong, real strong. He’s from Hong Kong and I don’t know enough about Hong Kong to know how accurate it is to think everyone there knows some form of martial art that could kill me.’
Aside from pleading with Chen in (presumably) Cantonese, little buddy was useless.
I had to make an executive decision and punch Chen in the face. He dropped the belt and did not retaliate. Instead, he hit all fours and puked in the grass. This attracted fewer taxis than did the self hanging. And there were plenty of cabs, we lived directly across from the train station and the main road was no more than 100 feet away. Still, each driver who pulled up made the wise decision to pull away.
Little buddy was left with no choice but to gather Chen’s assorted belongings, place them back on him somehow, apologize profusely and walk him all the way back to campus, approximately ¾ of a mile into the night.
The group gathered in the living room of the flat to recount the events and continue the celebration without much fanfare. Ryan and I stayed up and put together an entire comedy special about the previous four hours, then reluctantly went to bed.
The next morning, Chen was not in class.
After a full day of coursework, I reached the flat around 4:30pm, close to sunset in Preston. Ryan was grinning ear-to-ear. It seems he had come home to an envelope shoved through the slot. An identical kitten card but this one, in the same chicken scratch, was a letter of apology and went on to describe the dishonor Chen had brought on his family, etc. I could feel his guilt pouring into the card and it made my heart hurt for him.
While I was reading and thinking, Ryan had turned the volume up on his Playstation wrestling game. You could customize your wrestler, name them, build them outfits, compose a theme song, they thought of everything. Ryan had chosen a stout Chinese wrestler and named him “Chen.” The wrestler, adorned with a Chinese flag ensemble, swayed to a song that went something like this… (driving, anthemic drum beats… boom boom boom, boom boom, repeat… words landing on the beats…) “WE ARE THE NATION… OF DOMINATION!!!”
You could likely hear our laughter inside one of the passing trains.
UPDATE: I’ve tried to track Chen down via social media to no avail, I want to make sure he’s gotten over this Anglophobia.