Beauty and the Barbarian

by Ginger wRong Chen

Second by second, the bitterness is brewing stronger and stronger as the sweet longing turns sour.
One day, three days, a week, two weeks, four weeks, she hasn’t shown up. Not a word, not even a peep. The moment hatred starts to bud, it is self-nurtured already.
Luke has been sick in bed for one month. His face is pale with sunken eyes and cheeks. His used-to-be-neatly-trimmed mustache has grown into chaos. The last time he saw Zhenzhen, she said: “Of course I will come back. If a little disease can stop me from seeing you, what is my love worth?”
Good question! What is her love worth?
She hasn’t visited him once ever since. He feels abandoned.
“She is probably somewhere inside the Han District entertaining her friends. Those so-called ‘friends,’ God knows who the hell they really are. I dare to say some are her lovers, some are just lovers. She is such a shameless bitch,” he thinks to himself. “I am in pain; she is having fun, bitch, a thousand times a bitch!”
“Ouc…” A sharp pang hits his chest.
If he had the energy, he would have gone into the Han District to seek her out and humiliate her. It would require a lot of costume and make-up work — he needed bronze to turn his white skin yellow; for his deep eyes and high nose, he would use a pair of big sunglasses; and for his blond hair, a black wig was a must-have — but all the trouble would be worth it.
He knows how much she hates losing face. She wants everyone to think of her as a precious flower, even sometimes appearing a little too exotic or wild to the common taste, but always fun and delicious. She can’t handle being laughed at in public. That would kill her. Yes, that would kill her real nice.

Luke thought out every last detail of his plan. Once he got into the Han District. He would ask her out to the Hezhizhou Tea House on Meijia Xiang, one of the five main avenues in Shanghai town. Though according to the Dynasty law, he, a foreigner, or a “barbarian” as locals say, is not allowed to sit inside a Han Tea House, he is going anyway. It would be like an adventure.
And, he believed, she would come for sure, not because she loved him, but because she loves a little adventure, especially the not so risky ones. They had done that before in the past, she simply loved it. She was excited that she had one more interesting story of challenging a taboo to share with her friends, and one of them, who is a self-proclaimed writer, would probably put the episode into his novel.
As soon as they are seated in the Tea House, if they were lucky, right by the window looking into the Yuanlin garden decorated with Taihu stones that have so many holes that it seems they could break any second, she would ask him in her sugarcoated voice, acting like an angel, “Honey, how have you been?” and she would probably add, “I miss you so much.” At this point, he would need to be mentally strong enough not to be deceived, and keep in mind how ruthless she was under her charming smile.
Then, when the moment came, he would show everyone in the Tea House who he really was and recite a speech he has prepared in advance:
“Shame! You call yourself Ren Yi Dao De, but you have no morals. You cheat and you lie and you hide. Take it off, take that innocent mask off. I am done playing with you now. I want a straight answer here, do you or do you not love me?”
Soon, “Aiya,” “Oh,” and “Ah” would arise from the crowd; her face would turn red then pale; her hands would clench; she wouldn’t be able to say a word, she is a coward; she would like to run, but her bound feet would slow her down.
Then the manager of the Tea House would jump in and apologize that he had no idea a barbarian was being served under his nose, to make it up to the terrified customers, every table would get a pot of premium Tieguanyin on the house.

However, Luke was too sick for this drama. He had no choice but stay in his tiny tenement house in the Barbarian Ghetto. Three years ago, he arrived in the port of Shanghai. Before the arrival, he had read a great deal about the Middle Kingdom — the only civilization continuing to survive and prosper through history. He had heard that these dragon descendants were terribly arrogant and they think they invented everything on the planet. They argue with Italians about the origin of noodles, with Brits about the steam engine and with Greeks about tragedies and comedies.
Luke found their arrogance annoying. If he hadn’t met Zhenzhen, he would have left long ago. But unfortunately, he did meet her; and, tragically, fell in love.
Like every other town in the Dynasty, Shanghai is divided into the Han District and Barbarian Ghetto. The Han District is surrounded by a great wall ornamented with images of dragons and phoenixes and tigers and lions. The wall has five gates on its each side, with the middle one being the biggest and highest. All Han people dwell inside the wall. A suburb outside, where foreign visitors and merchants stay, is called “the Barbarian Ghetto” by locals. People from abroad are allowed to get into the Han District between 9am and 9pm to take care of business, but they shouldn’t stay inside the wall overnight, nor are they welcome in most Han stores.
“I hate this country. And I hate Shanghai; nothing but narcissistic pride and glory. It is the 21st century, for God’s sake. They had the Kangxi Reform — that’s like what, 300 years ago? You would think a country that went through the industrial revolution and now the craziness of globalization would know better about racial equality, yet they are still holding up to the idea that the Han are the center of the world. Have they really looked at the globe?” Every time Luke thinks about the Middle Kingdom, he gets mad, “What a fucked-up country! The greatest civilization? My ass! It should be called the biggest asshole in the world.”
To give himself reasons for self-hatred, he is voluntarily staying here for a phony girl called Zhenzhen. “I hate Shanghai, and I hate myself.”
Self-hatred, the highest and worst kind of hatred in the world.
He smacks his head on the headboard, making the sound, “Bang…Bang…Bang….”

And it echoes, “Bangbang…Bang….”
No, it is not an echo.
He overestimates the size of his apartment. It isn’t big enough for any sound wave to bounce back and forth at different time frames that human ears can differentiate. It’s only the door.
Someone is knocking on the door, then the lock opens from outside. It must be her. She is the only one he has given the keys to.
It is her. Zhenzhen walks in, bringing with her a scent of jasmine.
“Oh, babe, you look awful!” she begins.
Before him stands Zhenzhen, a girl in her prime — slim and delicate, and as usual elegantly dressed in a colorful silk robe, finished with carefully-messed-up hair with a few curls falling loose on her cheeks and neck, adding a special charm to her face by suggesting a spirit of freedom and freshness.
He casts a critical glance at her and says with an ironic smile: “Oh, honey, as always, you look marvelous!”
She doesn’t sense the bitterness in his tone, or she does but decides to ignore it. She goes on: “Honey, I am sorry I haven’t visited you these days. I miss you so much, and I‘m very very sorry.”
“Are you? Frankly, I do not know if you are sorry or not. I do not know whether you are capable of feeling sorry or not.”
“Please do try to understand. This is a very hard situation for me. I have my whole family to think about, not just myself. Their health is in danger.”
“Their health is in danger?” He shifts his body to a more comfortable position, and says, “Oh, right! Right, right, right. I get it! Because of me. How dangerous I am, a sick barbarian! I am going to infect your whole family and put them in danger. What happened to ‘You will love me for ever no matter what, in health or sickness?’”
“I am not a saint. I am only a human. I am allowed to be afraid of disease. I am allowed to show a little weakness. I am allowed to protect myself from unnecessary harm,” she looks down at her embroidered red shoes, evidently avoiding direct eye contact with him.
“Oh, here it comes, your big talk about human nature. You can reason your behavior as much as you care to. But you can’t say you love me, at least not anymore.” Through these four weeks, he has learnt to feel genuine revulsion towards her.
“I do love you. I think of you all the time. I miss you!” she is almost begging.
“Then come, hold my hand,” he dares her.
She cringes as if from an unexpected thunder, as timid as a deer, playing her cute, endearing little fair lady card.
“Oh, I believe you, you do love me. But your love means nothing but sweet talk,” he even starts taking pity on her, which gives him the privilege to feel superior, a wonderful sensation.
“That’s not true. Don’t you remember for you I sacrifice my good Han woman reputation; for you I was being laughed at for dating a barbarian; for you I will never be clean enough to my people….”
“And you do that for me or for yourself?” interrupts Luke.
“How is that for myself?” she asks, in some confusion. “Now you are just being mean.” Tears glisten on her eyelashes.
“Ah, what a good crier she is!” He thinks and sneers, “There is something melodramatic in her personality, which seems quite charming at the beginning but becomes exhausting later on.” He is glad her tears have no power over him any more.
“You may think you are the smartest race in the world. You may think we are dumb barbarians. But between you and me, I see things. I see you, every little bit of you. I am just a little boy toy you use to show your fellows how avant-garde you can be. You see, you are just a girl full of fancy ideas: love beyond races, taboo, forbidden, being wrong…you enjoy these. You love these, but you can’t love a real person.”
“Sure I can love a real person. I love you!” she keeps on arguing.
“Oh, poor thing, you are so naïve. You merely want to believe you love me. In fact, you only love the idea of loving me. A barbarian trapped in the Ghetto. A man who will never be treated equally here in this society only because of his different physical features. And we have been together for three years. Anything you can call passion has long gone. You do not desire me any more. You do not want me. You only want to pretend you want me to show how liberal you are. You love the idea of loving a barbarian,” he heaves a long breath, “God, it feels so good to spit it out.”
“This disease has changed you, made you bitter,” she shakes her head.
“No, it didn’t make me bitter. It made me wiser. Finally I can see you much better now.”
She opens her mouth slightly and passes her tongue over her lips, but fails to utter a single word. After a long silent moment, when she is at last unmuted, she says: “I forgive what you have just said. You are obviously having a delusion. Despite that you are not my race and you are sick, I still love you. It is true. It’s taken me four weeks to realize it. But I want to come back.”
He laughs, “You want to come back? Is it guilt? Atonement?”
“I don’t feel guilty. You getting sick is not my fault.”
“Yet you abandoned me. I guess your selfishness doesn’t fit well with your noble image. You abandon someone you claim you love the moment he gets sick. Your love is a joke. That makes you feel bad, am I right?”
“You…you…shouldn’t be…so…so harsh on me!” She stammers, turning red then pale, her hands clench, just like what Luke would have liked to see in the Tea House in his imagination.
Then she turns and walks as rapidly as she can out of the door, almost limping on her bound feet.
“Run, Zhenzhen, run!” He calls after her, shouting at the top of his lungs, his body shaken by the violence of his anguish, “At least try to run!” He is amused by his own joke and laughs until he chokes with an acute cough.

Luke lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He is counting the time.
In five minutes, the cab she takes will cross the middle gate of the great wall. In another 15 minutes, she will be sitting in her family garden, rubbing her feet, drinking Longjing tea and telling her friends how rude the barbarian is, and her friends will exclaim, “Oh, those barbarians!” And a few hours later, she will be having big family dinner with her parents and promise she would be good. And 24 hours from now, she will forget about him completely. After two months, she will occasionally think of him and use him as a supporting role in one of her heartbreaking stories to entertain her friends; and all her friends will sigh in distress and her writer friend who is full of big theories but lacks any real originality will probably write a poetic drama about it and claim it to be the modern version of Changhen Ge, the one about Emperor Lilongji and his concubine Yang’s great love that ended tragically.
Luke is right about almost everything, except that Zhenzhen never tells the story to anyone. She recycles it herself and writes a short story. In her fiction version, Luke takes her back and she ends the story with “A little forgiveness saves a fallen soul.” She loves him until the end of her life. How can she not love him so, the only man who sees her darkest side but loves her still?
It is considered a controversial piece in Shanghai literature due to its interracial sex scenes and wins her 49 hours of fame or what some might call infamy.
When interviewed about whether or not the story is autobiographical, she answers: “No. I am just a lady full of fancy ideas.”