Fiction / September 2012 (Issue 18)

Men of the GarĂșa

by Rosebud Ben-Oni

If he had stood still, there would have been no footprints.
If he had rested in the shades, his shadow would have disappeared.


He was the last of us to arrive from America, the same day that the heaviest fog fell upon us that Spring. The haze was so dense that officials closed the highway in the capital city. All planes were diverted to another airport in a neighbouring province until that evening when the sky opened and a light rain passed through quickly, temporarily clearing the air.

Three months later you can still find him along the new shops on Overseas Happiness Road, lounging in a plastic green chair outside No Name Cafe and Coffee, nursing a single cup of Nescafé for hours. Since his arrival in our village, he's done nothing but squander time on the new legal-pads the rest of us tea-drinkers smuggled in from Taiwan.

These aren't just any old legal pads. They come in Blue Transcend Time, Emerald Jungle a Rumble, Mango Mango We Joyous Tango and Blushing All My Secret to You; the names are in large, glittery letters on shiny polyurethane covers, concocted by native Chinese who've unknowingly taken liberties with English translation. They're all the rage with young Fuzhou-born girls. No man in his right mind would buy one, but maybe he thinks by using the least popular Platinum Sting Sunglass, which is really just yellow, he comes off as some hipster scholar.

We've never liked the guy. He could get a bowl cut and look like Heavenly King Andy Lau. But if any of us did that, the village girls would drag our names through the mud. Stupid, did you just drop a pot on your head and chop away with eyes shut? There is no pleasing these girls. Soon they'll make us carry their designer purses like the girls do in the big cities. This is the way things happen.

We humour him as his brother Li Baochen is Director of Municipal Development and Reform Commission and handles the building permits in our village. But behind his back, we call him "What's His Name" because he no longer answers to his name, claiming that the fog which coincided with his arrival still engulfs him. As if it were like something called the garúa.

We aren't sure what to make of this. But we must humour him because of Director Li so we ask: what the hell is a garú-ha?

"The garúa is a coastal fog particular to the Andes," he explains, showing off for the village girls with his suspect, foreign words. "The air is so transparent you see perfectly, but you're drenched in seconds."

We didn't know you'd been to the Andes, we humour him, for Li Baochen's sake.

He sighs, a little too luxuriously. "You know I haven't. I'd go now. But I'm broke."

Li Baochen spent good money getting you here, someone reminds him.

How easy, with your connections, for you to land a dream job, another encourages.

And if you say it engulfs you here, then why go there, another shouts, nearly foaming at the mouth, and we pull him back in line.

"I said it was like the garúa," he says, defensively. "Like I can see just fine, but I actually can't see what's there. See?"

We look around at each other, and shrug.

"Never mind. Look, I'm not just going to mooch of my brother. I just need—a jumpstart. I need something new."

You just got here, some of us say.

You've already been here two months, others of us say.

You're not a car, says the same one who called him out, still nearly foaming at the mouth, and we pull him back in line.

"I need my own space," he goes on "where I can start my own life. I could work as a translator. Do manual labour. Whatever it takes to stay alive."

Alive? You're the son of CEO Li, the brother of Director Li.

What's His Name shakes his head. "I don't feel alive here."

Now, don't be stupid, we cut him off. You're in one piece. Lucky you still have your limbs, your eyesight, your American passport. Lucky you, period. You can travel so easily. And why the hell would you want to be alone?

What's His Name never responds to our encouragement which we barely have time to give. He turns away, squanders the truth we speak on to another Platinum Sting Sunglass.

What are you writing? We ask him each day.

"I've told you a thousand times," he says. "It's none of your business."

Well, we say and bite our tongues.

The village has become fond of saying: only a year apart, and yet Li Baochen is lifetimes ahead of What's His Name.

Our elders call him a waste. What would their father think? CEO Li was the very first to leave our village for America, and the first to send money home so his wife could build a mansion here in Fuzhou. He then sent for her, with all the comforts that legal paperwork brings. Our fathers made the mistake of impregnating their wives here, and then waiting until we were twelve or thirteen; by then it was impossible to seek asylum. We boarded planes headed toward South America only to sneak out of the terminals at LaGuardia and Newark, our fake identities shaking in our hands. Today we still rely on Chinese passports.

While our parents slaved away in sweatshops and kitchens, CEO Li owned two laundromats and a house in Woodside, Queens, after only four years. He was the man who contributed the money to pave the village's first road which our elders named Overseas Happiness Road in his honour.

Of course, CEO Li died a drunk who'd gambled away his future, but look at Li Baochen. He doesn't sit around and brood over losses like What's His Name. And to think: an eldest son kept by his younger brother? What are we coming to?

Our elders ask these questions of us, their grandsons, when we're home. They find Overseas Happiness Road too loud and bright with imported music blasting outside the shops and neon lights that come on when it's still light outside. They prefer to spend their evenings on the rooftop pagodas of their four-storey homes that American money built, looking out at the distant mountains of their childhoods, knowing they could never return to that kind of life.

Li Baochen is not a fan of these homes and dissuades us from continuing to build them. Our fathers in their devotion, he says to us, did not know how wasteful they are of energy and light and heat. He knocks at the massive, metallic-painted columns which serve no functional purpose and are pure decoration. They do not actually support the weight of the top floors, Li Baochen reveals. What really holds these colossal structures up is built within.

Our elders respect Li Baochen. They refrain from spitting on What's His Name when he finally leaves the cafe and ambles home, passing by those garish testaments to filial love.


Behind his back, when Li Baochen's not around, it is strongly agreed that we shouldn't feel bad for someone like What's His Name. He's tall for a Fuzhou man, muscular with a sharp nose and almost double-lidded eyes. Still looks young enough to catch the attention of the girls here, mostly those Fuzhou-born-and-raised.

They pretend to stop for oyster cakes nearby at Quickly Most Peaceful Snack Bar, all flushed and smiling like they're about to receive tangyan rice balls to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The more brazen ones slink into the green plastic chairs of No Name Cafe and Coffee, buzzing like brightly coloured insects under the protective umbrellas of green plastic tables. They've taken to ordering Nescafé his way: without sweetener and a touch of milk product, taking it nearly as dark as his skin.

The girls compare What's His Name to Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo, The Man With the Tan who's all over Mainland though he can't speak a lick of Mandarin. We ask the girls if they've seen the commercial where Koo's caressing a tire with a creepy smile on his face, singing the merits of lun toi instead of lun tai, turning a tire into an egg embryo?

In New York as teenagers, we often told the Westerners in public school, if you want to hear the origins of true Chinese, listen to the good Aunties on East Broadway rather than that jarring nonsense spewing from Mott Street Cantonese.

Today, Hong Kong is looking to Mainland for opportunity. We think it's all very amusing, Hong Kongers trying to appeal to us Mainlanders. Even big shots like Louis Koo.

We'd advise our Western friends: learn Mandarin before Cantonese. Otherwise bad habits set in, and you'll never get it right. You'll sound like a confused Thai. But there's no way you'll ever learn any of the Min dialects. Eight tones, tones within tones, very complex tonal sandhi. If Louis Koo can't get four tones correct with all that money, what chance do you have?

And What's His Name is not Louis Koo. He and Li Baochen are a certain kind of Chinese: American-born and yet their father had them sent back as infants to China to be raised by their grandparents until it was time to return to begin school. Soon after, this became very popular. Do not think American-born Chinese babies are sent away because they are particularly difficult. It's just Fuzhou parents born on Fuzhou soil work so much in America they have no time to raise them. Very good plan, and most economical, if you ask us. Wish we'd gotten such a deal, instead of arriving so late in the game.

Babies and our elders, that was many a village in Fuzhou for a while. If you did see a man there, he was no good, low-quality. Why wasn't he overseas? Why wasn't he founding a special Chinatown bus company, taking over a Cambodian restaurant or lining Main Street with fruit stands and snack counters—at the very least, improving his status as a stadium-loud hawker of Improved Quality Transfer Bootlegs that take liberties with film titles such as Crime Cop Four: Two Eager for Cleaver?

But now we are back, ready to retake the new China, each man in his village fighting to build the first skyscraper. Out of generosity, we offer to go into business with What's His Name, asking only that he secure the permits, since his brother, after all, handles them. He could be a "silent partner" and not have to lift a finger.

But of course What's His Name doesn't answer right away. He squanders more of our time on Platinum Sting Sunglass, knitting his eyebrows, we suspect, with pure hipster-scholar awareness. A girl waits at the snack counter just a breath away, eating so slowly that her oyster cake must be a banquet. When he slurps down the last dregs of his Nescafé and throws it away, she gazes longingly at the garbage as if it holds the answer to winning his low-quality heart. What we do to humour Li Baochen, by showing our support for such a man.

We sigh. One of us coughs. Then another sighs and coughs. Soon we are a cacophony of impatience. The banquet-snack-eating beauty narrows her eyes at us, but we don't stop until we draw him out of that ever slowly-blooming curse of a memory.

Suddenly What's His Name says, "I know I sound crazy—"

A quick cacophonous round of both disapproval and agreement.

"—but I wish I could just disappear. Go and lose myself in the garúa. Just be done with everything."

At that, he's gone too far. Wishing for death is simply unlucky. Besides, monsoon season is approaching, and we are hot and sticky, and once again a fog is settling over the city. We wait until he packs up his things and leaves us to use our American manners to mock him. "Wow. Aren't you Mr. Sunshine?" "Um, yeah, that's the spirit. Really uplifting." We speak quickly, all the while smiling, so the teary-eyed, banquet-snack-eating girl, whose halting English doesn't include tones for American sarcasm, who will not think we are shaming him. He is the brother of Li Baochen after all, and we must be generous.


We know about the following incident from many sources, including What's His Name himself.

Yesterday, as the entire village was shrouded in a dense fog, his mother collapsed and didn't come to right away. Since What's His Name is the only one without a job, he offered to take care of her as she recovers, but the wife of Li Baochen shooed him away. In fact, as soon as he arrived in our village, she'd insisted that he be given the entire top floor to himself. She never allowed him to be alone with her son. He claims that she complains when he's home at all.

But at least we now know he isn't a complete waste because even after the wife of Li Baochen shooed him back up to the top floor, he crept down to eavesdrop at his mother's bedroom door. He overheard the village sawbones Doctor Chen examine his mother, asking questions rather personal in nature. When the doctor declared the present inflammations and future operations, suddenly the filial duty in What's His Name seemed to ignite from all that time squandered.

To our pleasant surprise, What's His Name defied the wife of Li Baochen. He banged on the door and fumbled the flimsy lock. He was told to go away. But he didn't. He twisted the knock-off-bronze knob, tugged it, pulled it again, until it gave way in his hand and—how we wish we'd seen it—in fell our village's only hipster-scholar.

Doctor Chen, who doubles as the village gossip, claims that What's His Name approached his mother's bedside, wielding the knock-off-bronze doorknob like a weapon. Bound by a sense of decorum and not wanting to intrude on a family matter, the doctor fled.

We don't blame Doctor Chen because Li Baochen's wife has grown into a real Fuzhou woman. Before the doctor even collected his things, she grabbed What's His Name by the ear and led him out of the room, while his mother called out to him to be reasonable, to hand over the doorknob before he hurt someone, Is this how you give face?

The wife of Li Baochen, after some struggle, pushed him out and slammed the door which then she could not open. She had to shout out the window for help to our grandfathers who'd witnessed the whole thing from their pagodas, although they admit that what they saw was partially obscured by the heavy mist.


A few days after the fog clears, we discover What's His Name lying face down at the end of Overseas Happiness Road again, where pavement becomes dirt. Our forklifts, cranes and concrete mixers have fallen into a stagnant, sullen state all because Li Baochen is too preoccupied by this waste of a man.

Li Baochen has been looking for you, we say, all at once.

Hey, he thought you'd fled back to America, one of us shouts over the rest.

What's His Name lifts his head up from the dirt and says, "I went to Gushan."

Gushan? Are you for real? That tourist trap?

Suddenly, What's His Name lifts himself up, pushing so hard off the ground we feel a slight tremor. Brushing himself off with hard, rough strokes, his eyes sharpen and focus. They penetrate right through the last of the mist, boring into each of us. We shiver.

After we fall quiet, he tells us a story of a wise man who fled to the mountains after the first mansion was built in our village. He left with a warning that CEO Li was a fool building a palace in a rice patty, and any man who builds all the way from another country gambles with the fate of those left behind. It was after CEO Li died of a heart attack in America and left the family with nothing but debt that his widow had told What's His Name this story. Whenever her temper flared over his lack of ambition and brooding nature, she would declare the wise man had put a curse on CEO Li's firstborn son, so that he'd end a do-nothing.

So the day after Li Baochen's wife had humiliated him, he decided he had enough. He'd find this wise man and confront him, make him undo the curse. He decided to start with Gushan, which was closest, and journey from each mountain until he found the source of his pain.

On Gushan, he didn't flag down a van or take the lift; he climbed the whole way up. Along the way he was assailed by stadium-loud hawkers selling snacks, drinks and flimsy keepsakes; he was pushed aside by tourists who came to see the temples and caves and the scroll written in monk's blood. Soon he diverted from the stone path and lost his way. Who knows what would've happened if he hadn't stumbled on the old man who invited him to stay the night. As the old man led him through the darkness, What's His Name recognised the raspy voice which earlier had tried to sell him a small Buddha, claiming it was hand-carved.

Yan Fu lived nearby in a small cabin by himself. He said that his son had gone off to America and died in a cargo ship before he got there; his wife did not survive the news. As he made tea, Yan Fu asked him what brought him to Gushan.

What's His Name told him the story about the curse, but Yan Fu shook his head. He told him there was no curse and no old man. Yan Fu spoke with such authority that What's His Name looked down at the floor, unable to meet the man's forbidding gaze.

Yan Fu then told him that with all the young people leaving for the big cities, or for cities abroad, the mountains had become greedy to hold on to what was left of their youth. The old man warned him that now, if a youth slept alone out in the open, he or she could very well disappear the next day, for when nature is desperate, it leaves no trace.

"But what about Yongquan Temple? The Pottery Pagodas? Are they not still standing?"

The old man had smiled at this. What built today will last as long as Yongquan Temple?

What's His Name then pointed to a row of figures behind the man and answered: "Like your factory-made Buddhas?"

The old man continued to smile and said: "They stand a better chance than any of you."

What's His Name tells us only now he understands.

Yo, so Yan Fu was the old man who put a curse on you?

What's His Name flinches, and shakes his head, without explaining further. Well, good for him. He finally understands, while we're still wondering who's stupid enough to sleep alone outside, in the middle of nowhere. But then again we take pleasure in mundane things like space heaters and roofs over our heads, and our elders on their rooftop pagodas breathe a sigh of relief.

Remembering that wasting time means twice the waste, we shake our heads at him.

He falls back onto the ground, weeping. At this we turn away, to save face for Li Baochen. The shame of this man. We turn away, but we cannot leave him. Our ears are like clay, which can only draw out toxins on the surface of the skin. It can't reach deeper, undo time, erase scars, stave off the wrinkles appearing too early on his forehead, a year short of thirty.


We are running out of time to listen. Each man is plotting his skyscraper.

But What's His Name can't hear us because he's weeping. At first, we thought his mother died, but he shakes his head when we ask. He's so loud that all the shopkeepers and customers come out of the new stores on Overseas Happiness Road, and look toward No Name Cafe and Coffee, listening to a grown man crying in public.

Suddenly we turn around to see Li Baochen parting the crowd. Compared to What's His Name in his rumpled clothes, Li Baochen is finely dressed in well-tailored, light grey linen, for he is wealthy enough to own a suit for each season, and more than one at that. Aviator sunglasses hide his eyes, but we can see his knitted brow. He stops in front of his brother.

"Let's go," he says gruffly.

But What's His Name cannot stop crying and because Li Baochen holds our future in his hands, we come to his brother's defence so as not to shame their family name. His pain is too deeply-rooted, take it easy on him, we warn as Li Baochen's breath quickens, his chest puffing out so that the shiny buttons of his blazer threaten to pop off.

Suddenly Li Baochen knocks us away, swinging out at us, and we fall back in line. The young girls let out a gasp that's just slightly above a respectable hearing level.

In one quick move, Li Baochen grabs his brother by the shoulders but cannot pick him up. Li Baochen is at least half a successful-business-man size heavier than his brother, but no matter how hard he tugs or pulls, he cannot wrench his weeping brother from the green plastic chair. The sunglasses fall off his head, but no one dares to pick them up. In his overdue rage, Li Baochen steps on them.

When Li Baochen then tries to pick up the chair, the owner of No Name Cafe and Coffee surfaces, a small man in a dirty apron. He explains that all the chairs have been nailed into the ground with a power-drill. He begs Li Baochen not to destroy his business; after all, due to Li Baochen's generosity, the man could build the cafe with the money he'd saved after slaving in New York for nine years. At that, Li Baochen uprights himself. Sweat has sullied the armpits of his linen suit. He reaches down for his sunglasses, but then stops. His eyes are cloudy and hard.

"I should've just given you the money," Li Baochen says.

What's His Name stops crying and looks at his brother. He opens his mouth and spits on the ground. His opens his mouth again.

Somewhere, carried in the wind, we hear the most outrageous curse upon the Li family fortune and Li Baochen himself.

No one moves. We are so shocked by these daring, hapless words that some of us sit right down on the ground. Some shake visibly. Quite a few break wind. No one dares to look at Li Baochen.

The curse comes again, clearer, louder, and falls upon all our shoulders.

Suddenly we hear Li Baochen laughing. He is laughing so hard that he has to bend over, capping his knees with his palms so he won't fall over. We dare not join in.

"You fool..." we hear him say between a strange gleefulness and incoherent breaths for air. " idiot. Acting as if you're already dead. As if we have not paid you tribute, and now you wandering our village…like a forgotten ancestor. As if I owe you."

He stops laughing and slaps What's His Name in the face, so that he's half in the chair and half on the ground, a mess of limbs and loose threads.

Li Baochen then jerks forward as if he's going to try to lift him again, when the owner comes between them, spreading his legs and arms as if in mid-jumping jack position. He pleads again with our great man, our visionary, not to destroy his café.

We can smell the rage still seething in him, when he finally lets go and leaves without a word, parting the crowd again.

And when we turn to What's His Name, we are surprised to find a similar scent.

We wait. We wait for the flood of punches, the same cursing our ancestors, the taking us down in waves, perhaps two, three, four of us at a time. Though not as large as his brother, What's His Name could easily expend strength from the stores of his emotion. But he just sits there. The young girls quickly clear the tables, drop out of line waiting for oyster cakes, until we are alone with him.

He stands up and brushes himself off. He walks off toward the direction of the new and only hotel in our village, a four-storey structure which is open though not yet complete. He will be the first guest, the only guest, and how lonely that must be to wander down an empty hall, sleep in a room with no one close by. A visitor now in his ancestral home. But he is still Li Baochen's brother and care will be taken. Actually we wouldn't mind staying there ourselves. All the rooms have a deck that overlooks an inner courtyard. Once the stone pond in the centre is finished, koi will swim right up to take food from one's hand. Originally the owner wanted to use marble to cover the ground, but wise Li Baochen pointed out that that surface would be too slippery and incompatible with the ornamental gardens that will flourish the courtyard.

Sometimes the simplest materials like pebbles are best, Li Baochen had said. Don't over-design, or you'll cheapen its worth.


The next day, What's His Name is back at No Name Cafe and Coffee, writing feverishly like we've never seen. Thunder rumbles in the distance and the afternoon sky grows dark. In the dimming light we can clearly see from a respectable distance the large loops of his English script and the lightning strokes of his Chinese. Only this time he fills up the remaining Platinum Sting Sunglass pages, and then tries to crumple the entire pad into a ball. Unsuccessful, he bends it halfway and drops it in the garbage. We watch him stroll down Overseas Happiness Road with a looser gait. We think we hear him singing to himself, but this might be the wind playing tricks on us. We watch and listen anyway, until we can longer see his tall, much thinner figure, walking right in the direction of the impending storm.

Though we dare each other, no one is brave enough to dig through the garbage, with its old dregs of tea and cigarette butts and crumbs of oyster cakes. We all have work to tend to, but instead we wait for him to come back. We lose track of time, trading favourite What's His Name stories, buying snacks and fish balls, drinking our coffee heavily sugared and an opaque white. Talk soon turns to how to best maintain the electricity-and-heat-guzzling mansions our fathers built and where our elders have now grown comfortable, and when it will be respectful to tear them down and start over again.

When evening falls into a gunmetal rumble, the thunder comes so close it seems to shake all the new stores on Overseas Happiness Road, testing their walls, grabbing at the certainty of their roofs. The first rains of monsoon season then fall sudden and hard, and that is when we see Li Baochen come running up the road, still dressed in the same linen suit from the day before. It appears that he's weeping as loudly as What's His Name had, but who can hear amid all the thunder? Protected under the covered new awnings of the shops that this great man approved, we stand aside as Li Baochen, so drenched the suit pulls down on his body like chain-metal armour, runs past the chair where he could not lift his brother. We watch him run straight to the trash, and we watch him dig through it until he finds the notebook. We watch him clasp it to his chest as he slides down into the mud, closing his jacket around it as though he could save whatever last words from running off those sallow, half-crushed pages.

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