The taxi drops us in a heavily populated shopping area that looks familiar in a science fiction sort of way. Imagine a 1970s white flight NewYork, Detroit or downtown Los Angeles mixed with the blaring Clockwork Orange brightness of shops like Lancomme, Puma, Nike. What we thought was a sidewalk is a road and a sidewalk combined which seems to be the norm for China. We narrowly escape getting hit by a motorist. We walk in the direction the taxi driver told us to go and we see the monument which I believe is called ‘the Monument of Freedom’ or something like that. We come upon the monument which is a modest clock tower which is not in the least impressive. As a matter of fact, if it had not been in a guide book, we would have walked past it and assumed it was just some random clock in a random town square surrounded by Maybeline and Samsung signs.
Ho hum about the monument, we decide to get something to eat. Our inner dinner bells are ringing. We walk back to where the taxi dropped us. There are several places to walk up and order which have long lines. We would like to find a place where we can sit down.
Down some stairs, I spot a buffet line. I tell Maureen and Jennifer. We walk down the stairs and check it out. We are in some sort of strange Chinese food court. The low ceiling and beige walls have the aesthetic of the basement of a YWCA or a Knights of Columbus hall. We go from window to window to explore our dinner options. We make a full circle of the place and order at the last place we investigate. For 8 kuai (a dollar), I order a big plate of sausage meatballs and rice which comes with mop-water flavored seaweed soup.
The locals point at us as we eat. Some of them try to be sly about this; others do not. A brother and sister - or maybe cousins – come to our table and say hello. Jennifer asks them how old they are. They are 9 and10 years old. The boy is the older one. While they are talking, Jennifer spots some other foreigners walk into the food court. She points them out to me and says ‘Foreigners.’ I turn around and I see an older Caucasian man but I do not see anyone else.
“His wife went into the restroom,” Jennifer says.
The two children disappear.
“Where do you think he is from?” I ask but then I say “The Midwest,” before Jennifer can answer. Jennifer agrees the Midwest. The man is wearing Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt. He is older with no hair, probably in his 60s we guess.
“His wife will be the giveaway,” says Jennifer. “We will watch for her and we will certainly know where he is from.”
“Wouldn’t that be funny if he was from Australia?” pipes up Maureen who had been silent. We both look at her like there is no way he comes from the land down under. Jennifer says we should go by their table on the way out and discreetly find out where they are from.
The brother and sister return with a camera. I look over at the possible Midwesterner again to see if he is wearing anymore clues. He is wearing sandals. I tell Jennifer he may actually be from Arizona or New Mexico. His wife returns from the restroom. She sheds no light on the matter. She is plain with jean shorts and a fanny pack. She has a square build. We both notice the man is wearing an African belt. We then decide that he is a retired college professor from California – Berkley or UCLA, definitely a democrat. While we mull this over, we pose for photos. Jennifer goes first. She poses with both children and then I pose with both children. Maureen gets up and says she is going to do some investigating. We tell her go for it.
At this point we have another visitor, a teenager. He asks if he can sit with us. We tell him sure. At first we think he might be drugging because he is sweating profusely. The more he talks, the more we realize he is normal and actually very sweet. He is from Chongqing County. He is in the city tonight for May Day. He is eating porridge when he walks up. Usually porridge is for breakfast but sometimes it can be a dessert. He asks us where we are from. He loves the USA. He wants to go there to study someday. I tell him he should. His English name is Simon. He is a senior 2 at Chongqing County School which has 30 senior 1 classes with 60 students in each class. We are the first foreigners he has ever talked to. We thought he must be privileged to be in a boarding school. He tells us his mother is a maid and his dad is a guard. I tell him his English is good. He tells me he is the top in his class. I tell him I am impressed - which I am.
Maureen comes back. She tells us we are all wrong about the couple. They are from Austria.
“Austria?!” Jennifer and I both exclaim at once.
Maureen wants the fruit on ice dessert which she sees everyone in the food court eating. She is mad about the fruit on ice dessert. Simon says hold on. He disappears. The Austrian appears. (This is starting to become a Blue Oyster Cult song). We say hello. Jennifer tells him we thought he was from the United States. He says, “With my thick German accent, I am from United States.”
He sits in the seat next to me which Simon vacated. He tells us that he worked in Kenya for 22 years for the United Nations. I think of James Bond and Hitchcock, cocaine and microfilm.
He and his wife love China. This is their second time in China. They were to be here for a month but they have a chance to see India for free so they are taking that trip. He asks us why we came to China. I tell him because I am not a fan of television – reality TV, CSI, ER. He tells me not to go back to the United States. I tell him I do not plan to anytime in the near future.
Maureen and Simon come back with 3 bowls of porridge. Simon – a poor student which makes me feel a bit guilty – bought us all porridge. I have seen porridge on the breakfast buffet lines and I never eat it because, well, it looks like, uh, porridge. Since he bought it and he is a poor student, I try it. Surprisingly, I like it. I eat and listen to the others talk. While the others talk, Simon gets up from where he is sitting at the next table on the other side of the Austrian and shows me a magic trick. He tucks a 20 yuan bill into his fingers and pulls it out of the air. I tell him it is very good (which it is not) and he shows me how he does it. I think he is the sweetest kid. I ask him where he is staying. He is getting a room for 30 or 40 yuan. I ask him if that will be safe. He says it should be fine.
By this time, we have talked for such a long time with the Austrians, Simon and the two children who eventually brought their dad to meet us, that it is close to 10 pm and the place is closing. I breathe a sigh of relief that the tram stopped running at 8:30. The Austrians take their leave. We tell Simon goodbye. We tell him to be careful. I shake his hand. He walks off into the Chonquing night.