Sailor occasionally sends me emails. I met him during the speech contest in Anji. He is the one who asked me why the contestants got shortchanged after the contest. He will be a Senior 2 in the fall.
Today, I am meeting him at a mall in Xujiahui in Shanghai, walking distance from the stadium where the bus from Songjiang drops me. As I said, we email each other occasionally but this will be the first time we have seen each other since the speech contest which was in March.
He had asked if I wanted to meet him at 10 am. I wrote him back that I preferred meeting at 11. He wrote me back that if we met at 11 he could have a better rest. Yes, a better rest is good.
I wake up at 8:30 am and do my usual morning ritual, microwave some water, put it in the coffee press, make my bed as it is steeping, go through my overnight correspondence on the computer, drink the coffee, shower, shave, putter around a bit, debate taking a taxi or walking to the bus station. I opt for a taxi. Today there is a slight drizzle. I have my card that has the bus station characters written out. I do not know how to say bus station in Chinese yet. That would probably be a good thing to learn.
The taxi drops me off at the bus station. By now, this is easy. I get in line and hand them my 6 yuan. They know me. They know I am going to Shanghai. Maybe everyone in the line is going to Shanghai.
I get on the bus. I sit by the window. As I am sitting waiting for the bus to take off, I look into the window of the next bus. I am an observer observing the people paying the attendant. The bus I am observing has a woman collecting money from the passengers for their passage. That bus is not as nice as the one that I am on. I feel lucky, fortunate, happy.
Once we arrive at the Shanghai Stadium, I quickly get off the bus and I start walking toward the mall, The Orient Shopping Center. The rain has stopped. There is a heavy wetness to the air that sits…heavily. I walk toward the giant JVC sign. I know the mall is beyond that. I keep walking.
My phone rings. Elizabeth is calling. She tells me that there is an apartment rented if I want it. The apartment is where the girl who I am replacing at my new school was living. I am a bit wary because I am a bit particular about the place that I will live for the next year. I somewhat have my heart set on a two bedroom. She tells me she thinks it has a yard and it is close to the school. She tells me to not sign a lease until I see it. I thank her.
More or less, I have arrived at my destination. The mall is on the other side of the road. There is no crosswalk to the other side. There is a metro labyrinth. I walk down into it hoping that I can find my way back up to the spot where I want to be. Once I am down inside, there are hallways that jut into every direction. I survey my options. This is always tricky. I use my instincts. I choose what I think looks like the most direct route. I see a stairway up. I follow it.
I am at the edge of the entrance. I am to meet Sailor at the entrance. I scan the area. On a muggy Thursday at 11 am sharp, not many people are loitering at the entrance of the Orient Shopping Center. I see an older man with pants riding his chest. Past him, I see Sailor. Sailor is scanning the premises. He sees me. I am smiling as I approach. I am coming from the sun side.
Sailor is the typical teenager –Chinese, American, British, Italian. He has on tennis shoes (maybe Addidas), khaki shorts, a t-shirt with a random sports logo emblazoned on the chest. He also has a mouth full of braces.
We greet. This is awkward. I try to make it as comfortable as possible. I am sure he is trying to do the same. We only know each other through the speech contest from a few months ago. And even then, we did not talk that much. I ask him how his semester was. It’s like I am carrying a handbook - ‘Appropriate Questions for a Teacher to Ask a Student.’ I feel like such a moron.
We walk into the mall. This is one of those malls that have perfume counters and handbags on the first floor. We walk past the Burberry and the Hermes counters. At the Burberry counter, we stop and get a sample of Burberry ‘Brit’ which I have probably inadvertently smelt fifty times. We continue to walk around aimlessly.
I ask him if he has had lunch and if he is hungry. He has not had lunch and he is hungry. He tells me there is a Starbucks near that we could go to for lunch. By now, I know the magic words here. I say them – Pizza Hut. He is excited at the prospect. Pizza Hut is an event here, a special occasion. I tell him there is one across the street.
We go back down into the labyrinth and come up at the mall across the street from the mall where we just were. This is like strange mall time travel. The malls are black holes delivering us into consumer utopia.
Usually, there is a line to get into Pizza Hut with a 30 to 45 minute wait to sit down. Today, there is no line. Actually, Pizza Hut is fairly deserted. We are immediately shown to a table and given a menu. I ask Sailor what he likes. I ask him if he likes the Meat Supreme or the Original Supreme. He prefers the Original Supreme. We order the stuffed Crust version. I order a Pepsi. He orders an orange soda. We get an order of garlic toast. The garlic toast comes immediately.
He asks me if I eat Pizza in America. Although, pizza comes from Italy, I tell him we have a lot of different kinds of pizza in America. I tell him about thick crust and thin crunchy crust. He shakes his head in understanding.
Pizza Hut is not a nice restaurant in America. I would never go to Pizza Hut in America I tell him. Here, however, Pizza Hut is actually nice. I look around me and yes, it is a nice restaurant. I shudder when I think of the scary Pizza Huts dotting their way across Small Town, America from Tucumcari to Chattanooga.
Our pizza arrives. The waitress forgot the pizza server. When she looks my way, I pantomime server. She understands smiles and brings me one. I motion for Sailor to go first. He tells me to go. I slide the server under a piece and put it on his plate. The waitress, who is still standing there, dislodges the cheese stringing from the piece to the pie and puts it on top of the slice. I then slide the server under a piece for myself and put it on my plate.
In the beginning, we both use our forks. I am hungry so I have taken four or five bites at least. I look at Sailor’s slice and he has hardly eaten any. I ask him if he likes it. He says he likes it but he is having problems using the fork.
I tell him he does not have to use the fork. He can pick it up with his hands. I demonstrate. I ask him if he has had pizza before. He tells me not very often which I think might mean he has not. I start shoving pizza in my mouth. I tell him with American food there are no rules.
Once I pick up my slice and start eating, he does the same. We are both becoming more comfortable with each other. He is enjoying himself. He asks me what American teenagers do. I tell him they start working at places like Pizza Hut when they are his age. He tells me he would like to work at Pizza Hut and have his own pocket money. He uses the term ‘pocket money.’
I tell him that Chinese students are smarter than American students because they are forced to study more. The fact that I did not go to school full time my junior and senior years flashes through my head. Of course, I had my freedom, my own pocket money, and a job. He wants what I had.
We talk about cars. Do most families have two cars? I had told him that many kids inherit the family car when they start driving. When I tell him most families have at least three cars in America, his mouth drops open.
“That is too many cars,” he says. When he talks, he sounds like Yoda. This is very endearing.
He likes Avril. He asks me if I like Avril. I tell him I have friends that are big fans. After I say this, I wonder if the kids I am talking about are still fans. Sailor tells me he is trying to learn how to play guitar. It is hard. His fingers hurt. I tell him that is part of it.
I ask him if he likes the pizza. He tells me he really likes it. He is a teenager. All teenagers like pizza. I tell him in America teens go out for a movie and pizza afterwards. That is what I did when I was his age. I ask him if he gets together with his friends during the summer break. He tells me he does not. He never sees his friends.
He asks me if I wear cologne all the time. I tell him yes. He asks me what I am wearing, which I did not realize it was that strong. I tell him Creed, French cologne. He asks me how much it cost. I tell him around $100 a bottle.
He tells me his uncle brought him back some Gucci from America. He wants to go to the Gucci store. I tell him we can go after lunch. He says he does not know where it is. I think I do I tell him. I tell him I think it is off of Nanjing road. We could take the metro to the People’s Park
Two pieces of pizza are left. I tell Sailor to take them. He says I should take them. I tell him I will not eat them. He gets them wrapped up. I pay the check and we go to the metro which is right outside the Pizza Hut.
At People’s Park, we wander around a bit. The day is nice. The heat is not as unbearable and heavy as it has been. The heaviness of it has dissipated. Once we are at the park, I realize that I am not exactly sure in which direction the Gucci store is. I call my connection that I met through Brain Transplant. I know that there is the International Market in the same area where my connection told me I could buy English language magazines. I do not ask him about the Gucci store because I know that he will not know. I ask him about the magazines. He gives me a vague idea.
We start walking. Every time I think we are close, I am wrong. We meander through the streets. This okay there is nowhere either of us has to be.
We happen upon a row of street venders selling CDs. I find the Beach Boys and an Iggy comp. I haggle with the vender. I keep telling them too much and laughing. Sailor is laughing too. He tells me they will not come down any lower. That is okay because I spot something that was set there for me, something set there for me by Providence, a guardian angel, the ghost of James Honeyman-Scott. For 5 yuan (a little over 50 cents), I find a copy of the first Pretenders album on CD.
It is one of the albums that by now I have bought, I am sure, multiple copies here and there. My last copy, I gave to Derek and Raechel. This is truly a strange cool find on the back streets of Shanghai. Maybe in fact, James Honeyman-Scott heard my compliments. I give the woman vender 5 yuan as I am explaining to Sailor that Chrissie Hynde influenced Avril. As I look at the cover, I notice the same dark eye liner, that mock toughness. I tell him I will email him a song.
We continue our walk. We happen upon a mall that has a Prada store, a Paul Smith store, an Aramani Emporio. In the Prada store, I find a green leather overnight bag that I really like. I convert yuan to dollars in my head and decide I would be nuts to spend $2,000 for it. I just pet it a few times instead. I tell Sailor I have Prada pants and shoes that I really like.
As we are browsing, I tell him when I lived in New York, I had multiple shopping buddies. In New York, I shopped all the time. Maybe he and I could be shopping buddies. He tells me that he would like that in his Yoda sort of way. He is very dear.
Once we step outside of the mall, the area into which we have wandered becomes more familiar. I tell him I know where we are for sure now. We walk a few more blocks and there it is - the Gucci store. It is a small store. We do not stay. We have accomplished our small goal for the day.
‘Mystery Achievement’ continues to go over and over in my head. Off and on, it has for days, maybe years. Maybe this, this life that I have, this life that I am making, maybe this strange frustrating and wonderful Chinese life is my mystery achievement.