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Edition 59

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Fiction

Bitter Eaters

LSS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, TERMINAL 1

WE ARE SHORT and invisible men. Oriental red. Iron-rail thin. Short for men in Senegal, which is six feet, or six feet three inches or more. Adding up all the years we remembered selling ‘Chinese’ in Dakar, we calculated four feet ten inches. We forget one detail after another, filling out the forms we’re asked to fill out. We’re being returned to Nigeria for holding both Chinese and Nigerian passports, and our police statements state we’re five feet six inches. In Senegal you can’t be sent to another country for trial without a height and a date of birth attached, though in Nigeria such information can be overlooked.

Our hands and feet are oversized and gentle and calloused. Small cloth bags are slung over our shoulders and the clothes on our backs are made of bright Chinese fabric bought in Kaifeng Town years ago. We prefer the tie-dyed patterns of Zhoucheng Village to the symmetrical wax prints available in the commercial cities of West Africa. In Kaifeng Town we had paid the tailor to make two shirts for each of us, one to wear at home and one to sell in Dakar to pay for both pairs of clothing. The shoes on our feet are clear jellies about to break down from trotting the dusty streets of Dakar – searching for where to sell Chinese.

Landing in Accra, we learn from the woman standing ahead of us in line that the last leg of our flight to Nigeria has been cancelled. ‘All night flights to Lagos were cancelled months ago,’ she tells us. How she knows this she doesn’t say. She directs us down a long corridor. She speaks in French, assuming we’ll understand her. ‘You need to go see the ticketing agent,’ she tells us. ‘You need to work something out with the airline.’

We look at her for a moment, wondering what to believe.

‘This line won’t do us any good,’ Fu tells me.

Why wouldn’t the airline have informed us when we boarded in Dakar? Why wouldn’t the police have told us before removing the handcuffs and handing us our paperwork? Is it so difficult a job to help people? We walk down the long corridor.

The ticketing agent sits behind a desk emptied of papers. Her hair reminds us of our Senegalese girlfriends, the same thick wave covering one eye completely. There is a fullness to her lips, displaying attraction. There is efficiency in her young hands. With one eye visible, she casts a spell of temporary kindness on the world. Her hands rattle the keyboard again. Her one visible eye studies the computer screen. ‘There’s an open seat in five days,’ she says with a schooled Ghanaian accent.

‘Five days? Five days?’ we question independently, wide-eyed.

‘Yes.’

‘We will come back,’ Fu says unexpectedly, to desert the scene.

Stripped of our Visa cards, we have no access to money. It has been a bad year for money, although we carry good memories of our Dakar sweethearts, especially Chao’s, who pounded on the trunk as the police drove us away in their car and screamed Senegalese curses. He held up two fingers to his lips to calm her and to say au revoir. He hasn’t been able to talk to her since.

When we need to shower, we wait until very late at night and then block the door to the men’s room and strip at one of the sinks and wash ourselves there. This is the way men and women shower in Kaifeng Town every day of the week. It’s not a problem for us. The security guard is upset that we’ve blocked the door and confronts us with an automatic rifle at 2 am while Ling, the tallest of us, is standing at the sink wearing no clothing and lathered in soap.

‘Put on your clothes, man!’ the guard orders. ‘Look at the soap on the floor! Someone will slip!’

‘You cancel our flight without any notice!’ Ling retorts. ‘You give us nowhere to live for a week! We want ten minutes alone to wash ourselves, to be like human beings, do you understand? Tell us where the mop is kept and we will clean your soapy floor.’

Ling laughs about it then and the guard laughs with him.

‘Okay, people, but hurry up.’ The guard laughs again. ‘I will report you as Bitter Eaters,’ he says. One of the names they call the Chinese in Ghana is Bitter Eaters. Ling thanks him. It could be worse than Bitter Eaters.

After a week of this, we are awakened one morning at dawn by a nudge from the night guard’s automatic rifle. ‘People,’ he says. ‘It’s time for you to go.’

‘Yun, who is that?’ Fu asks me, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

‘Patience is running out upstairs,’ the night guard warns, ‘and I’ll be off work for a few days. I don’t want anything happening to you while I’m gone.’

‘All right. Thank you,’ I say calmly.

‘I’ll walk you out.’

‘Thank you for that,’ I say again.

‘Where will you be heading to?’ he asks anxiously.

‘Chinatown,’ I say assertively.

He helps us call the co-ordinator of Chinese shopkeepers in Accra, and instructs us not to arrive at Makola in the central business district until after evening prayers. We squat from morning till 7.38 pm. Now is the time to go.


KOJO THOMPSON ROAD, CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT

THE ENGINE COVER is missing from the bus that we have taken into Accra. As it pulls away, leaving fumes on the road, we can hear the sounds of its belts and levers working. It doesn’t seem right, such a large and modern vehicle depending on these small, mechanical parts, lifting and looping like a child’s toy, like the weaver’s old machine set outside in the red dirt yard and controlled by the weaver’s hands and feet. The urge is to cover up these fragile parts, the way you would order an old man to dress himself if you found him lathered in soap at a men’s room sink. The bus rolls on with its working parts exposed.

‘We need to quickly find a shop in Makola,’ Fu tells Han, the co-ordinator of the Chinese community in Makola. ‘We need to earn the money for a new ticket back to Dakar.’

‘Why don’t we drive from Accra to Dakar?’ Chao asks.

Ling smiles widely at this. It would be an impossible trip now. Two thousand miles through dangerous territory in Northern Mali, over crumbling roads in Mauritania and Northern Senegal. The bribe money for immigration officers alone would be more than the price of four tickets. It would take a four-wheel drive filled with escorts for a trip like that. It would take us years to prepare.

‘You can live here until your case dies down,’ Han tells us.

‘Thank you. Thank you, brother.’

‘Six months, if you like.’

‘Thank you very, very much.’

Han, who has a small, flat nose and close-set eyes under a deep brow, takes us to a three-bedroom apartment. He cracks walnuts open with his bare hands. Ten other Chinese live in the apartment.

‘You can sleep here in the front room,’ Han says. He points to a woven mat on the floor.

‘Thank you very much, brother.’ We prefer the floor to a bed. Even in Dakar, where the beds are perfectly dressed by domestic workers, we prefer to sleep on the floor.

The plan is this, Han reveals: we will impersonate other Chinese who have travelled home to get married and run their shops at Makola until the smoke settles. The owner of the shop and the one impersonating him will split the money fifty-fifty. We will sell Chinese jewellery, clothing, furniture, electronics and textiles, as do our ubiquitous compatriots here, and present ourselves as the architects of a new world order.

‘Trade with Ghanaians can be confusing for newcomers!’ Han says suddenly, sounding negative for the first time. He has a high, urgent, Mandarin voice when he speaks, almost a woman’s voice. ‘Count the cedi carefully,’ he tells us. ‘Two or three times. Count in front of the customers.’ He has found a surprising reason to sound a warning, as if to guard us from thinking that the battle is over. He will not remain in the valley of thirst for long. ‘Ghanaian women pay the best price,’ he says. ‘Smile big for them; they love big smiles.’ The women all want to buy the same things, he says. Shiny clothing. Swimming kits. New cell phones. They all want to take a selfie on the sidewalks. ‘Do you speak Akan? They all want you to speak Akan,’ he says.

We find Accra’s Chinatown easygoing compared to Dakar’s. Pedestrians work their way across rush-hour traffic lane by lane. The oncoming cars, turning left, surge forward as a pack and lurch to a stop until they break through and interrupt the flow. At red lights men roll their sick parents and crippled children in wheelchairs up and down the lanes between traffic, asking drivers for money. Other men stand or sit along the sidewalks, idle for the day, with a disconsolate look on their faces. Very organised. Nothing to worry about.

We have never liked begging. There are no beggars in Kaifeng Town, where the people are much poorer than Ghanaians. In Dakar, where begging is a profession, we would like to say to these people on mats, ‘Get up! Make something happen for yourself! You can learn how to do something. Sell a cup of groundnuts. Drive a taxi. Fix a cell phone. Where will you get in life drinking Senegalese tea by the road all day? You have to force the action if you want to meet an opportunity.’

We impersonate our absent compatriots for a week and make good money. We stand behind the market counter fourteen hours a day, only stopping for two minutes to eat Chinese nems and vegetables. We smile big for the Ghanaians. We chat with them about life in Beijing. We chat about Ghanaians earning millions playing in the Chinese football league.

One day, alongside the Kojo Thompson Road, a policeman stops us and pulls us out of the taxi. We have no papers. Our faces are different from the ones on the papers we’re holding. Have we stolen these papers? Are we drug dealers? Are we terrorism financiers? Chao tells him about our cancelled flight, which only angers the policeman more. ‘Do not lie to me!’ he screams, and starts to beat Chao with a black police baton in plain view of bystanders. ‘You don’t have to cheat to make it!’ he shouts. ‘Look at them! What are you thinking? Impersonating other Chinese and stealing taxes from our government! What is that? The smell of drugs in your pockets? Are you a drug seller too?’ Chao receives another beating because his pockets smell of marijuana.

The call for midday prayers begins, coming over the loudspeakers of the Grand Mosque near the Nkrumah statue. Arabic and drifting, it goes on until the policeman straightens up and leaves Chao lying on the sidewalk. The policeman walks off to prayers with other men beside the road. Chao feels he has a broken bone. He has protected his face, though, and his hands. The main thing is to protect your face and hands, he tells himself. You can always get by if your face and your hands aren’t broken.

 

APARTMENT A24, ACCRA CHINATOWN

‘NĬ HˇAO, NĬ hˇao,’ we say to our brother. ‘Have some green tea. It will help.’

We have noticed that Chao is having trouble breathing. The tap water in the apartment has a bitter smell, like gunpowder, especially in the bathroom, where a lingering odour sits in the corner on its haunches like a child beggar waiting by the bakery. The tea helps his broken rib, despite the flavour of gunpowder.

‘How much of a beating did you receive?’ Ling asks him.

‘Twelve.’

He shakes his head with pity. He would like Chao to return to the market soon.

‘Are you able to go to the market tomorrow?’ he asks Chao.

‘With a broken rib?’ Chao asks with a whisper.

‘He can hardly sit up,’ Fu says.

‘I doubt if I can.’

Ling shakes his head in grief.

‘Have something to eat,’ I say.

Every day we eat nems. Chao can hardly look at it – one large plate of nems nestled on a huge lettuce leaf. The large plate is accompanied by four smaller plates, on each of them a map of honey, small and medium-size closed shrimp, and a few more unusual things than the standard Chinese entree, tasty the way Fu makes it, but not the kind of food Chao can eat. There is only trouble, eating so many nems at once. He licks the map of honey to quell the churning in his stomach.

‘I’m not hungry today,’ he says.

It gives us concern that Chao doesn’t eat. We would like him to return to his store again. We would like Chao to resume going to the market.

‘I’ll wait for a while and try eating again,’ Chao says.

Chao is in a lot of pain, recovering slowly, spending long hours alone in the room without strong enough medication. Memorising the cracks in the ceiling, the folds of the curtains. Our room has no television. No Chinese newspaper to read. Fu opens Chao’s window to keep the room aired out and cooler during the day. But hearing the traffic on the street five floors below only reminds Chao he isn’t working. Fu later brings him newspapers in English. Reading them reminds Chao the world goes on without him.

He feels better today. Every morning Fu makes sure Chao has a clean towel. Fu helps Chao into the bathroom. Fu turns on the light at night so Chao can read, but Chao likes it dark.

‘Here’s some chicken nem,’ Fu tells him.

‘You’re a good man, Oriental Boxer,’ Chao says. He likes to give people nicknames. We have no idea how Chao comes up with his nicknames. He calls Ling ‘Peking Strategist’. ‘More strategies from Peking,’ he says.

‘Yes. More strategies.

Chao sits up straighter in bed, pulling his hips out from under the sheet. He isn’t wearing his towel. He points to the bowl of water on his nightstand. ‘I’ve been washing myself,’ he says. His genitals slope in Fu’s direction, a soft pile of flesh glistening with moisture near the top of the broken rib, like a warm dish of food waiting to be served. He considers Fu a nurse. Fu has helped him wipe after going to the bathroom. He’s helped him stand at the toilet. The room is very hot, and it’s good for Chao to feel the air against his skin. You reach a point where modesty is irrelevant. He takes the dish of chicken nem from Fu and sets it on his lap like a palm leaf and starts to eat.

It’s sundown, and both can hear Ling humming Buddhist meditation chants in the other room. It’s quiet in the apartment. The popping sounds come through the wall like a lullaby.

‘You’re home early. Why aren’t you at Makola?’ Chao asks.

‘I fought with a petty thief today.’ He lifts his shirt. With his oriental-red skin, Chao can see there is swelling and probably bruising. ‘I think I have a broken rib,’ he tells Chao.

Chao runs his fingers gently across Fu’s skin, as if he’s reading the braille of the injuries. ‘You don’t do some meditations?’ he asks Fu. ‘To bring some clarity into confusion.’

‘I don’t feel like doing so. Do you want to do meditations?’

He expects Chao to decline, but he says yes. He sets the dish of chicken nem on the nightstand, next to his bowl of washing water. Fu uncovers the young man’s feet and washes them along with his own. He helps Chao sit on the bed. Fu’s broken rib hurts with the effort. What a pair we are, he thinks. He brings Chao a clean towel to wrap around his waist. The room is nearly dark – sundown arrives earlier indoors. Chao points to meditation beads leaning in the corner for Fu to grab. Fu curves on the floor and they begin.

They carry on meditating this way until they’re finished, Chao sitting on the bed, Fu standing and bending to the floor alternatingly. Then Fu asks again if he can have a look at Chao’s injuries. He feels in the dark for the broken bone. He agrees with Chao. The second wound, a broken rib, is cracked on the left side. The other injuries are bruises. Swelling. There are old scars across his abdomen. Along his arms. Some of them are surgical scars, healed slowly, with infection. Fu places his cool hands flat against Chao’s skin and holds himself there for a long time, heartbeat against heartbeat.

When Fu helps him back into bed, readjusting his towel for him, he can see that Chao has an erection. He’s a complicated young man, Fu thinks. Bothered by thoughts of his Senegalese girlfriends, perhaps. Chao hasn’t eaten his chicken nem and the food is cold, but it tastes better cold, Fu says. Chao arranges the dish as best he can on his lap and eats his dinner.

‘How would you manage to get to Makola tomorrow?’ he asks Fu.

‘No problem. I can.’

‘You’re a liar. Eat some of this food.’

Chao shares the only spoon, and they eat the chicken nem. Sitting on the bed is painful for Fu’s rib, so he stands to eat.

Chao says, ‘Come home early tomorrow for meditations. Don’t stay in the market so late as we used to do.’

 

FILLING STATION, ACCRA-LAGOS ROAD

‘IT’S A GOOD sign,’ Fu tells us, ‘to have Chao proposing to do meditations.’

He’d been a womaniser, we recall, in Dakar. Staying out until dawn with one of his seventeen Senegalese ‘wives’, impregnating three, drinking ceaselessly, smoking pot – we don’t know what makes him behave the way he does. He’s wasting his life, we all say together in Mandarin, waiting for the taxi to refuel in front of the road where buses load passengers going to Lomé, Cotonou and Lagos. What is he doing, getting erections in Accra for thoughts of Senegalese women? How do we explain that to his mother? She’s trusting us to watch out for him. We haven’t told her about his broken rib yet. That’s between the four of us. When are we going to tell her? We don’t know what to think about him. He doesn’t treat his mother right, that much we know. If you betray your mother’s trust in this world, then you have done something regrettable.

‘We have had two police altercations; we must leave Accra. We must be stamped in and out of Lagos to be able to re-enter Dakar. We have made enough money to travel by road,’ Ling says. ‘Taking care of Chao, coming home for meditations. I have to tip off the police not to beat me.’

‘You will soon be booked, on a bad day,’ I say.

‘Yes, I know. That’s why I say we must leave Accra now.’

 

WHEN FU WASHES Chao in the dark before he goes to sleep, Chao reaches out to hold him.

‘No, man, you hold yourself,’ Fu tells him. ‘No time for that.’

Still, Chao is happy Fu is there, a witness to new desires and uncertainties Chao hasn’t revealed to many others. ‘Can you deliver a shirt to my Ghanaian friend?’ he asks Fu. He’s sitting up in bed eating a dish of nem in the dark. He points to a package on the nightstand, wrapped in heavy brown paper and taped shut with wide strips of packing tape. Fu walks over to the package and lifts it.

‘Tomorrow morning?’

‘Here’s the address.’ He hands Fu a piece of paper.

Down in the taxi the next morning, Fu stops to consider the package. He tears it open and pulls the shirt free of the paper. It’s an old shirt, worn through at the elbows. He finds a plastic bag inside – about a pound of marijuana. Fuming with anger, he leaves Ling and I to continue to Makola and hurries back to the apartment building with the shirt and the marijuana and climbs the stairs to confront Chao in his dark bedroom. His broken rib catches sharply with each step, adding to his anger.

‘This could get me arrested in Ghana!’ he yells at Chao. ‘Locked away forever in West Africa! What is the matter with you? Do you think about what you’re doing to other people?’ He continues yelling. He’s angry at something more than the package; Chao can see it in his eyes. Chao is afraid of what Fu might say to me. However, we are forced to defend our brother against Fu’s fury – to choose patria over decency.

‘We will have to leave Ghana,’ he tells Chao. ‘Please prepare yourself psychologically. Tomorrow.’

‘No problem. What about the shops entrusted to us at Makola?’

‘We’re leaving this place!’

‘Okay. What do we tell Han?’

‘You must be crazy! Get out of here!’

‘Why are you treating me like this?’

‘Nothing. Just get ready, now.’

It takes Fu only a few minutes to pack his bag in the front room. Ling is in Chao’s room, talking quietly in Mandarin. Fu announces through the door: ‘Our tickets are here!’

Ling catches up to the driver in the stairwell between floors. ‘Hey!’ He has a small roll of paper in his hand. It feels like a drug sale, or a bribe, about to be paid. Ling collects our tickets.

‘For your trip to Lagos,’ Ling says before us. ‘Keep it carefully. Departure is at 4 am.’

We have made the last five hundred dollars we need to reach Lagos from Accra. Fu counts it and gives to each of us. ‘Thank you very much Han for this,’ he says looking at me, referring to the co-ordinator.

‘It’s the magic of Chinese solidarity. It makes our peregrinations possible,’ I say. He leaves Chao sitting alone with his ticket on the bed.

2 am and we are out of the apartment. Two floors above us, a young girl enters the landing while Chao is still practising how to walk with his broken rib, standing on the stairs thinking about the onerous journey and what to do next. The security guard’s daughter calls out in the empty space to hear her own voice echoing off the walls. ‘Nῐ haˇo!’ Her voice rises and falls. Chao smiles. He’s very tired but happy.

The girl’s father comes after his daughter and scolds her sharply in Fulani for not sleeping. He pulls her quickly into his arms and back into the security booth.


From Griffith Review Edition 59: Commonwealth Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review