The first time it happened he was sitting in the green-fronted UBC café on Renmin Lu, watching the waitresses changing shift on the side street below. The young women, all in knee-length black dresses and white aprons, were being inspected by a man who seemed to be the manager. He walked up and down the line, military-style, plucking at a crease in a blouse here, waving a warning finger there.

Such spectacles kept the strange sense of dislocation away. Many times he had tried to name this feeling and failed. Ennui was too pretentious, despair was too dramatic and depression was inaccurate and the feeling was not strong enough to prevent him from working.

As he lit another cigarette, Johnson noticed that he was the only person in the café who was happy to be doing precisely nothing. All around him, at tables and inside panelled booths on the spacious galleries, solitary Chinese people checked text messages and made calls, pored over lists in notebooks or shifted about uneasily as they waited for friends or colleagues. Just watching them made him feel fat and decadent. Occasionally someone’s blank gaze would fall upon him then swiftly move away.

‘Columbia,’ said the waitress, placing a stress on the ‘ia’ and placing his third cup of coffee before him. He sneaked a peek at her perfect, chiselled features and muttered ‘Xie xie’. She gave a slight smile as she moved off. He wondered if his friendly gesture formed a pleasant contrast to the brusque treatment she received from other customers.

He stared into his coffee cup for a moment. When he looked up, a vaguely familiar woman was squeezing onto the padded bench opposite; a face from the staff canteen, a girlish ponytail, a round, nameless face free of make-up. She looked compact in her red quilted down coat.

‘I saw you from the street. You are Andrew Johnson, the new purchasing manager, right?’ she said.

Chinese who had been taught English by Americans always added this tag at the end of a question, snapping it off before continuing.

‘Not exactly new,’ said Johnson. ‘I’ve been here about a month or – ’

‘You are a most excellent worker in our company,’ she said, leaning forward as though reading from an autocue. ‘You are also an honoured foreign guest. We are all very happy that you are working for the company and we are sure that your efforts will help us to have good fortune in the future.’

Her youthful face broke out into a huge grin, revealing a mass of snaggly teeth. She peered at him through her boxy spectacles for a moment. Johnson had no idea what to say in response to her gushing praise so he smiled back stiffly.

‘I won’t take up any more of your time,’ she said, edging out from under the table. ‘Thank you. My family is waiting for me. I must go now.’

The woman then got up and headed for the door quickly, her mission accomplished.

But what mission? Johnson thought. In the month he had been working at Solar Fun Systems, Qidong, PRC the other staff, all of them Chinese, had barely acknowledged him. He had had to find the staff canteen himself but on finding that there was no English translation for anything, he gave up and went in search of a Western-style café. There he found ‘Monolithic Sandwiches’ on the menu, along with ‘cigarette bacon’ and ‘beef saliva’.

His closest associate was Mr. Pu, a smartly-dressed man in his thirties who was said to speak ‘Excellent English’. If he did, he did not let on and when Johnson tried to engage him in conversation he always curtailed it with a perfectly enunciated, ‘I’m sorry, I’d love to chat with you but my English is very poor’.

Johnson did not mind the solitary life, especially as he had no choice in the matter, but there were times when solitude made him question his sense of reality. Just that morning he had witnessed a man roasting a mouse in a cage to death with a blowtorch in the middle of the street. Not a single passer-by had batted an eyelid. Johnson had been entranced by the sheer delight on the man’s face as he inflicted pain on the defenceless animal. Or had he dreamt the entire thing?

So the strange woman’s unsought praise both pleased and disconcerted him at the same time.

He was still pondering the implications as he wandered the streets of Qidong. He often wandered the streets of the small provincial town, not because they were interesting (one clothes shop looked pretty much like another after a while) but so as to put off the time for returning to his apartment near the factory on the outskirts. The entire town looked as though it had sprung up overnight, nothing suggesting a slow development from historical roots. The tower blocks poked up from the earth like strange plants. The only part of town that evoked a past was the central square where elderly couples danced to music pumped out from speakers above the town hall or young people practised their tai chi.

Spotting a four star hotel, Johnson made his way towards the entrance. This was where it happened the second time.

He was standing at the bar, nursing his second Qing Dao beer when he became aware of two women sitting at a nearby table. One of them had long flowing, black hair, the other had coloured her bob light auburn. They glanced across at him as they chatted. Johnson assumed they were hookers at first, except that they did not have the hard edge that the scantily clad women he had seen around town seemed to have. A brief clatter of heels on tiles made him turn around.

Close up she was very pretty – around thirty, lightly made-up, high cheekbones and unusually large, angular brown eyes.

‘I want to tell you something,’ she said, without smiling.

Johnson shrugged.

Her gaze swept over his face. She said, ‘You have a beautiful nose.’

The words were so unexpected that he had to turn them over in his mind a few times. Surmising that he had to return the compliment, he said, ‘You have beautiful eyes.’

She shook her head. Johnson had meant it. Her eyes swooped up from her face as though they were ready to fly off her head.

‘They’re just eyes,’ she said.

She returned to her friend at the table. The friend glanced in his direction briefly before continuing her conversation.

By ten o’clock the moment he had been dreading arrived. Buses had stopped long ago so he was forced to take a taxi. He knew the name of the apartment block where he lived and had rehearsed it until his tongue hurt. But nothing was simple in China. The first time he got into a taxi the driver nodded and Johnson arrived home feeling like Marco Polo. The second time he tried it the driver had stared back at him in disbelief, ‘Shen me?’ He checked himself and repeated the address. Nothing. He pointed through the windscreen, signalling ‘forward’ and got home by vague gestures.

He was standing in front of the RT Mart supermarket when it happened for the third time. A man in a suit and thick spectacles walked up to him and said, ‘Are you American?’

Johnson shook his head. ‘No, British.’

‘Ah. Very unusual but very welcome. I have seen you around town, doing your shopping and so on. You are a novelty in Qidong, but a very interesting one. I am sure most people are happy to see you. How do you find our beautiful town?’

‘Beautiful’ was not a word he would use to describe Qidong (the model seemed to be a sixties south London housing estate) so he said he found it ‘interesting’.

‘The people are very friendly, don’t you think?’

‘Yes, I suppose they are.’

Most of the time, especially when shopping in the supermarket, Johnson felt like a space alien. People followed him around the aisles. At the checkout people peered into his basket. On the bus the conductor even dipped into his bag and held up packets and tins to the light, seemingly amazed that he had similar tastes to hers.

‘I am sure China is not the country you imagined.’

‘You could say that,’ said Johnson, aware that the stranger was staring over his shoulder as he replied.

‘It is a time of great development for us,’ he went on. ‘Ever since the opening-up policy the country has been changing constantly. We know we must change in order to survive and it’s only with the help of people like yourself that we can look forward to a bright future.’

‘I don’t know if I’m making such a big difference,’ said Johnson.

‘When you look around you see sparkling new buildings,’ said the man. ‘But in here.’ He leaned forward and tapped the side of his head. ‘That’s where the real changes need to be made.’

‘You speak excellent English,’ said Johnson.

The stranger smiled and gave him a sideways look. ‘You flatter me. Actually, my English is very poor.’ He slipped his hand into his inside pocket and brought out his wallet. He flipped it open and removed a small business card which he presented to Johnson with both hands.

Johnson read it. The only word that was in English was ‘LOGISTICS’ – the business of moving things. People always seemed to be moving things in China or knocking things down and building them up again.

‘I’m sorry I don’t use cards myself.’

‘No matter.’ The stranger waved his hand. ‘I must go home now. My family are expecting me.’

The stranger dissolved into the crowds. Johnson flagged down a taxi. He was in luck tonight. When he pronounced the name of his apartment block the driver nodded. Clearly seeing this as evidence that he had a fluent Mandarin-speaking foreigner on board he tried to engage Johnson in conversation. On hearing Johnson’s ‘Ting bu dong’ he offered him a smile and a cigarette instead.

The following morning Johnson was at his desk, sourcing materials and generally feeling at ease with himself and his life in China. That was the great thing about this country, he reflected. Every day was different and the people were full of surprises. That was what was missing in the west, where life was staid and predictable. Where else would three strangers approach you just to make you feel welcome?

Of course, he knew he had been subjected to what the Chinese called Big Face, a custom by which a person was flattered into submission by someone who knew nothing about the subject of the flattery. It was not driven by malice but by a desire to make someone feel wanted. His awareness of this fact did not detract from his high spirits.

He was still in a good mood when Mr. Pu came into his office and slapped him on the back. For a few moments he simply stood there, smiling and grinning like a bad actor.

‘You know something,’ he said. ‘You’re a really popular guy. People like you. I think it’s because you look happy. Like now, you are smiling. You must be happy. This is good.’

Later, when he left for lunch, he became aware of people smiling at him as he passed through the main office. It was the first time anyone had really taken any notice of him and it felt good. When he stepped into the lift he hung on to the feeling, sensing it soaring like the kites he saw in the square, into the wind and yet part of the wind.

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