by Chris Goddard
I yanked open the flimsy wooden door that led out to my balcony, hoping that they had disappeared. But, of course, they hadn’t. From the corner of the balcony, the six of them stared back at me as if to say ‘So what are you going to do with us, big nose?’ I had absolutely no idea. No-one had faced this problem before. I was stuffed.
Feeling very foreign, I turned away and looked out at the early afternoon. The summer heat hung over the ancient walled city of Jingzhou, in central China, like the heaviest of blankets, slowing all underneath. It was June, 1991, and I had been there for nearly a year but this was my first searing hot summer. Jingzhou was a sleepy town, framed by a spectacular crumbling, two-thousand-year-old wall with four gates – the North, South, East and West Gates. The North, East and West led to the deepest, poorest countryside. The South Gate faced the banks of the mighty Yangtse River, only a half a mile away. My small second floor flat sat in a block close to the South Wall on the campus of Jingzhou Teacher Training College.
Most days, I would venture out into the town on my bicycle, a ‘The Flying Pigeon’, famous for being the Rolls Royce of bikes. Sometimes it was to explore the tiny back streets, to pedal through the mass of cyclists, past people squatting on their haunches shovelling rice into their mouths at lightning speed from hand-held bowls or just contemplating the world in front of them, bare-chested men with a single trouser leg rolled up above their knee playing cards or mahjong as loudly as they could, children playing badminton in the street or small crowds gathered to exchange stamps or show off their caged birds.
Sometimes it was to shop in the chaotic local street market full of every kind of animal, vegetable and fruit you could and couldn’t possibly imagine. I would pass small squat bananas and shiny watermelons, whole pigs dangling from hooks in the sunshine, exciting the flies to the point of madness, bunches of chickens hanging upside down squawking their objections, red plastic bowls full of fish, frogs, eels, lizards, snakes and creatures which had clearly escaped the evolutionary forces of Darwinism. It was me, however, who was probably the strangest creature in the market. There were people there who would have paid three times the price of a decent turtle to take me home to announce excitedly to their families: ‘Look what I found in the market! A foreigner!’
I was the first foreigner that the college had hosted – indeed I had been told I was the first foreigner ever to set foot in the city, which had, up to then, been designated a ‘closed city’. I was always aware that I was, first and foremost, a ‘guest of China’. I was almost famous, certainly gossiped about in the local tea houses and everybody, from the mayor of the town to the woman at my local noodle stall, was anxious to show China and the communist system in the best possible light.
I would then meander back to the flat on my bike, through the campus gate, past the electricity generator building, which slept solidly, like everyone else, from 10pm to 6am, with a lunchtime siesta, around the utilitarian box buildings that were the teaching departments, the ubiquitous small piles of rubbish populated by scrawny chickens, the enormous student canteen where over a thousand slurping, chattering mouths sat at one sitting and the open-air washrooms, where, even in sub-zero winter, the students would wash their hair in freezing water without so much as a hint of complaint. After parking my bike amongst the others outside my block, I would sweatily climb the six flights of stairs to my flat, hoping that Mrs Yu, my nosey next door neighbour, wouldn’t come out to advise me on my personal development – I shouldn’t wear jeans on a hot day, I should eat more rice or I should go to bed earlier. And I would stumble into the flat, collapse in front of my solitary, grinding portable fan and wonder…..
So, on that June afternoon, I burst onto my balcony and glared at a pile of six watermelons, some fresh and shiny, some dull and wrinkled, all fat and green, as big as boulders.
Two problems confronted me. The first was that I don’t like watermelons at all. Never have and never will. I put them on a par with celery and cucumber – I don’t like the taste and find them, well, pointless.
The second problem was that it was absolutely impossible to either throw or give them away.
Eleven days earlier and the sun was, as usual, pouring its heat on to all who lay below. It was 3pm, a Thursday and the town was stretching itself out of its lunchtime sleep. I was pottering around my flat doing a bit of washing up, a bit of mosquito-chasing, a bit of cockroach-checking and cursing my radio for again not providing the World Service.
A rat tat tat tat on the front door broke the cicada-filled silence. Praying that it wasn’t Mrs Yu, I opened the door to find a man filling the doorway with two baskets of plump watermelons attached to a pole balanced across his shoulders.
‘Gei ni xigua – qian zi! Take your watermelons – sign here!’ he barked, thrusting a completely unintelligible form in my face. This was the first time I had seen anybody touting their business door-to-door. Very un-communist, I thought.
‘Bu yong, xie xie. No thanks,’ I said, in my politest Chinese, ‘I don’t like watermelons’.
‘Take them,’ he growled as he pushed past me and placed two rather impressive, I had to admit, 3lb melons on my kitchen floor.
‘Sign here,’ he repeated with a second shove of the form.
What was I to do? Tell him to bugger off and perhaps start ‘an incident with the foreigner’? Shout to Mrs Yu for help? God forbid, no, she would love that! Or….
‘How much are they?’ I asked. He looked at me as if I was from another planet, which, on reflection, he probably thought I was.
‘No money, sign here.’ His obvious frustration was accompanied by a final thrust of his form. We looked at each other across the cultural divide. There was only one thing I could do, so I grabbed a pen and squiggled a squiggle on his receipt. Then, in a flash, he was gone, leaving me with two large, unwelcome melons as the only tangible proof that the surreal encounter with The Melon Man had happened.
Suddenly, reality returned. I realised, with a start, I had about fifteen minutes before having to teach so I humped the melons onto the balcony, out of the way, a small problem to be solved later. I headed off to the classroom.
I forgot, surprisingly in retrospect, about the melon incident within a few hours. I didn’t return to the balcony again until….
A week later and it was another Thursday. It was again 3pm, dripping hot and the town was once more waking up after its siesta.
Rat tat tat tat the door exclaimed. The word ‘melons’ flashed through my mind.
A dutiful squiggle and they were on my kitchen floor.
‘Must remember to do something about these,’ I muttered to myself, as I hurriedly dumped the new melons in the corner of the balcony with the others.
But now I was intrigued enough to ask my students if they could explain why a man was coming to my flat every week and giving me 6lbs of watermelons for free.
‘Teacher Chris,’ my class told me excitedly, ‘Our government gives all the citizens of the town free watermelons to keep us cool during the hot summer! How wonderful they are! How lucky we are! Does your government in England do this?’
Now I understood. I knew that everybody had free ‘rice tickets’, free ‘cooking oil tickets’ and even free ‘cinema tickets’ but now we all had Free Melons For All Comrades.
And it was becoming obvious that it was completely impossible for The Melon Man not to give me the melons. This was Government, this was Bureaucracy, this was More Than His Job Was Worth.
End of Part One – To Be Continued