by Chris Goddard
My melon problem was growing. The fruit now seemed rather political and represented, from the Chinese point of view, an example of the ‘benevolence and glorious, patriotic spirit’ of the Chinese government. And it was extremely important that the governmental concern for its citizens was seen and appreciated by all foreigners. In Jingzhou, though, all foreigners meant…er… me. The thought, then, that I could just dispose of my melons somewhere, throw them away willy-nilly, was fading fast. How disrespectful that would seem! How unpatriotic! After all, I was an honoured guest of China.
Then, three days later, another rat tat tat, another squiggle and two more melons were added to the collection. Now, suddenly, I was faced with the very real prospect of a growing pile of rotting, smelly fruit, with a complimentary horde of flies and other nasties. In fact, a quick inspection of the first consignment revealed that they were, to be sure, maturing rapidly. Action was needed.
‘Hello, Mrs Yu,’ I said to my next door neighbour as she opened her door. Mrs Yu, incidentally, liked nothing better than to eavesdrop outside my door and report any juicy titbits about ‘The Foreigner’ to anyone who would listen. ‘Hello,’ I said to her, ‘Would you like a couple of melons by any chance? Of course, I’m really grateful for the government giving us all melons to keep us cool during the hot summer. It’s fantastic! My government would never do this! But, as you know, I live here alone so I’ve been given rather too many melons and would like to share them with you and your family.’
‘Thank you,’ she said as her eyes made the quickest of sweeps up and down my body to check out my shoes, trousers, t-shirt, the state of my finger nails and anything else that might be of importance, ‘Yes, our government is wonderful! How lucky we are! But we have enough melons for us. Try Teacher Zhang. He really likes melons.’
So to Teacher Zhang. No luck. And Teacher Zao. And Teacher Wang, Vice Secretary Hu, Dean Ting, Party Secretary Cao, Vice Dean Zhi…….. And they all spoke as one: ‘How lucky we all are! But I have enough melons for me. Try Teacher X, Y or Z. He really likes melons.’ They, of course, had no need for melons either.
What was I to do with my growing store? I couldn’t give them away to anybody. I could have perhaps thrown them on the little campus rubbish dumps but that would have been risky in the daylight even during the deserted lunchtime siesta. What if somebody saw me? What if, horror of horrors, Mrs Yu saw me? I could imagine; ‘Ungrateful foreigner, wasteful westerner, selfish citizen!’ I could have done it, I suppose, in the middle of the night but ‘they’ still might have known, the next day, whose melons they were.
But I really had to ditch them somewhere, somehow and soon.
However, as I stared out from the balcony with the six green mounds to my side, the where and the how evaded my poor, heat-addled imagination. I was trapped by my melons, by prying, gossiping eyes, by potential misunderstandings, by embarrassment and guilt. Or perhaps I was going mad? Was this all a figment of my imagination? I had absolutely no way of telling, no points of reference at all.
Then it hit me – an energizing rush of an idea that made me jump out of my sweaty lethargy.
That same evening I dug out my old rucksack, gathered together some old plastic bags, set my alarm for 3 am, flopped on to my bed in front of the rickety old fan and tried to sleep.
The alarm wasn’t necessary. At 2.30 am, I was still wide awake and could wait no longer.
First the older, rather sticky, melons went into the plastic bags. I stuffed these into the rucksack leaving enough room for one of the newer melons. Only three of the fresh melons remained loose. Things were looking good. I glanced out of the balcony to see a beautiful full moon lighting up everything beneath. My nerves tightened.
It was time. With the rucksack on my back and one melon under my left arm, I put my ear to the front door. Silence. Slowly I opened it, as the image of Mrs Yu, in her nightdress, wok in hand, standing outside ready to bash me for being a counter revolutionary, danced in my mind. Nobody there. Very carefully, I tiptoed down the unlit stairs, heart pounding, a Foreigner in China. Down three flights, and the next, the next and finally the last to the ground floor. Leaving the rucksack and melon, I took a deep breath and went back up for the two remaining fruit. The darkness was loud and hot as I came out of my flat for the second time. The door clunked shut far too loudly. I held my breath and….nothing. I crept down the stairs again, down through the blackness with the two melons under my arms back to the front door of the block.
I peered cautiously out into the moonlight, as furtive as a burglar with his bag of swag, and, as quietly as I could, pulled out my bicycle from the fifty or so other bikes parked there.
I heaved the rucksack onto my back, balanced one of the melons in the bicycle’s front basket, the other on the back luggage rack and somehow, shakily, mounted the bike with the last fruit lodged under my left arm. So far so good, I thought, as I set off. My trusted Flying Pigeon, six melons and I wobbled towards our melon destiny in the depths of the Chinese night. ‘Yes,’ I whispered to myself, ‘madness has definitely descended.’
The moonlight and hot, heavy silence brought a strange new perspective to the familiar campus. I pedalled past the students’ wash rooms and the shuttered up canteen. Becoming more confident and balanced, I rode past the silent English department, the little piles of rubbish now devoid of chickens and around the sleeping generator to the gate of the campus and…..out into the town. There was no-one around. China was sleeping. The hibernating street markets, the folded up mahjong tables, the sleeping birds in their cages, and the absent badminton players slipped silently past me as the silhouette of the South Gate emerged from the night.
Then, out of the shadows, two figures appeared, squatting by the side of the road, chewing long sticks of sugar cane. Two peasant farmers, sinewy and ragged, who, like all of us, had to be somewhere at 3 am.
‘Hello!’ I said cheerfully, as if this was the most normal of situations. No reply was their answer but I could have sworn that fibres of sugar cane dropped out of their open mouths when they saw this foreigner, the first foreigner they had ever seen, with his big nose, yellow hair and fish eyes, riding a bike overloaded with water melons through the South Gate at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Onwards out of the town, I pedalled along the straight, narrow road heading south, chuckling as I savoured the thought of what the two men would tell their families the next day. Five more bumpy minutes and I arrived.
The immense, powerful Yangtse River was alive and flowing in front of me, the moonlight creating a kaleidoscope of grey textures on its surface. With a glorious, Olympian heave, I shot-putted the first melon Yangtsewards and, joy upon joy, it flew from my hands in a perfect arc and disappeared into the water with a deep and gratifying ‘melon into water’ plop-splash. I jettisoned the fruit in the bags onto a convenient small pile of rubbish on the river bank and then returned to the glorious counter-revolutionary task of hurling the other melons into the swirling currents of the third longest river in the world, each throw as satisfying as the first.
After a contemplative cigarette under the Yangtse moonlight, I was ready to return. Back up the road to the town, through the gate, exclaiming to the two shocked peasants ‘No melons now!’ as I rode gleefully past them. Relief cut a wide smile on my face as my Flying Pigeon, lightened of its fruity load, flew along the road back to the campus. Bike parked and stairs climbed, I passed Mrs Yu’s door. I was tempted to knock and say ‘Hello, Mrs Yu, all fine on the western front, thanks!’ Just the thought was enough to keep the chuckle in my heart.
Confident that I hadn’t been spotted, that I’d actually done it, I closed the door with a satisfying clunk, sank onto the bed and closed my eyes. The Chinese night gently wrapped its silence around me as, slowly, some kind of sanity returned.
And, tellingly perhaps, I never saw The Melon Man again.
Chris Goddard has lived and worked in the Greater China region for 9 years including 5 years in Mainland China, 2 years in Taiwan and 2 years in Hong Kong. He is a qualified cross cultural Consultant. For more info, go to his website: Uncrossed Wires.