Oumar towers over me, takes my sweaty white palm in his gentle hand, and leads me onstage. We’re in a packed theatre somewhere downtown, I have no idea where. The glare of the stage lights cocoons us from the mesmerized audience. Oumar burns his charcoal eyes into mine as the theme song from “Flash Dance...What a Feeling” starts to play. We glide across the stage, and then he swings me around, spins me, lifts my feet right off the floor, his lips nearly touching mine. I float through the air like a cloud, the soles of my red and black plaid sneakers scraping the wooden floor. I close my eyes, try to block out the hundreds of peering eyes, and breathe. Inhale the scent of his sweat-drenched body as we move, two lonely hearts beating in tandem. Tonight, we hold the world in our hands.
Oumar twirls me for the last time, and I feel like I’m going to fall, but I land on my feet, my heart pounding with love. It’s the school’s year-end performance night and the foreign students and teachers living on college and university campuses all over the city are singing and dancing for the local Chinese officials and students. The music stops and applause echoes through the theatre. Breathless, I stare at the ocean of black hair and Asian faces, drawing on them for approval. As we take our bows, I catch our institute’s waiban, Mr. Zhang, eyeing my black stretch skirt and red blouse with veiled disdain, a kind of scrutiny that cuts right through me. It’s an expression I’ve seen many times before in this incomprehensible country. I’ve blundered through a year teaching English to young teachers and professors, trying to live up to a title, zhuan jia, or foreign expert, that the Mainland Chinese authorities confer on undeserving visiting instructors like me, and I’m a long way from Canada.
Oumar’s lips part in a gentle smile, and he holds my hand with a steady grip. After six years as a foreign student at the agricultural institute next door, he’s used to the tacit Chinese scrutiny. I wink back, and he lets out a deep, guttural laugh. He’s my man.
Behind the curtain, Ephat stands like a sentry, his arms folded, eyes ablaze, sweat dripping off his bulbous Afro. He flashes his white teeth in a fox-like grin. “Gorgeous, as always, Dina.”
I blush and pull back my arm, utter a typical Chinese response. “Not so good.”
Oumar winks, puts his hand on my shoulder then takes it off when he sees Mr. Zhang watching. “Ma belle danseuse.”
The next performers, Nafissa and Kone, scoot between us, rush onstage, and perform a waltz. Nafissa’s silver anklet sparkles under the stage lights, the slit in her long pale blue dress gently sliding up her curvaceous calf. Kone leads with the air of a true gentleman, and they move like a bolt of silk cloth rippling in the breeze. The Chinese officials and students in the audience glow with appreciation, their eyes widening at the couple’s grace and harmony. When the music stops, they take their bows, raising their clasped hands high, eyes beaming, cheeks flushed as the audience erupts in a thunder of applause.
I exhale, my face flushed. “I’d give anything to dance like that.”
“They will marry after they go back Mali,” Oumar whispers, pulling me over to his opposite side, away from Ephat’s prying eyes.
“Will you be the best man?” I look into his eyes, not sure he understands, and try to imagine life without him. We met in front of the department store in the village market at the beginning of the academic year. He translated for me while I haggled with a store clerk about a table fan I had purchased that didn’t work. Then he bought me an orange soda, and we sat outside the store on plastic milk crates in the sweltering heat, watching a sea of people in white shirts and blue or military green bottoms shuffle by, listening to their sandals scrape the pavement like chalk on the chipped blackboards in the old classroom buildings.
Oumar nods to Alex, who walks onstage and starts to sing “Yesterday” in his British-Zimbabwean accent. He’d be playing Hendrix if he thought the locals were ready for hard rock, but they’ve barely heard of the Beatles. He can do a great Bob Marley imitation except that it pisses Ephat and some of the other African students off so much that he has to wait for “the appropriate moment”--when they’re not around. Alex finishes the song and breaks into an unscheduled rendition of “Billie Jean.” Tall and thin, he struts the moonwalk like the King of Pop himself and rouses the audience into a thunder of rhythmic hand clapping.
Alex comes offstage, drenched in sweat from the harsh theatre lights, and gyrates past Ephat, winking, his face contorted sardonically. His Japanese girlfriend, Mayumi, a petite slender Japanese student standing behind the curtain, grins, her eyes shining. “Zimbabwe Michael Jackson.”
“Cocky landowner’s son,” Ephat mutters, moving close to Mayumi. Ephat taps Mayumi’s arm. “Take him back to Japan. Zimbabwe’s no place for Japanese girls.”
Mayumi scowls and brushes his hand away.
Alex advances toward Ephat, his fist clenched. “You make one more remark like that, and you’re a dead man.”
“Am I?” Ephat raises his hand to strike Alex, his face a thundercloud.
“Ephat! Non!” Oumar pushes Ephat to the other side of the stage.
“Leave me alone!” Ephat stumbles over an electrical cord and nearly falls over.
“And no more comments about my father. Got that?” Alex puts his arm around Mayumi and embraces her.
Last fall, at the first African students’ dance of the year, Alex told me Ephat detested him for being the son of a white plantation owner back in Zimbabwe. Ephat’s relatives, with no title to land of their own, had worked long and hard on Alex’s father’s farm, and now they and other labourers were set to drive Alex’s parents, like the rest of the white landowners, at gunpoint off property that had been in Alex’s family for a hundred years or more, if the Land Acquisition Act the government drew up three years ago in 1985 didn’t accelerate.
Not long after that, one of the other Africans in his dorm warned him to lock his doors and windows at night. But we all keep our doors open. Attacks on foreigners are still rare out here. Still, anything can happen to him, especially if he stays much longer.
Ephat pinches my upper arm, teases, “You’re the belle of the ball tonight.”
I jerk away, want to grab hold of Oumar, but I see Mr. Zhang talking to one of the Chinese organizers of the event. He nods and walks over to us.
“He said your form not so good.” He looks at Oumar then at my sneakers with a frown. “Movements not clear, not with the music.”
“We’re not exactly professionals,” I say under my breath. Zhang has a way of making me feel insignificant, like a teenager rather than the “foreign expert” with the Master’s degree. We follow Zhang back to the van, our heads high. Ephat walks behind us, his eyes boring straight into my skull. Alex and Mayumi sit near the front, and Ephat slumps in the seat behind me, his stale breath heating up the back of my neck. Oumar takes my hand, then drops it when he sees Zhang and the driver watching us in their rear-view mirrors. We motor back to the institute, the lights shining from the European-style storefronts along the main road through the city. The streets are full of late-night shoppers, cyclists, and street cleaners, the long bristles of their brooms fanning the sidewalks like cat whiskers.
I rub my white skin and peer at my reflection in the driver’s mirror, look up into Oumar’s eyes with a wistful smile and whisper, “I could stay here forever.”
“You will become like a Chinese, non?” Oumar tweaks my nose with his knuckle.
I laugh and say, loud enough for Zhang to hear, “Mais oui, tongzhi.”
“The life here too difficult for you.”
I point out the window at the crowds of later night shoppers on Zhongshan Road, a surge of irritation rising in me. “I could learn. Become like them.”
Oumar nods with a wry smile. He pulls a wad of rumpled ten renminbi notes out of his shirt pocket, scholarship money given to him by the Chinese government, and starts to count them. He sees the driver watching us and slips the money back into his pocket. The driver frowns. It’s more than his monthly wage.
Out the window, I smile at a peasant at the cross walk, carrying a pole on his shoulders with a bundle hanging from either end. He stares at me with a vacant expression and sets off across the street, the load pulling his shoulders down. I want to throw him the twenty-yuan bill I have tucked in my pocket, but I close my eyes instead and send him best wishes for long life and good health.
The driver lets me off at my institute, and I say goodnight to Oumar, avoiding Ephat’s envious gaze. I go back to my room and stand on the balcony, admire the potted red kopeck plant, official flower of Guangzhou that Oumar gave me at Spring Festival. In the darkness below, an elderly couple stroll around the lake, arms at their sides, the man dressed in dark trousers and a navy Zhongshan jacket, the woman in a black A-lined skirt and silky white polyester blouse. The heels of her sandals click on the pavement as they walk over the cement bridge entwined as if in a blanket of peace. A bell rings and tires scrape as a cyclist on a green Flying Pigeon slams on the brakes to avoid careening into them. The old man waves his hand and blurts out something in Mandarin, but I don’t hear it in the hubbub of voices, shuffling feet and music blaring so loudly from the student dormitories that it drowns out the nocturnal hum of the cicadas, so I send them good thoughts, inhale the warm night air and count the stars in the sky.
Across the lake, the bicycle repairman fastens a sack of tools and tires onto the carrier on the back of his bicycle and cycles off after a long day helping students. With his cute round face with two dimples and a mole on his forehead, he’s my darling-of-the-week for fixing my flat tire for only a few fen.
A few minutes later, the telephone rings. It’s Oumar, his voice barely audible, the connection is so poor. “You come over. Now?”
I pause. It’s after ten, so the building is locked, and the last thing I want to do is clamber over the spiked metal gate and hike through the darkness to his institute. But I decide I have to go. The school year is over in a month, and we have precious little time left together.
“Meet me at the gate,” I say and hang up the phone. I grope around my room for a flashlight. It’s a brisk ten-minute walk to the entrance of the agricultural institute.
I lock the door and try not to impale myself as I crawl over the thin metal bars jutting out of the top of the gate outside my room. There are gates all over China. They call them “men” in Mandarin. I hate this gate the most. The university officials tell us it’s for our safety, but I know they really want to discourage us waiguoren, external country people, from inflicting the locals with what they call “spiritual pollution.” And here I am sneaking through the shadows to see my African lover.
Outside, on the path to the agricultural institute, a student on a bicycle swerves and rings his bell. In the moonlight, I recognize his girlfriend perched on the carrier over the rear wheel. It’s my postgraduate student, Chen Xiao Mei, a pretty young woman with long hair, bright brown eyes and a pert, Cheshire cat’s smile. She waves and sings out a hello. I wave back and walk on, my eyes fixed on the concrete under my feet. I know all about her relationship with Liang Hong, a young teacher in Mechanical Engineering, and, although I haven’t talked to her about Oumar, she’s seen me with him in the village. We have a tacit agreement not to reveal each other’s personal business. I take a deep breath and hike on. It’s going to have to be a short night. I have to teach an American Literature class at 7:30 the next morning. Xiao Mei’s class.
Oumar meets me at the gate of his institute and leads me to the back door of his dormitory. We walk up the stairs to the second floor and pass Alex’s room. The humidity is so stifling he’s left his door ajar. Inside the next room, Kone and his roommate sit on their beds chatting over a bottle of Qingdao Beer. Oumar greets them in French, and puts the key in the lock to his and Ephat’s room. Ephat is lying on his mattress reading.
“Ephat, sleep in Kone’s room tonight.”
Ephat frowns, his face flushed with envy and a trace of anger, gets up, and leaves.
Oumar pats my rear end and scuttles me through the door. He pulls out his desk chair for me, dips his fingers into a box of oolong tea, and sprinkles some tealeaves into two porcelain cups. The boiling water he pours from the kettle into the cups makes a soft, gurgling sound.
“You want to talk?” I say. I bristle, turn on the fan on his bedside table, so it massages my face and long brown hair.
He sits down, his brow furrowed, and makes circles with his index finger beside his temple. “China crazy.”
“Completely crazy.” I chuckle nervously and dig my nails into his taut forearm.
He pulls it away, frowning, and sips his tea. “Six years here. I am a strange man.”
“Not to me,” I say. I close my eyes and try to imagine having had to get by for so long in Chinese without being able to speak English when so many of the local people did. I see a man thrust out to the side, trying to claw his way back in, but getting pushed back, scorned.
“I studied Chinese one year. After, I started university. I had a tutor if I needed. So long time.” Oumar sighs. “My government and China agreed this.”
“I wish I could have done it,” I say, grinding my teeth, flooded with horrific memories of years of essay writing, dour professors, and competitive classmates.
Oumar looks at me, his head tilted slightly, eyes apologetic. “Next year, I go to Paris for PhD.”
My face flushes, and I start to seethe. “I was going to do a PhD, but I came here instead.” I see an image of the department head pursing his wrinkled jowls with disdain when I dropped off my application. They had frowned upon my brief tryst with one of my undergrads, though he had been a mature student from South Africa around the same age as Oumar. I’d escaped to this bizarre corner of the planet to buy some time to ponder what to do with my life, and now I was about to lose the most wonderful man. “I’ve never been to Paris,” I say, my eyes stinging.
Oumar nods and strokes my hair. “Many Muslim people there.”
I look at the floor and ponder the significance of this remark then tug his arm and give him the thumbs up. “Come to Canada. Our agricultural schools are très excellente.”
“Dina.” Oumar kisses me, stands up and takes the teapot into the tiny bathroom beside his bed. “Les femmes ont ce nom au Mali.” He pours the tealeaves into the toilet and flushes it. The toilet starts to gurgle when the water doesn’t properly go down. He pulls the lid off the back and reconnects the chain to the ball, but the irritating sound continues. Outside, the chorus of cicadas rises to a pitch and a current of warm South China air seeps through the open window. Sweat streams down my face and neck, soaking my blouse. The smell of lilies and kopeck flowers in the garden outside permeates the stagnant dormitory room.
I smile and imagine myself praying in a mosque, wearing a scarf wrapped around my head and neck, perhaps a vibrant rainbow pattern, like those African ladies in National Geographic Magazine. Maybe I could walk a mile with a basket on my head, or become an urban woman in a flowing gown in the capital city of Bamako. I rub my face, try to pull my pale skin away.
“Only one more month for us, chérie.” Oumar leans down and kisses me, his scent enveloping me.
I push him away, blinded by tears and sweat. “And then what?”
Oumar pulls me back and sits me on his bed, his eyes patient. He takes a photo album out of his desk drawer and shows me a picture of himself in a field holding a clump of grass. In the next photo, he’s standing in a laboratory with safety goggles on and a flask in his hand. He sits in a classroom at a wooden desk between Ephat and Kone in another. “My country has big drought. People poor. No food. Like this all over Africa.”
“I know,” I whisper, ready to scream.
“Canada good country. You can have everything.”
I’m sick of hearing this day in and day out. The Chinese have fashioned it into a stock phrase, and now I’m getting it from him. “It’s boring.”
Oumar’s face turns grave, almost angry. “Ennui?”
“I’d love to live in Africa for a while.”
“You have good job. Go back Canada.”
I nod and say nothing. I don’t have the heart to say that I’m tired of teaching, that I’d give anything to throw it all away and wander the world, a bohemian: with only a backpack and enough money for food, trains, and hostels. I imagine myself travelling through Mali disguised as a Muslim woman hidden under a burka like the British lady I’d heard about, who traversed the Moroccan desert on her own.
“Je n’oublierai jamais ta gentillesse.” Oumar whispers and strokes my hair.
I place my fingertips on his wrist, feel his pulse, the blood coursing through his veins, press my cheek against his angular facial bone. We lie for what seems like hours in that dreamy state between sleep and wakefulness, while, outside, the full moon casts a golden shaft of light through the window.
The sound of a body being slammed into a wooden door and then an ear-piercing scream ricochets through the building. A man shouts, “You son of a bitch! My father didn’t pay your relatives fair wages to slack off. It’s not my fault he had to let the lazy bastards go.”
It’s Alex. Is he trying to drive Ephat out of the dormitory, off the land? I want to call 911, but there’s no phone, and I don’t even know if there’s such a number in China. I look out the window to see if the doorman’s light in the room below is on, but it’s not. He must be afraid to come upstairs. Short and gaunt, he’s a mere sparrow beside the Africans.
“Bloody liar! The whole farm would’ve gone to the dogs without those lazy bastards.” Ephat’s voice roars furiously through the building.
“One love, one heart,” Alex’s singing echoes off the corridor walls as if repeating itself on a scratched LP record, his fingers snapping to the rhythm. “Let’s get together, man, and feel all right.”
“Your father’s gonna regret it.” Ephat says, his footsteps thudding across the floor.
“Get away from me, or I swear-–”
A scream coming from down the hall rouses us. Oumar leaps out of bed and tears out into the corridor. “Ephat! Non! ”
I hear the sound of a fist smacking flesh and a guttural cry. I shut the door, start to lock it from the inside then realize Oumar won’t be able to get back in if he has to. I’ve been expecting Ephat to blow since I met him at their dance last fall. He had complained about being stuck in China because his parents had pushed him to pass the university entrance examination so he could study in a foreign country, any country where he could get the qualifications to rise to a position of authority. He’d wanted to study in England but his marks weren’t high enough, so he had to settle for China. In three years here, he has not made any close friends, or mixed with the Chinese, and he rarely leaves the dormitory except to go to the village market.
The shouting rises in pitch. Some of the other students appear to have joined, and now it sounds like an all out war. I bolt the door shut. Anyone could die here. A fist pounds at the door, and Oumar’s voice calls out, “Open!”
I unbolt the lock, and Oumar pushes Alex into the room then disappears into the hall again. Alex’s face is covered with blood. I sit him on Ephat’s bed and go into the bathroom to get a warm cloth. Alex lies down on the mattress, quaking. “The bugger nearly tried to kill me.”
Oumar calls out something inaudible in French, and the hallway becomes quiet. I open the door a crack and peek out. Ephat sits slumped on the floor, head in hands. Oumar nudges him with his foot. Ephat gets up and goes back down the hall. The doorman hasn’t come up, and there’s no point calling the police. Ephat could be deported, or worse.
I understand, but I don’t feel safe. He’s been eyeing me since I started coming over to see Oumar, and I’m afraid he’ll try to hit on me after Oumar departs. It’s after midnight, time to leave. I want to climb out the window and head back to my empty bed in my guesthouse, but it’s too dark, and I’m not tall enough to vault over that confounded gate to my building.
Oumar comes back to the room and locks the door. We crawl under the covers while Alex steps into the bathroom and takes a shower. We’ll have to share the room with him tonight.
“You okay?” Oumar whispers.
I tilt my head back and look out the window at the golden moon, a perfectly round droplet suspended in the spattering of stars lighting up the midnight black sky. I’ve read that the mind reacts in mysterious ways to the full moon. Maybe I’ve magnified this entire Oumar chapter of my life. Taken what I’ve seen too much to heart.
“Okay,” I say.
Alex comes out of the bathroom and flops out on Ephat’s bed. Ephat’s personal space.
“You good, man?” Oumar says.
Outside, the trees rustle restlessly in the subtropical breeze and the cicadas sing in an eerie chorus. Oumar turns off the light, holds me like a baby, and rocks me to sleep.
“Yi, er, san, si, ou, liu.” Exercise music blares rudely from the loudspeakers. My eyes fly open. It’s 6 a.m. Time to get ready for my 7:30 class. I look over to see if Alex is watching, but he’s gone.
“You have bad dream?” Oumar’s gentle hand runs down my trembling arm.
“Yeah,” I whisper.
“It is not real.” Oumar kisses me and tickles my back.
We like to make love at this time. It’s our morning exercise routine. But, after last night, I’m worried about what the authorities will say, so I shower and then he walks me to the agricultural institute gate as the rising sun casts its orange glow over the land.
I slip through the village past the department store, see a washing machine in the window. My clothes reek of my sweat and Oumar’s, and I’m going to have to change out of them pretty fast to make it to class on time. I’m about to pass through the archway of our technological institute and head down the road to the foreign expert’s building when I hear a voice.
“A little early to be out alone.” A figure of a man steps in front of me. It’s Ephat, standing a full six feet tall, his face stern.
“I’m late,” I say, lengthening my stride. Another two hundred metres, and I’ll be there. Fortunately, they open the gate at seven every morning.
Ephat picks up the pace and thrusts out his arm to cut me off. I look up and see his coal-black eyes burning into mine in the dim early morning light.
“You’re lucky you haven’t been arrested.” I push his arm away and try to sidestep him, but he blocks me.
“You didn’t see anything last night,” Ephat says.
“Alex’s bloody face. That’s what I saw.”
Ephat grabs my wrists, and pulls them back until my shoulders feel like they’re going to come out of their sockets. He speaks, his voice sinister. “He’s a bloody liar.”
A current of pain jolts me as he twists my arms. I open my mouth and scream, “What do you want?”
“Justice.” Ephat tightens his grip, his voice piercing my eardrum.
“Bastard! You won’t get it hitting on me.” I jerk my wrists free, sidestep Ephat, and leave him standing on the road looking at the water buffalo grazing in the field, jaw set, eyes flashing the way Oumar’s do when he has an axe to grind.
A bicycle shoots by. Xiao Mei sits perched on the back while Liang Hong negotiates the potholes in the road. They’re on their way to the village for their favourite breakfast, fried dough sticks with soy milk. Her eyes widen, and she mutters something in his ear. I pull my sweater around me, hoping to god she doesn’t tell everyone where I’ve been, though she probably will, just like the student who ratted me out when she spied my beloved Thandiwe holding my hand at the campus pub. Then I see the dean walking over to the classroom building. He gives me a puzzled look and waves. I blush and wave back. Wrack my brain to remember if it’s now or tomorrow morning when I’m supposed to have a chat with him over tea in the English department office.
I look at my watch. There’s still half an hour before class. Enough time to change and down some breakfast, so I don’t bottom out from hunger in front of my students. Lao Da Ye watches me stride through the foyer and head up the stairs to my room. I wave and carry on as if it’s nothing. He’s seen me do this before. I figure he’s been on the phone with Oumar’s doorman about it anyway. They’d want to be sure I was safe. So far, the institute officials haven’t interfered. Maybe they’re afraid to upset me in case I break my contract and go home, leaving them without a teacher, or else they don’t want me to be lonely. Or they’re looking the other way because they don’t know what to do about such an “open” foreigner.
The phone rings about fifteen minutes later. It’s Oumar.
“Alex. He in hospital. Blood last night not stopped.”
“Oh, my god! Did you call Mayumi?”
I quake. My class starts in fifteen minutes. “Ephat. He just -–”
There is a knock at the door. I put down the phone and let in the nefarious Mr. Zhang.
“Miss Dina, were you at the agricultural institute last night?”
I hesitate then speak. “Yes.”
“Tall Africa man. You see him?”
I freeze. Does he mean Oumar or Ephat? “Who?”
“Bu hao.” Zhang peers at me through the thick black frames of his glasses, reads me like a book.
I go back to the phone and pick it up. “I have to go.”
“Do you care what they think?” Oumar says with the clearest accent I’ve heard from him all year.
I hang up, caught in Zhang’s deadly stare. I’ve got to get over to the hospital. Help Alex out. He’d do it for me.
But would it be just?
Maybe it’s time I left here. Broke the contract. Went back to Canada. Closed this chapter in my life. But I haven’t done anything. Except danced with Oumar.
Outside, the ringing of a hundred bicycle bells reminds me that I’d better head off to class. I grab my book bag and rush out the door, wave at Lao Da Ye sitting at his post at the front desk, run down the front steps to the bike rack, hop on my Flying Pigeon, and sail off across the bridge over the lake past the bicycle repair man, who calls out a most reassuring good morning, and cruise around the path to our classroom building. I arrive in class just in time.
Xiao Mei looks up from her seat in the front row with her customary smile. “Did you eat, Miss Dina?”
I feel like I’m about to disgorge the cold leftover pork steam bun I’d pulled out of my fridge and devoured. “Yes, thank you.”
Xiao Mei nods with a mischievous glint in her eye. “It is said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
I blush and scrawl the outline of the day’s lesson on the decaying blackboard, the chalk barely visible on the cracked, worn out slate, my mind humming with a chorus of voices whispering my name. I see the dark shape of a man pass by the window, but when I go to look, no one’s there.