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Shanghai Nobody

318

 

 

Shanghai Nobody

A Novel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Vann Chow

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In the country the darkness of night is friendly and familiar, but in a city, with its blaze of lights, it is unnatural, hostile and menacing. It is like a monstrous vulture that hovers, biding its time.” --- W. Somerset Maugham

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Table of Contents

 

 

 

Prologue: The Problem

The problem is, there are simply way too many Chinese men on this side of the world.

After years of killing off --- I am not going to spare your sensitivity because it is what it is --- baby girls and let live the baby boys in Mainland China by the ignorant bunch, there are officially way too many Chinese males in the country for each of us to have a fair chance of being in a heterosexual marriage. This means, I am stat out of a girlfriend, wife and a lifelong companion.

The good news is that not having married at the age of thirty, which is way above the average marriage age for Chinese men for the past five thousand years, has nothing to do with you, or me, per se. It is just all circumstances.

This artificial, unnatural selection created a situation where women are in high demand. It has turned Chinese women into thinking of themselves as princesses, if not queens, of any heterosexual relationships, and Chinese men, into a desperate female-attention seeking animal with less self-esteem than newspaper fetching dogs and more showoff-ish than courting peacock when they get the chance.

Any typical Chinese girl would say, if we were to do an interview on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, or even the rather westernized Hong Kong, an ideal husband would be someone rich with house and car, preferably in plural forms, acquired via a nice, awe-inspiring job with high salary. Absence of any of the above, they should be born rich, or have a dying relative that would inherit them a large sum of money or rights to a profit making company. Shall neither of these apply, it would still be acceptable to simply have an above average height and above average build, in combination with dashing looks and a head of reasonably dense hair.

What this means is, I am pretty much screwed.

I do not need your pity. I realized that the more compassion I get, the more competition it meant for me in the marital market.

 

Chapter 1: Queens

At thirty three, I had just broken up with a long-term girlfriend of four years. I thought I would be with her forever, not only because I loved her, which I did of course, but also for the fact that I would never let her go for if I ever did, I would never get a second chance again at having a girlfriend.

The relationship was going well for a very long time.

Like many couples that had been together for a few years, we talked about getting married and talked about buying a house. Then we talked about signing the papers at the municipality because a full Chinese feast of a wedding would come at too hefty a price and we also talked about renting a small place together which could only fit the size of one human being and a dog, that role regrettably filled by me, so that we could live together immediately after marrying. After about another three months I proposed that in order to further reduce our expense, I could continue to rely on my mom’s excellent housekeeping and cooking skills, my ex-girlfriend and then-future wife could move into my parent’s house which I was already living in. She agreed somewhat reluctantly. And one day when she was showing me wedding dresses options from a Chinese online shopping website which offered wedding gowns the price of a piece of carrot, or something like that, I gave her the unfortunate remark that these dresses were way too low quality to be used in a proper wedding.

That apparently was the wrong thing to say, for she exploded. There was no word for the level of rage she attained on hearing my casual remark which was meant to be said and ignored.

Everything went downhill from there.

Understandably she had a lot of suitors, just like any other girls in China with two arms and legs. However, she was my fiance as soon as she said yes to my marriage proposal, which was in completely virtual reality settings in front of the Eifel tower where I gave her a virtual diamond ring the size of an egg. She made a commitment and to her credit she stuck to it pretty much all the way while waiting for me to save up enough money to buy her a real ring, which would have to start at a much lower carat than the one she got in virtual reality, until that moment.

That moment, she fired up one of the many apps that was password-locked which I never bothered to hack into on her phone because I respected her privacy and now greatly regretted it, to show me the list of notifications from strange men much more qualified in her eyes than me to offer her a comfortable family life.

I argued that they would never love her more than I did and no one would make her happier than I did. She retorted the famous line that was floating around the internet like wildfire a couple of years ago --- I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle. This totally shut me down, because until then I thought what we have was true love. I absolutely did not expect that my girlfriend, someone of reasonable upbringing and good education would feel equally disgusted, as all the other women in our time and age, by laughing on the back of a bicycle in the imagery scenario, that she would tarnish our love by prescribing this line to me! What a denigration to our relationship!

For years I had been watching Jay Chou’s music videos and most of them consisted of him carrying a girl on the back of his bicycle on a country road having a good time. It was all very romantic and affectionate. Apparently everything was just a poor man’s illusion. If my girlfriend, the nicest, sweetest woman in the world thought this was laughable, than no other girl would think any better of it.

Creeps flew up my spine. I frowned, and left the premise.

We broke up and I could not bring myself to speak to her ever again for she represented very well the other side that I was up against. It was not a single woman that I was facing. It was the whole Chinese female population.

My friend whom I had told this to, Kelvin, said I was wrong. We were, in fact, up against the whole of female population which was becoming more and more self-centered, selfish, greedy and money-focused. For he had friends who had friends who live in other parts of the world. He said all women were the same.

In some countries like Japan or Korean the men had it worse because most of the women did not work, unlike most Chinese women, so they had even more incentive to make the husband-picking threshold ever higher and the process ever more excruciating to ensure their future lives were completely foolproof. Meanwhile in South East Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, most women made more money than men because of the abundance of opportunity to work in foreign countries as household helpers who, by virtue of relative health of the foreign economies, could afford them to be ever more critical of their male suitors.

Unfortunately for me, he added, as if he was doing much better than me, I drew the short stick. Being an engineer, I was quintessentially boring and unromantic already because of my profession and natural disposition that led me to this career path. This was wrong, of course, because I considered my virtual reality proposal trick a romantic feat, but I didn’t bother correcting him.

At thirty three, I was broke, without a girlfriend and without a prospect of having one, up against the whole of female population.

This was the problem.

A very big problem.

Chapter 2: The Problem is Not The Problem

If only there was a solution to every problem in this world, there would be no need for engineers.

The one at hand, the biggest problem I had ever encounter, was so challenging that I decided to dedicate my whole life into solving it, so I would never be out of work in a sense.

There was a Chinese saying that went like this: If you are resolute, you could sand down a steel rod into a thin needle. And hence day and night I thought about the girlfriend problem. I caught myself smiling to myself a couple times, and smiled even more at myself for having smiled at myself because I have finally found a problem so worthwhile I could not stop thinking about it.

And eventually I figured it out. The problem I thought was a problem was not a problem at all. There were more men at marriage age than women in China was not a problem. Most men could not afford to live up to the standards of living most women in China desired was not a problem. Women were in high demand in the marital market while men were not was not a problem. Couples broke up because of financial squabbles was not a problem. My girlfriend left me was not a problem. I had a hard time looking for a new girlfriend without improving my financial status was not problem. None of the above were problems. They were phenomenons .

The real problem was, I live in such circumstances and I believe that my individual life would be subjected to the generalization these phenomenons highlighted. So the problem was really in my head. I did not need to accept all these phenomenons to be the governing rule of my life, even if it was for the society as a whole. I could be the exception. I could be the fish that swim upstream. I could break out.

There was a million thing I could do. I could work harder and make more money. I could save on frivolous things and focus on saving up for the big things that women care about, like brand named handbags and foreign breed puppies. I could borrow money to invest in stocks or start a business and get my foot into the door to the better world. I could maybe even send my resume for the thirteen time to Google to get a position there, which was like the golden ticket to a life of reasonable comfort which many could only dreamt of. This sounded actually like a good plan.

I conveyed my newfound confidence to Kelvin. He said nonchalantly that he was once like me. And in fact, there were a lot of me’s out there. All the me’s were thinking we could break out and be different. We could walk in the opposite direction from the shoving herd of sheep. We would eventually be trampled all over by the rest of the pushing herd.

He explained that there was no way one could jump from one social class to another via traditional means, not even working a white collar job. Working for oneself by starting a business was in his eyes an even worse gamble, because that meant giving up a stable income over the unknown mystical future where only one in a billion succeeded in building something that one could live off with. Saving up money was in his eyes a must but he had an excellent point that with the low interest rate any interest accrued from the saved sum would be negligible. Any money would be better off invested. He asked if I had some good investment ideas already in mind that could be started with the amount of money I had in my bank account. Given that I had a negative balance, that was where the conversation stopped.

In the end we settled on improving my looks. A charming look could go a long way. I was quite satisfied with my own look but he told me to count the number of women who passed by us on the streets and smiled at me. I went out of the cafe and stood by its window. I smiled for five minutes like a creep at all female creatures that walked by and none of them returned my smile, not even the chihuahua in the hands of an old lady.

Admittedly, that experience made me feel like an idiot. My friend had made his point.

I thought improving my looks would mean making me more attractive looking, like shaving regularly, putting gel in my hair and style it like I was a Vogue model, or even going to the gym to improve my muscle weight. Turned out, “Dress up like you’re rich.” was his advice.

Even in China, we knew this to be “pulling a Don Quixote”.

Chapter 3: The Don Quixote Solution

 

The Don Quixote solution was not a very robust one. I was however an empiricist. I decided to still give it a go.

While I was not a rich man nor was I born into a rich family, I did have a relatively financially stable and sheltered life. I lived with my parents who rented an apartment in a high rise in the middle of the city. I was the only child. This meant that I was being treated as a little God since the day I was born. They were used to growing up the same way, being also the lone child and only offspring on whom their parents could cast all their dreams and hopes.

Having a boy was an absolute honor to the Chinese family, notwithstanding the fact that as a boy you get a lot of perks which were part of the patrilineal system that had long been seen as the only way to deal with inheritance in China. A boy had the right to inherit old lands from your father who received it from his father, who in turn received it from his own father and so on. The tradition had it also that a family line was tracked only from the male side, which meant if you had, based on the one-child policy, produced a girl, your family line would come, quite sadly really, to an end at your generation. This was not only financially inconvenience, it was a shame to your family.

Some people did not have land to inherit to begin with, and some people did not mind conventions. Some others respected nature's chance of game where there was always a 50% chance of conceiving a girl and 50% chance of conceiving a boy. Then there were some people who thought they could profit from raising a child, regardless of gender to increase household income, especially when the girl reached marriage age. Custom had it that a dowry must be paid by the groom's family to the bride's family as a show of goodwill before marriage.

The dowry could go anywhere from a pair of coconuts to a million dollar mansion with seaview at the Shanghai Bund and beyond. In these days and age, those that made the decision to keep a girl (thank God they did) were blessed. For there was an abundance of men who overwhelm the market with labourers, engineers, doctors, architects, and other stereotypical male profession seekers, and there was not enough women in workplaces where you would expect more of them.

The society was certainly turning upside down by this imbalance of genders. Personally, as I was saying, I had lived relatively well taken care of. I had a job at an ecommerce startup in the middle of the city as a software engineer. It did not pay much, and in fact way below international average for software engineer of my calibre that mastered the same skillset but it paid the bills. Due to the fact that I had started out much earlier in the field of smartphone application development than a lot of people who came in waves after app development became a hype, I could sit in my position rather comfortably as a senior figure in the team, delegating work to the young engineers and doling out criticism or compliments, when needed, to them to further secure my position of indispensibility in the office when the bosses would eventually come around.

Without the going-out expense from when I was in relationship such as movie tickets, dinner bills and presents, I could cut down my spending dramatically. I did not need to pay for food (lunch at work and dinner at home), nor did I have any fixed expense such as phone, internet or TV bills because the company paid for my smartphone contract which entitled me to unlimited high speed internet which I could use to stream any TV program online I wanted to watch for free.

In a few months when my debt would be settled, I would be officially out of the “long term salary end” league which had, according to my unofficial calculation, at least three hundred million unwilling members.

With the promising prospect, I ignored the fact that I had yet to settle my debt and went ahead to buy me two pairs of new trousers, two pairs of new leather shoes, a pair of brand name sunglasses and three featured outfits (I was too lazy to mix and match myself) on display in the windows of a department store on Nanjing Road.

I felt my face and my ears reddening when I was trying to pay the fourty thousand worth of clothings at the counter with my credit card. I knew it would go through, but I still felt like a thief. Never in my life have I spent such a large sum of money in one go in such a short time, on frivolous, aesthetic items. The money I was spending did not feel real. It was as if I have simply taken it from someone else and played it off as my own (which was kind of true for any kind of borrowed money, especially one with 17% interest). My heart pounded as the cashier checked my signature on the bill against the one on the card.

The pretty girl at the cashier did not pay any extra attention to me that I was expecting when my card did go through for my large purchase. I supposed women who worked in stores like that were used to seeing big purchases. I made a point to never date a shopkeeper from a reasonably flourishing business.

The next day I went to the office with my new outfit. Nobody paid me any attention.

I told my friend about it and he said that it was useless to be fashionable in a software company. There were very few women to begin with and they were likely all taken. I should expose myself to environment more conducive to me finding a girlfriend, such as a bar or a party.

Partying and dancing have never been my thing, but drinking I could do with reasonable familiarity and skills. I decided to begin there.

Chapter 4: The Correct Way To Showing Off

On Friday evening, my friend asked me to wait for him at the bar of the Hilton Tower’s Snake Lounge on the 60th floor. In my new outfit, I was instructed to order a whiskey on rocks next to any group of boring looking males I could find. After about five minutes, I could locate such a group. I stood next to them and waited in line to order my drinks.

During my wait, I should turn around to look at the audience in the club and pose inconspicuously with the bar top supporting my back to show off the details of my expensive suits in various carelessly-waiting-for-a-delayed-friend stance. Two times and not more, should I be looking into my latest imitation Rolex watch that my friend had lended me for the evening and sighed.

A group of girls walked by. The trick I was doing did not get me any attention. So I activated the next level of attraction tactics. I dialed a fake number on my phone and spoke loudly to nobody at the end of the line about a piece of code that I had to write for a client whose name I was supposed to fill in with whatever the top performing A stock company of the day was, and pushed through the middle of the group of girls to deliberately spill drinks on them. The splash range was suppose to be as wide as possible to capture as many of them as I could. And it seemed like I succeeded with a score of three.

At that point I was supposed to hang up my fictitious phone call, apologize and flirtatiously invite them for a drink for their inconvenience. One of the girl however slipped and felt flat on her face. Her friends scrambled to lift her up and they wasted no time to give me a grudged I-never-want-to-see-you-here-again look and brought her to a lounge chair to examine her injury. At that moment I was so flustered and embarassed I had forgotten to remain in my role. I sprinted out of the bar and down the elevator with still the whiskey glass in my hand. When my friend saw me at the lobby he frowned and reprimand me for not taking advantage of the situation further after my ice-breaking event with the group of girls.

What else could I have done but to bolt? I asked him. He said I could go foward and show my gallantry by participating in some saving-the-girl-who-slipped activities. It was easier said than done, when you obviously sensed that you were not welcomed.

My friend said that we needed to fix my social inaptitude, because a rich look alone was probably not going to get me anywhere.

I proposed to get me started off in a lower-level environment. Not the 60th floor of the Hilton Tower but somewhere near the ground, so I could practice my way up. I expressed that I just wanted a girlfriend, not a rich girlfriend who would make me feel uncomfortable and would look down on me. This remark made my friend laughed, for he thought I was stupid for not realizing that a lot of women in fancy places like that were on the lookout for men themselves, ever more so than more down-to-earth places, like the library or neighborhood hotpot spots.

He had a point. It would make sense to be in places where there were a high concentration of women looking for a long-term male companion actively. Was there somewhere else where there would be lots of women hunting for husbands?

Unceremoniously, my friend pulled out his cellphone and pulled up a chatting app. The same one that my ex-girlfriend had shown me her long list of male suitors. I almost dropped the whiskey glass on the marble floor but luckily the bellboy spotted me and cupped it before it did with a smile. I gave him a small tip and returned my mind on the damnable app my friend was showing me.

No way. I told him.

No f-ing way. I would rather live alone forever than meeting someone online.

 

Chapter 5: Hierarachy of Needs

 

I would live on dignity if I could. Apparently no one ever survived with just their egos alone.

Food, shelter, clothes, safety, sanitation, education, health care. I had all of the basic needs of a human fulfilled. There was a newer model published recently that even more accurately depict what a human being needed in the 21st century, which included battery power, wifi and smart gadgets. All these I had, because of my employment, satisfied to a T. Kelvin ridiculed me for being so complacent with my life. There should be, according to him, entertainment, physical and emotional fulfillment and self-actualization. I did not really get what self-actualization meant and neither did my friend I suspect. He probably rattled them off from the Maslow Hierarachy of Needs he found on the internet so I decided there was no need to discuss with him the topic.

I did agree with the pyramids of Maslow. The man seemed to be the authority in the topic because if you google basic human needs, nothing else show up. Five thousand years of Chinese musing and we did not produce any popular theory on the topic? I could hardly believe it.

Most of the time I was quite entertained. I entertained myself with watching American TV series, playing games on Playstation with my friend, going to concerts, listening to pirated version of music online for free, playing pranks on others…the list went on. I was not want of entertainment.

When it comes to physical fulfillment, I played soccer every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, while I coached a team of eleven-year-olds soccer on Sunday I would watch my friends play on the same field in our neighborhood. There was not want of physical exertion. However, I felt energized every single time whether I was playing or when I was watching.

In terms of emotional life, I had wonderful parents, good group of friends from soccer, bosses that do not give me a hard time and reasonably obedient underlings at work that did not dare to challenge me as of yet. Emotionally I had a rather sophisticated fabric of interactions with people from diverse backgrounds, genders and ages interweaving through my life giving it color.

Counting up to here, I could see myself being fairly well off compared to a lot of people who would have trouble counting their blessings up the pyramid to this level. While I still did not know what self-actualization that sat on the top level of the pyramid meant, I could believe that if I knew I would be able to say something positive about it as well in my life.

My good friend, as good friend would do, torn that impression into shreds one day by showing up to our midday chat every Friday afternoon at the neighborhood coffee place with his new, insanely hot girlfriend. She wore a tight light blue dress that accentuated her figure so much no pair of eyes wander anywhere else but her body between the coffee drinkers.

With his right arm, my friend hugged his goddess of a girlfriend on the waist tugging accidentally her skirt an inch higher than it should, exposing her white pearly thigh as they sat down in the couch opposite to mine.

Immediately I felt that something was missing from my life.

A woman.

A hot woman.

Chapter 6: Hot

 

As much as I loved my ex-girlfriend, I would not call her hot.

Hot women do not make good wives, that was common knowledge, but hot women definitely make good girlfriends. They burnt your insides with just small movements of their bodice and if you were to be in close quarters of them, you would find yourself drowning in sweats and sound of your own heartbeats.

Never in my life had I felt that towards my own girlfriend for she had made it very clear we were to behave properly until we would be married. For whatever reasons I found that acceptable, given that a woman was like a flower which should be cherished and handled delicately. There was no thoughts of transgression of the physical boundaries between us nor was there real motivation until we get married, because we were supposed to. I did not mind the wait.

Now however being confronted by this visual display of hotness brought on to me unprepared and unjustly by my most trusted friend, I felt an onset of jealousy. Of having missed out. Of being betrayed. I wanted to avenge him for my humiliation. A hot girlfriend would serve him right.

So I made up my mind to use the chatting app and only meet the hottest women I could find in my vicinity. Turned out they were easier to find than I thought. Their photos brandishing their beautiful face and occassionally their decollettes and further on their profile pages, open to public browsing by anyone within 100 mile radius. Their adopted Western names conjured up imagery of angels descending from heavens.

Gingerly I sent out my first chat to a stranger, which received no reply after two days. After that, having understood the high chance of being ignored even on the internet, I became more emboldened and I started sending out more and more messages to these beautiful strangers.

And that was when things started to look up for me.

There were online interactions which were way beyond what I had ever made with my ex-girlfriend. I felt like I have discovered the secret of the world. No man would ever be left emotionally and physically destitute again with such an app which granted one direct access to thousands and thousands of beautiful women.

After spending the 2nd hour of chat with someone whose handle I forgot, since there were so many, but had a beautiful face, I agreed to meet her.

The girl whose name and face were both Angelique.

Angelique quickly seduced me to bed. We ended up naked in a love hotel off the main road a hundred meters from the cafe we met. Her bosoms were as huge as they appeared on the photographs she posted online. I squeezed them over and over again, and started to lick them as if I was a dog licking a tasty bit of bone, forgetting any kind of decency.

Just when I was about to come, having a beautiful woman riding on top of me for over a minute, with her clothes on --- it was really difficult to control myself in face of an actual woman and not the ones that I saw behind a computer screen --- the door to our hotel room got busted open. Two men rushed in and started to yell at me. Angelique quickly got up, unfazed and wrapped herself with the blanket which was half covering my legs. I was now completely exposed to the eyes of those intruding strangers.

They wanted money from me, for the damaged that I had done to one of the man’s honey.

Apparently Angelique was one of the man’s girlfriend. This man though was completely focused on extorting money out of me. He did not stop snapping photographs of me with his cell phone until some hotel staff came over to look at what was happening. They scurried away as quickly as they could as soon as they saw the obscenity and smelt the dangers of imminent violence.

I cried out weakly to them for help to no avail and could do nothing but to cover my private part and face with each of my hand to defend against the assault of the man’s camera.

Just when I thought I would never get out of this alive, the other man found my wallet and two thousand yuan in it. I had taken two thousand yuan out to pay my part of my cousin’s wedding gift. The man grabbed the money and stuff it in his pocket. He beckoned the others to leave. I felt my wallet smashed against my rib cage as they slammed the door shut and disappeared, leaving me behind in a messed up hotel room and an emptied wallet to commiserate my first time with a real woman.

I could not tell whether the hotel staffs were in on the scams. They must have, assuming that they had stayed in pretty much the same type of premises throughout their careers, seen enough dramas playing out in their workplaces to know what to do. Turned out they did not call the police nor did they attempt to acknowledge the atrocity that just happened to me. The bill still needed to be paid, and it included a hefty surcharge for replacing broken furniture.

 

Chapter 7: Scammers

 

There were not many thing I kept to myself, but being scammed to my last piece of clothing was something that I would never share with anyone, not even my best friend.

Ever since that experience with Angelique, I grew ever more suspicious of the internet thing. What I experience was a classical scam. Millions of times I had seen it on television dramas and movies. More than anger, I felt shame. Being an engineer, I did not make good observations and sufficiently analyze the situation before surrendering my trust to a complete stranger. There was of course the silver lining that I did make my first sexual encounter with a real attractive woman, regardless of the reason why she would accept the abuse by her allegedly lover to make money off of gullible men with her body and share the profit with them. (I certainly hope she gets the bigger share.)

Admittedly this was somewhat like a transaction, though as I had no prior knowledge of what was to come, I found that the two thousand yuan well worth it. Even when I closed my eyes for the next few evenings, I could still see Angelique angelical faces and her plumb seductive body as her imaginary presence straddled over me on the soft bed of the hotel room.

It might sound strange to you, but my grown suspicion did not stop me from making more connections with beautiful women on the chatting app, nor did I become weary of face-to-face rendezvous. I more than tripled the amount of time I spent on this whole activity everyday since the unfortunate event perhaps, because I was curious. And now that I had been scammed once, I felt like it could not happen to me again. And if it did, since the first time wasn’t so bad, as money usually could solve most problems in China, I just need to make sure I was alert and explored the most while controlling the damage to the minimum.

So that was how my contact list grew. It had been stabled for as long as I remembered since I got a smart phone. Occasionally I would make new entry for practical contact numbers like the numbers for my girlfriend’s favorite hotpot restaurant, the hair salon which I was mandated by her to visit every two and a half months, the computer repair shop whose owner promised to contact me whenever he had some new imported PC games I could make a copy of for a fraction of the selling prices and so on. Recently I have been adding numbers of beautiful women with eye-sucking (a popular Chinese term on the internet) quality to my contact list which made me feel like I was finally growing up to be the man I was supposed to be. This was how an adult male should live, with at least a handful of beautiful women waiting at home for my booty call. The last part is of course imaginary. I did not think any of them actually wait for my call as anxiously as I wanted them to be. Still I got the numbers and as long as I got the means, I could get to an end.

Let me introduce you then to my repertoire of ladies. ---- There was Kiki, who was a twenty one year old studying in the Science Institute to be a chemist. She had one year to graduation but her hobby was to meet men online and scam them into buying expensive goods for her so she could show off in front of her classmates. Her tactics were fairly simple. All she needed to do was to suggest possible advancement in the relationship when certain desire for expensive objects of hers were fulfilled.

Janice was a lovely girl, and she was a bit absent-minded. She forgot her wallet every single time she went out. Regardless of what it was, she would suggest to split the bill or even shoulder it herself, and then found herself without any money. Men were supposed to be the breadwinner, yes, still in the 21st century China, so whether they were simply an acquaintance, a friend or a boyfriend, as men they were bounded by traditions to feel ashamed that their female friend even suggested the notion of paying, and to save face, they would seize the opportunity presented to them when Janice was in need of help to show that they can take good care of her. Willingly they would open your wallet for her.

Occasionally, the beauty of a woman can mask her treachery side. Lucy loved fixing up machines. She knew how cars work and with a group of friends she joined racing rallies every week. All suitors need to do to win her favors was to win a rally, which was of course fixed because the car they were assigned were always under-performing because of some mechanic’s tricks. They would end up losing regardless of how hard they tried and were generally humiliated so much they forget about the bet money they were losing to their opponents which could be well in the thousands.

Then there was Mariam who looked like the singer Miriam Yeung but since she did not graduate from middle school, she could not spell her namesake properly. Her specialty was, coincidentally, singing. She loved to take men to karaoke. In these dark little private rooms filled with booming noises from the karaoke box of the room and the neighboring ones, she would get real up close to the men who were already engrossed in her good voice and genuine performance, and slip her naughty fingers into their pockets to fish out their wallets.

And let us not forget little Nancy. She had taken one too many men to her parents house for dowry discussion. Of course before such a discussion could be made, there had to be a marriage proposal. Eliciting marriage proposal is Nancy’s specialty. Being the heir of a prospering business (at least that is the story she always tell) and a woman of above average looks, it takes no more than three months for marriage proposals to come on average. She usually ran a couple of scams in parallel so she had a fish belly (a term to describe her naive targets) coming in less than every three months. Despite that this scam required considerable effort, having to feign the role of a girlfriend so perfectly she could be considered by men to be their future wives, the return of investment for her scheme was much higher than all the other ones I had mentioned.

A marriage proposal these days involved at least a diamond ring on silver or gold, a bouquet of flowers and a nice romantic dinner at a fairy tale location. After she had accepted the gift, she would then bring her fiance of the moment to her parents’ house, which was customary in Chinese tradition to properly ask for her hand from her father, at which point her father would without a doubt gets emotionally fired up and chase the man out of her house, asking him to never see her daughter again because he was no match for his precious daughter. The parents were of course no blood relations of hers. They were actors in her grand scheme.

I thought my social ineptitude would hinder the development of relationship between me and these beautiful women, but turned out none of the ladies got put off by it, since they were not planning on a life long relationship with me, except when I could guarantee a lifetime of satisfaction to their extravagance and greed. They had multiple targets every time, and I was only one of them. When you had a collection of something they were more or less going to stick to the Gaussian distribution in terms of personality.

 

Chapter 8: Fun and Games

 

It sounded counter intuitive, but it was not an exaggeration to say that it was not too bad to be cheated by these beautiful women. Everything in this world was give and take. Scammers do not simply take something from you without giving something up. Online fraudster-dating had gained me a lot more hours of facetime with real women. And having being so much more alert than I would had been had Angelique did not completely annihilate my self-confidence about how observant and world-smart I was, I felt like if I remain attentive, I could maximize my gain while minimizing my loss. I could feign dumb and play along until the last moment. If these women were set out to deceive me, there was really no reason why I could not do the same to waste their time for some female companionship.

I did understand that I was sampling a subset of Chinese women who were amazing in looks between the age of 18 to 32, spent an awful lot of time on their phones and playing in particular only dating apps interacting with more than one man at a time and were interested more about monetary gain than having a good time. There was very little direct contribution these encounters would make towards my long term goal of finding a life partner. However, after navigating inside scammerville for about six months, I felt like I have become a different person. I had grown. I started to see the world in different light, the same light that my parents see the world, that reality was not all fun and games. I realized that men’s natural attraction to women made us such easy targets for bamboozlement, whilst women’s natural attraction to men that could provide and protect, mostly manifested in terms of wealth, made them such easy targets to be exploited.

I never thought I would have these thoughts crossing my mind. I was the epitome of all Confucius virtue --- loyal, honest, hard-working (up to a certain point), meek individual. To think of human relationship as some kind of transactions or even con games was completely foreign to fine Chinese specimen of mankind like me. Yet here I was, crunching the numbers on the balance sheet of love (I am not even sure you can call it love) --- 62 thousand yuan spent, 193 drinks consumed, 45 dinners, 41 times hand-holding, 32 kisses, 18 condoms consumed. If I were to compete against myself in the parallel universe where I try to meet girls the traditional way, I would win by a couple of trips to the moon and back.

Thinking back to the day when my best friend showed up to our weekly coffee with his hot girlfriend, I smirked. It was about time to show him my ladies as well.

I did not have to wait until our weekly coffee for an opportunity. His girlfriend posted on Happy Net (Chinese Facebook) that he had been ran over by a truck while he was motorcycling on the highway, something that he was not supposed to do but did regularly anyway. He was apparently lucky enough not to suffer any major injury but a concussion to his head. On the Happy Net post his girlfriend posted, he was able to sit up on the hospital bed, smiling weakly, and made a triumphant V sign with his right hand. His head was wrapped in a ball of bandages. I scrambled to the hospital while trying to call one of my many girlfriends, hoping one would be available and bring an empty soup container so I could pour some market-bought nourishing soup, a standard gift to someone recovering, in it to bring it to my friend at the hospital.

Time and time again I was disappointed. Nobody cared. Not even when I already offered the most convenient solution of just showing up and skipping the soup. What if I pick you up? I asked Kiki, Mandy, Sarah and FeiFei. They said they were occupied and would make it up to me next time. MeiLing, YaoYao and Clarisa told me to stop calling them about nonsense and Cindy said she wanted to break up with me and hung up. Queeny seemed to have blocked my phone number all together.

When I arrived, my best friend's parents were also in the room. They were happy to see me. After a short chat about the conditions of my friend, who needed to stay in the hospital for a few more days under doctor's observation, they asked me the inevitable --- Where is your girlfriend? Is she not coming?

The community we lived in was huge but it can feel so small sometimes. If someone you know sees you with a girl, everyone would know about it. They might not know who the girls were, since these girls I met do not come from the same residential area by my clever design, but people would take notice of these little foreigners presence in their neighborhood, with one of their own. Their faces, their outfits, their demeanor, everything is recorded by a collective of individuals who may appear to have nothing to do with each other but turned out all be member of an unspoken society of gossipers and contributed to the gossip file with my name on it regularly. This file was passed by word of mouth from one nosy non-blood related auntie to another bored uncle (we call every one senior than us auntie and uncle even when we are not related), and eventually they would get to the people whom I really know, someone who could subject me to a level of embarrassment I disliked.

At that point, my best friend started laughing. He could only be stopped when he felt his jaw hurt since his mouth was practically wrapped shut by the layers of bandages designed to protect him from any further unnecessary damage to his head. I eyed him suspiciously as his behavior seemed to imply that he knew more than he should. To that, he simply winked back at me and chuckled to himself, as he could not really open his mouth wide.

To his parents, I could only apologize on behalf of my non-existence girlfriend for not showing up. His dad nodded and tapped my back lightly to give me a non-verbal encouragement that seemed to say relationship was hard, or something like that. His mom, an extremely hospitable lady who loved me as if I was her own since I became best friend with my best friend and always hang out at their home, invited us, me and my imaginary girlfriend, to visit again some time soon. I was glad they did not ask for her name, because I could hardly make a choice between all of my girlfriends who were, really, not my girlfriends.

Chapter 9: On The Way Back

 

On the way back home, I decided to go see the Huangpu River. I found an empty bench that was not occupied by resting tourists and couples in love, dropped my backpack on the ground and sat there for a good hour, just looking out.

So many skyscrapers. New ones already popped up whose names I only vaguely remembered. I used to care about these stuff, urban news, city development, interesting architecture, latest achievement of the city that I could boost on rival territories on forums. At that point, I did not even remember having checked the weather recently. So focused was I on meeting girls I was completely beside myself. Fumbling for the bottle of water in my backpack, I realized that I was still that boy who carried water bottle around from home to save money, so that, back then when I still had a saving goal, I could give my ex-girlfriend the life she wanted. I dived deeper into the backpack for my handkerchief to blow my nose.

My life goal used to be to make my ex-girlfriend, then future-wife, and her parents happy, because seeing them happy would make me happy, and that in turn would make my parents happy. There was no greater joy in Chinese parents’ eyes than to see their grown son forms a family and builds a career. The career part was a prerequisite to formation of a family because without a good career, a regular guy like me would never have enough money for all the expenses that was required to get up to the point of forming a family, hence really happiness in a family revolves around the amount of money I had in my disposal.

After thirty three years, I lost my girlfriend and I was even more broke than I was when I had just broken up with her. I wasted a lot of time on women that had no interest in me and lied to myself about how I would be gaining some socializing experience from paying them for their inconvenience. I was such a loser, I was better off dead --- I thought to myself matter of factly.

I walked up to the metal fence that barred me from the river and I thought of Qu Yuan, the patriotic poet slash court adviser that jumped into the river to his death for failing to save his master from harm. He was remembered till this day every Duan Wu festival with dragon boat races. No one would remember me. They would probably considered me a nuisance to the city, ruining the peace of beautiful Huang Pu.

“Can you take a picture of me?”

An American girl holding her iPhone reached out to me. I said, “Sorry…what?” I really was not paying attention.

“Would you hold the camera for me? I would like to have a picture in front of this beautiful skyline.”

Skyline, oh yes. Shanghai famous skyline. There were so many tourists these days along the river. I should have known what she was talking to me about without asking.

Crazy as it may sound, handling an iPhone was a difficult task for someone who had been using Android for as long as he remembered. Occasionally I would slip into the Apple Store to play Angry Bird when I had some time to kill, but operating the iPhone camera on panorama mode did not come natural to me.

“Xie xie nin.” She said to me in Mandarin. A lot of tourists can say thank you, but to say thank you in the polite form, this was the first time.

“Do you speak Chinese?” I asked, in Mandarin. And she replied in fluent, though heavily accented Mandarin that she did and she was an exchange student from Harvard at the Fudan University.

I could not help but praised her on her proficiency. She was not particularly flattered by it. She said that if I were to go to an exchange program in her home country America, I would have to speak English too. That was nothing special about her being able to speak my language. I argued that Chinese was a difficult language to learn, with lots more characters. Smiling, she retorted that I should not treat every non-Chinese as if they were idiots who could not learn the same set of characters that every children in China had to learn to make basic conversations. Embarrassed, I apologized to her for giving her compliments about her Chinese. Intrigued by her intelligence, I invited her to chat over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, also because I was dying to get back indoors since night was falling and the temperature dropped significantly that my hands were frozen. Now that I had something else on my mind and did not want to die, I felt like I should feed my body properly to keep it alive.

Some clients from my freelance work were non-Chinese. I had my fair share of interaction with foreigners and that was why my English was passably fluent. All the conversations I had with foreigners were however so far all business and nothing personal. This was the first time I met a foreigner whom I thought could become my friend. I was intrigued by the possibility. And to my surprised, after having been trained on numerous occasion to talk to girls by meeting them online, I was able to behave rather calmly in the presence of the female gender and not make a fool of myself. I even did the gentlemanly thing to pull out her chair and offered to buy her coffee and cake, which she refused.

“No, don’t do that.” She said. “I can get my own,” and she gave me a smile. So we took turns buying our merchandise.

When we finally both settled down on the opposite end of the coffee table at Starbucks I had learnt, from the shouting barista that her name was Marvey.

I asked her why she decided to come to China, out of all of the places in the world.

“China is fascinating. Everything is so different from where I came from, and so much history. And I love the sound of your language. It made me a more elegant person I think. I felt like my manners are adjusting to the sound of my voice when I speak in Mandarin. Every time I speak, it is like I am reciting poetry. I wish I could stay here longer.” I told her that I never felt that way about my own language.

The disappointment came in quickly after her promising opening introduction. She also had a boyfriend who came to China to join the same exchange program with her. It was a no-brainer for her to join him.

As to the whereabouts of her boyfriend, she said she had no idea. He had not been picking up his phone the whole day today, but that was not unusual she said. Sometimes he needed his privacy and she respected it. Especially in China, she said, where he had lots of friends from his childhood and could easily make new ones, he became harder and harder to reach every day because he had so many engagement apart from school. The more she tried to justify his ignorance, the sadder I felt her voice became. If it was melodic like poetry at the start, now it turned into a recital of an obituary.

Three months into the exchange and she still did not have a proper panorama of herself and her boyfriend in front of the Bund. She thought today was the day but then she said apparently not, with a feeble smile.

I asked her about her boyfriend. He was a Chinese American who looked nothing Chinese to me and more American than an average American I envisioned in my head, consulting knowledge of how they look after watching years of American TV series. From the picture of him she had as a wallpaper of her smartphone, he was a tall and beefy guy. His built was reminiscent of the blue genie from Aladdin, huge head, even huger body. The width of his upper arm muscles seemed to tell stories of men whose neck he wrung in combat. I felt my neck hurt just looking at them.

For whatever reason, I told Marvey that I could be their photographer next time when they come out to the Bund for their panoramas. To boast my photography skills, I showed her the photo albums I had uploaded three years ago onto Flickr which had now twenty thousand or so views.

“Yes, that would be wonderful!” she said to me, smiling brightly while being fascinated by my stills of autumn scenery around Shanghai.

“I want to have a selfie with you,” she said, and before I could answer, she snapped the photograph with the front camera of her iPhone. The sudden flash dazed me but this was the first time I took a photo with a foreign person. Also the first time that a girl posted a photo with me on social media without hesitation. “Sorry! I can’t wait to show off my new Chinese friend,” she smiled apologetically.

To get a copy of the photograph, I “climbed” over the firewall that blocked Facebook and signed up for an account. Marvey became my first Facebook friend.

Chapter 10: Foreign

 

Marvey had seen through me. Perhaps it was the ogling that I inadvertently did whenever we hang out together with her female friends. She knew I want nothing more but to get to know them so she would bring me along whenever there were some exchange students gathering. She said it would do the group good to hang out with local Chinese during their times in China, instead of simply sticking to each other and learnt everything about the rest of the world but the Central Kingdom. I could not agree more with her determination to integrate. I could use some practice for my English as well. I was not planning to stay in China forever, although this was nothing more than just a thought.

Her friends were not all from North America. Majority of them were from Europe, one from Africa, two from South America, and three from Japan. I was most attracted to Marvey’s best friend in the group. Her name was Erika, and she was from Switzerland. Her unmistakably French accent was extremely intriguing. Most of us, not just me, had to pay extra attention to what she said before we could really understand every word, despite her best effort to speak English, or sometimes Chinese. Perhaps it was because of the extra effort that I paid to discern her words that also made me pay her a lot more heed than the others. She was tiny by European standards, her head coming only up to the start of my neck. Her looking up at me with her big round light brown eyes could completely soften my heart, even when she was saying something that no Chinese girl would say, such as telling me straight on that the grandma who tried to squeeze herself on to the crowded bus was a bitch, or that the professor who gave them two assignments to complete by the deadline of Saturday midnight was a slave driver.

I was exhilarated that she chose to confide in me these profane thoughts. Maybe because she knew I would not reprimand her for her lack of manners, as my level of English would not allow me to do that just yet even if I wanted to. And many nice minutes passed by as we, together with the group traveled to various parts of Shanghai on weekends, exploring the city that I grew up in with a fresh pair of eyes.

Marvey’s boyfriend Zhi seldom showed up. The usual excuse was that he knew the city like the back of his hand already since he had lived here till he was six year old and did not require to be showed around again by me, an amateur guide. As a fellow man I knew what he was up to. He was otherwise occupied and he also valued spending time doing something else than spending it with Marvey or their classmates, so much that after six months of Marvey’s exchange program, they barely got any photo together anywhere, let alone the Bund.

Erika called me one time, and the only time since we exchanged phone numbers so we could be in a chat group together in WeChat for sightseeing plans, that she thought Zhi wanted to break up with Marvey and asked me to think of a way to cheer her up the evening before the Saturday when we were supposed to go to the zoo.

Zoo was one of those places where you either go with your friends when you were single, or you go with your boyfriend or girlfriend when you were not. Marvey must have asked the forever elusive Zhi who declined to join and felt rather upset, which prompted Erika to reach out to me about tomorrow’s planning. Marvey was my first foreign friend. She was kind and gentle. She actively seek to learn more about my city and love its culture as if it was her home. She and her friends always treated me like an equal, something that I found it hard to believe given how many years I had been told by the media and everyone who believed the media that foreigners viewed us as an inferior species, and although I knew I do not need to feel grateful, for all men were equal and I deserved just as much respect as the next person, I still felt in debt to her for being my friend. If she was upset, I was upset. Tomorrow, I decided, would be the most wonderful day she had in Shanghai since she arrived under my supervision.

Just wait and see.

Chapter 11: Happiest Day

 

The last time I had to plan a Happiest Day for someone was for me and my girlfriend’s third year anniversary. That was when I proposed to her and it was as far as I remember, counted as one of the happiest moments of our relationship. Her mother was smiling from ear to ear when I sent her home that evening and my mom, when I told her about it, shed tears that turned her azure handkerchief dark blue. That was a decorative handkerchief she tucked in front of her chest which she never intended to used. Dad and I knew what that meant.

I thought to that day as blueprint for Marvey’s Happiest Day in Shanghai and as I was thinking back to these happy moments, I saw more of that day that I did not realize before. My ex-girlfriend had a slight frown on her forehead when she saw me kneel in front of her at the Tianai Road after we visited the Lu Xun Museum that day. She was reluctant to put on the Virtual Reality goggles when I offered it to her instead of what she thought might be a box with a ring from my backpack. Little did I notice that her hands were balled into fists when my marriage proposal animation played out virtually on the screen of her glasses in which she would receive a bouquet of a hundred red roses the size of my palm and a diamond ring the size of an egg, bigger than anything you could ever find in real life without breaking your bank. When she took off her glasses a group had gathered around us making photographs.

It baffled me to see those signs of negative emotions now I was replaying the scenes in my head. Had I been really too blind to see that she was already disappointed when I proposed to her. If she was really unsatisfied with my proposal, why had she accepted it. Was it because she thought I could not have done any better? On one hand I was glad she spared me the humiliation in public, on the other hand, would it not have been better for us if she had not let me lived under the illusion that I was making her happy and led me to total destruction only long after I had committed a foul, when I thought nothing could go wrong anymore?

Randomly I stumbled on to her Weibo profile. I had turned off notifications from her and had not read her profile since we broke up lest I would see something that make me sad. Turned out that was a good decision, for I did not like what I saw. Twelves days ago it was her birthday and her new boyfriend had booked a table at Flair Rooftop restaurant and presented her with a three layer pink birthday cake. She perched on the tabletop with her eyes closed and was making a wish on the photograph she posted on Weibo which was now her profile picture. On the side there was a red suede box that said the dreaded letters, Cartier.

***

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Shanghai Nobody

Shanghai Nobody is book one of the fiction series, Master Shanghai. It is the story of one young Chinese man's adventure to find love and purposes in the 21st century Chinese metropolis. Written in humorous tone, author Vann Chow brought to you a satire of urban life in China. Her story explores cultural phenomenons such as China's gender imbalance, selfish generation, new rich, migrant workers, digital loneliness and Capitalist tyranny, reflecting on the glamorous and not-so-glamorous side of the rise of a modern nation through the eyes of one nobody of Shanghai.

  • Author: Vann Chow
  • Published: 2016-01-20 10:40:09
  • Words: 49190
Shanghai Nobody Shanghai Nobody