By Yan Ge, first published in Stand 213, 15 (1) March-May 2017
‘So the pandas, the pandas are just lazy. On top of that, spoiled with the sense of privilege, they are mostly nihilists these days.’ I was outside a glittering nightclub, telling this to the group of Portuguese writers. ‘They don’t really enjoy food and they hate staying outdoors. And you know what? They don’t feel like having sex. That’s the real issue. Because they need to reproduce or they go extinct, right? So people have to get porn for them. Panda porn. Pandas having sex on some videotape. They show that to them during the breeding season so they’ll feel like sleeping together and pop out some panda babies, hopefully.’
‘No way!’ one of them burst out, laughing hysterically.
‘Yep, that is what they do there,’ I said.
‘This is nuts! Do you mind if I write this into one of my stories?’ he asked.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Because apparently I couldn’t use it anyway. Because if I write about pandas as a Chinese writer I’ll be frowned upon. So, it’s yours. Be my guest.’
‘Deal.’ He seemed pleased. ‘So I’ll write about this. Pandas trying to kill themselves by not having sex.’
‘The Panda Suicides,’ I said. ‘Remember to use first person plural narration.’
At the same time, a festival guy came out from night club to fetch us. We flocked in. To consume some alcohol would be a good idea. I thought.
Little did I know that I would, in fact, go back on my words. I’d sit in the living room of this little cottage and write about pandas and the panda suicides as if the pandaness in this room was not already intense enough.
When we first moved into this cottage in August I bought a panda doorstopper. But, most of the time, it didn’t stop the door, or anything else. It just lay on the carpet, appearing calm and tramplable. I mean, I didn’t want to bully it. But, when you lived with your husband in his country, it was always good to have a third object upon which to vent your most unexpected rage. In this case, I even made it a home boy.
Someone came to visit and saw the panda doorstopper. ‘How adorable!’ she proclaimed. ‘Did you bring it from China?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I got it from Marks and Spencer’s.’
A similar scenario occurred when we were out drinking at a bar. My husband was watching Gaelic football with his friend and I was chatting with the friend’s girlfriend. They’d just started seeing each other and the girl looked refreshed and glowing. We drank red wine together and laughed over some feminist jokes. I liked her instantly and I could tell she liked me too.
The significance of having a girlfriend in a new city can never be overstated. I was really happy. I went to the bathroom and when I got back I kissed her on her right elbow.
‘Wow!’ She was flattered. ‘Nobody ever did this to my elbows. Is this a Chinese tradition?’
‘No,’ I said, squatting by her. ‘It’s just me.’ And I stood up.
A few days after that, when I was home alone with the panda doorstopper, I realised that a panda, even a panda which served the mere function of doorstopper, deserved its individuality. I decided to name it. I decided to call it Brian.
‘Hi Brian, how’re you doing there?’
Strangely enough, the moment these words were uttered, the permanent dull and impersonal expression was lifted from him. Instead, he became sympathetic and sad, even.
‘I know,’ I said to him. ‘The malfunction of cognition towards particularity in the trans-culture interaction, huh?’
As a guest at the Script Road International Literature Festival, I enjoyed my week in Macau very much. In fact, I enjoy all international literature festivals very much. What can be more fun than departing from everyday life, abandoning the mediocrity and discretion involved, and indulging instead in a wonderland where literature is still considered an essential cog of modern life? At a literature festival, you can be as cynical as you want.
Plus, to run the Stereotype Detector over writers from different countries can be very entertaining, if you don’t take the political incorrectness of this very idea into consideration. American writers refer to Big Names in Contemporary Literature with a suspicious sense of intimacy; Korean writers are unnaturally polite and self-restrained except when they drink; writers from the UK manage to use adjectives with an exceptional sophistication; Irish writers are either very outgoing or dreadfully quiet but when they drink they go to the other extreme; writers of the Arab world have beautiful female visitors, they don’t really talk to you, yet they always add you on Facebook afterwards. Etc.
In Macau, all the Portuguese writers had a story about a girl they’d met in high school. They were desperately in love with this girl and did not know what to do, so, to try win her over, they wrote poetry. One of them told this story the first day on a panel talk, and the second day, when we went to a university for some reading, another writer answered the question, ‘How did you become a writer?’ with the same story, and later, when we were drinking at the night club with sponsors from casinos, someone mentioned this high school romance again.
All of them claimed their story to be true so I had no choice but to believe that the inspiration for Portuguese literature was this beautiful high school girl.
‘They are born romantics and charmers,’ a Chinese girl from the festival, who lived in Macau for years, commented on the Portuguese.
‘I can tell,’ I nodded, gulping down my Chardonnay.
‘But sometimes they break your heart,’ she said.
‘That is part of being a romantic,’ I said, pouring more wine into my glass.
It was my last night in Macau. The whole festival had a party at a bistro. This girl and I, we were sitting on the stairs outside, drinking Chardonnay, sharing an anonymous cigarette. We were talking in Chinese. We spoke quietly, with indistinctive vowels and blurred consonants, almost like a whisper. We talked about our childhood, the city and writers we like. We talked about the inevitable past and the future we could not predict. The air was saturated with melancholy. All the tourists and gamblers that had packed up the daytime streets had vanished. The city was itself again. It was warm and generous, old and distant.
‘I wonder what will happen to us in the end.’ She leaned on me, rested her head on my shoulder.
‘You’ll be fine, and I’m just gonna move to Ireland this summer,’ I said plainly, throwing away the cigarette.
The local taxis had run the city tourist campaign for years. As soon as you hop in a cab, you’d hear a robotic female voice greeting you from somewhere beneath the meter: Welcome to Chengdu, the home of pandas and the land of abundance. It was absurd if you really think about it. Chengdu was, primarily, the home of its human residents and then cats and dogs and then sparrows and cockroaches and then, only then, somewhere in the countryside, in this Panda Research Centre, lived also a modest number of pandas.
As a local, I’d never been there but my parents-in-law, after hearing this intriguing message from a local cab, insisted we should all go to see the pandas together.
They came to Chengdu to visit us before we made the Big Move. Their son, my husband, had been in this country for five years yet had failed to lure them over until a wife came into the picture. We were thrilled for their visit and took them to various restaurants to try all kinds of Chinese food: minced pork noodles and wontons, tomato hotpot, Uyghur chicken and green pepper, Szechuan stir fries and Cantonese Dim Sum. We had a great time and they wanted me to go to see the pandas with them.
‘I don’t want to see the pandas,’ I protested.
‘Why? Come on! It will be fun!’ my mother-in-law said.
‘She’s never seen the pandas, never been to the panda centre,’ my husband said. I assumed he meant to help me.
‘Why?’ Now my father-in-law was curious.
I couldn’t really say why. Because pandas were spoiled lazy-ass bastards? ‘It is too far outside of the city. Plus, I don’t want to get up early,’ I said eventually.
‘Come on!’ My mother-in-law held my shoulders, delivering her signature smile. ‘Come with us! We’ll have a good time!’
‘We’ll protect you from the pandas. Don’t worry,’ my father-in-law turned back from the front seat and said.
So I went. Pandas 1 – Me 0.
The trip was actually not too bad. The weather was cool and clear. The park was picturesque and quiet. And the pandas, if considered as bears with severe dark eye circles, were enjoyable enough.
At the one of the panda’s homes, a panda was sitting on top of a rock, munching on a twig of bamboo. The visitors hailed. They called out, ‘Panda! Panda!’,
‘Aww, it’s so cute!’, ‘Aww, look at it!’ and other giddy nonsense.
My mother-in-law took out her cell-phone, trying to take a video. ‘I’m going to show this to the kids when I’m back. They’ll be so happy to see this,’ she said. She taught at a primary school for boys in County Mayo. I imagined it would be something for kids there to see a panda eating bamboo. I imagined their faces would be filled with surprise and joy.
This very thought cracked my cynicism towards pandas. I also remembered how carried away I was when I first saw elephants.
Some kids love elephants. Some love giraffes. Some are particularly into sea lions. Some always have a soft spot for hippos. Therefore, pandas deserve to be loved, by some kids, somewhere out in the world.
May the pandas never die. After all, zoos have always been my favourite place.