X.H. Collins | The foreign devil

The Foreign Devil was called so because no one knew what his real name was and because he did not look like anyone else in town, Han or Tibetan. Years later, when I saw a picture book of Santa Claus, I thought to myself, “If Santa Claus would lose so much weight that his cheeks were sunken rather than plump, that his color was grayish rather than rosy, and, if he would change his velvet-red robe with white-fur trim into a worn, green Revolutionary Army coat, and his hat with an old, dirty Revolutionary Army cap, but keep his round little glasses perched on the tip of his nose, then the Santa guy would somehow become the Foreign Devil.”

I never knew where the Foreign Devil was from, either, or why he had his little repair shop, a stand, really, outside of the bookstore, or how he knew about fixing watches, clocks, and locks. He was the only repairman in town.

Watches were luxury items. My father bought one for my mother, using money he got from writing for the local newspaper. When my mother’s friends visited our apartment for their Little Red Book study group, she held out her wrist to show them the watch, a Baoshihua, “gem flower” beauty made by Shanghai No.2 Watch Factory. Each woman took a turn to examine, touch and praise the watch, and I heard lots of “woos” and “aahs” while pretending to work on my math pad. Later when I saw a woman holding out her hand to show off a diamond ring, I remembered my mother, how she held her hand out more or less the same way.

Not only no watches, most people did not have any clocks either. There was no need to be anywhere at a particular hour, most of the time. Still, the Foreign Devil always seemed to be busy working on something, his head bent over his desk, his round little glasses, thick as the bottom of a beer bottle, perching on the tip of his nose. Maybe he was fixing paddle locks, the one thing people did have: if they ever needed to lock their doors, they used paddle locks.

How he came into possession of his peculiar outfit, the Revolutionary Army coat and cap, which he wore all year round, even in the brief summer months, was another mystery. Worn and dirty as they were, and without the red collar badges on the coat and the red star on the cap, these were still the Revolutionary Army clothing, which most people considered high fashion at the time. Sure, only real soldiers wore coats with badges and caps with stars. Even so, army outfits without adornments still announced to the world, unmistakably, that whoever wore them had the means of getting them. Whatever those means were, they commanded awe and respect from the rest of the world, from all those who did not have them.

When the teenagers walked by his repair stand after school, the boys would yell, “Hey you, Foreign Devil, what do you say if I give you a pack of cigarettes for your Army coat? No? You stingy little old Foreign Devil! Watch out! I’ll take it from you anyhow!” Inevitably cheers and laughter would erupt, and if there were any girls around, the yelling was usually louder and the laughter heartier. The Foreign Devil would smile, showing a couple of his missing teeth, and then lower his head back to work.

That was 1976, and I was nine years old. My father worked at the bookstore. My mother taught at the same elementary school where I was a student. I went to my father’s workplace every day after school since my mother always had meetings to attend after the kids were let out. The school and bookstore were about a block apart on the same street. There were very few cars on that street, which was so narrow that women on the opposite sides of it often chatted with each other as if they were in their living rooms, when in fact they were in front of their homes, doing laundry with their wooden wash boards in their wooden wash tubs with mottled red paint.

I usually took my time to walk down the brick sidewalk, kicking around pebbles and picking up sticks. I liked the gray and raining days in the spring when I could slosh through puddles, and the bright and snowy days in the winter when I could make a trail with my footprints. At the end of the street, I came to the bookstore and saw the Foreign Devil and his stand. The Foreign Devil had been around long before I was even born; he was there when my parents came in the early sixties, but 1976 was the year I first started to notice him.

I did not have as much interest in his army outfit as in the occasional candy he had to offer. Rumor had it that he sometimes gave kids candies, but parents warned kids to stay away from him. Most kids were scared of him anyway. I asked my father if Foreign Devil was his real name; if so what a strange name it was! Did he eat children by luring them with candies? Was that why we needed to stay away from him? “Nobody knows,” my father answered. “He mostly just minds his own business. So mind your own business, too. Don’t bother him.”

But oh, the lure of candies! Each year, on June 1st, International Children’s Day, my parents took me to stand in line at the grocery store, a ration coupon in hand, so I could get about a pound of hard candy, our allotment for the year. This candy was so precious I even saved the wrappers─flattened out and put away carefully in an empty tin moon cake box.

One day, as I was walking to the bookstore, the Foreign Devil waved for me to come closer. I took a couple of steps and stopped. He held his hand out and produced a lollipop, like I had only seen in a picture book! The rainbow colors swirled sweetly at me. I swallowed hard, advanced a couple more steps, stopped, then ran up and grabbed it from his hand and dashed towards the bookstore. Of course my father had to poke his head out right at that moment before I had any chance of getting rid of the evidence. He asked me where I got the candy. I had not yet learned not to answer every question my parents asked, so I pointed to the repair stand.

“Did I not tell you to stay away from him? You are not to take any candy from him ever again! Do you understand?” My father was not happy.

“Is it because he’s a Foreign Devil?”

“It is because kids should not take candies from strangers!”

“But he’s not a stranger!” I argued. “I see him every day!”

“Do you know his name? Do you know who his family is? Do you know where he’s from? You don’t know anything about him! So he is a stranger. And I said it clearly: no candies from strangers! You must learn to be careful.”

My parents were always very careful. They had to be. My father’s family had owned some farmland. Even though my grandfather was the one who worked the land for the most part, he did occasionally hire helping hands, which qualified him as a member of the exploiting class, Boxue Jieji. So my father ended up always being the last in line for opportunities such as going to college or getting a job. He came to this mountain town in east Tibet because he was assigned to work here—a place most people tried to stay away from—a bumpy, three-day’s bus ride from the capital city, and known for its harsh and long winters. My father had majored in physics in college as he had intended to become an aerospace engineer. The people in charge of assigning jobs did not know what to do with him after they had installed the other two physics majors, my father’s friends, in the local high school as teachers. “We don’t need a third physics teacher. How about the bookstore? You people are usually happy there.”

My mother came from a city where her parents owned the only photo studio, so she was considered capitalist elite, or at least a bourgeoisie who needed to be re-educated by the working class. She came to attend the local teacher’s college and became an elementary teacher after that.

My parents learned along the way that one could not be too careful with what one said, with whom one became friends, or what books one read, or at least were seen reading. I only realized much later, as a grown-up, how clever they were under the circumstances. Back then I did not know how lucky I was to be able to spend time in a bookstore reading books. That’s where I got my education, snuggled nicely under the counter where I could hear the muffled sounds of people coming in and out of the store but could not be bothered by anyone. I inhaled the smells of the books before I even opened them: the scent of the fresh printing ink of texts that had never been opened before, and the faintly dusty, even moldy, smell of old books that were last opened who knew when. I read translated books of Dickens, Hugo, and Gorky, among others, abbreviated editions of the Four Chinese Classics–The Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin–and picture stories of famous Chinese opera and drama classics. I laughed, cried, and thought about people who lived and things that happened far away and long ago. I became a bookworm right there under the counter, and, even today, what gives me the most pleasure is a cup of coffee (I made the switch from tea a couple of years ago) and a good book.

Years later, my father told me the reason the books survived the Cultural Revolution, which was practically a miracle. He had plastered Chairman Mao’s portraits from wall to wall, all over the store. Anyone who might have wanted to come in and mess things around inevitably would have messed up the portraits of the great leader, so the books stayed put.

My father pulled the same trick when my mother, pregnant with me, had to go back to her hometown to give birth. He arranged for them to ride in a bookstore truck transporting Chairman Mao portraits. “We were not stopped once by any of the Red Guards,” my father said proudly over a glass of Maotai at the dinner table when I turned thirty. “There were many of them, some more like bandits than high school students. It took us five days to cover six hundred and ten kilometers, but we came out unscratched.”

(Continued)

 

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