My first special other is from North Dakota. So naturally, when my first special other calls to ask whether he may speak to me “at your convenience, sir,” Dad hangs up on the foreigner even though I’m home with my door shut. What else can a 250 Dad do? He’s an er-bai-wu. That’s Mom’s phrase for Dad. It means 250. A simpleton. Mom’s Chinese, so that’s the number she uses. I’m half Chinese, so naturally I use the number half the time. Dad knows the word. He’s been living in China for seven years and knows a few words. Laowai, for instance, stands for foreigner. Deng yi xia means to wait a moment.
Mom does the rest. She works for an import-export company in the south that speaks for all the brands, TH, GAP, Wal-Mart, all the biggies. So naturally, Mom spends most of her time in the south, looking for factories that can make a summer coat cheap. That’s crucial. The supplier must make the production deadline. Mom loves to shout about time over Skype. The brands love to digest time. Almost certainly, they like other dishes well enough. There’s more to life than having one dish at a time. For instance, stylish European brands such as Gucci or Prada. For that reason, the brand reps come all the way to China even though they can do practically all their business on Skype and e-mail. They can’t, however, visit the underground market next to the No. 2 subway. Mom says it is the home for some of the best fake labels in all of China, the type with fine gold lettering stitched deep within the fabric. Why else would an entrepreneur purchase a Prada purse or Gucci bag, the brand rep risking a heavy fine of 50,000 Euros along with several years of imprisonment should he or she meet an overly vigilant customs inspector?
The little secretaries are another story. Mom punctuates the phrase little secretary by cupping her hands like she’s forming a pair of breasts with a similar shape and contour. Dad doesn’t particularly like this motion—though Mom does have dainty wrists, not at all the wrists of a businesswoman. We reside in an apartment house in a gated compound near a factory that produces zippered shoes. The factory also produces thin yellow puffs smelling of rotting chrysanthemums, so naturally, when mom’s in town, she makes sure not to waste time with us.
Mom invites the laowai rep from the capital to Tianjin, about twenty-five minutes by bullet train. Our city is the second home of Herbert Hoover, she explains brightly via Skype and takes the laowai to an underground market in a tunnel next to the No. 2 subway. Sometimes I tag along with Mom inside the dark tunnel while she, forgetting my square chin and wavy eyebrows come straight from my uncle, brags to an uninterested customer about how I am the mirror of her younger sister. I smile at the half-truth and, when I can, drag my laowai dad inside the same sprawling tunnel where I play the same game with my Dad as my mom plays with her 250 laowai.
The game is called Lose a Foreigner. First, have the foreigner point (the right index finger only!) at a Gucci purse or zippered Prada bag or vice versa. Then, advise him not to look too closely at the fake gold clip. A fake gold clip can blind a foreigner to the possibility of a fine from an overly vigilant customs official. Afterward, walk away from the laowai. Finally, doing the best sexy walk possible, stroll up to a dealer.
My fake Gucci heels clip the concrete floor dusted with a fine layer of toxic substances when I whisper to my 250 Dad: _Leave me alone. _He does. Dad is an ESL teacher and has the disposition of a docile cat. It’s true. He gets rashes all the time. The least little thing happens to him at school, red dots insist on sprouting along his soft and delicate skin. Mom buys an ointment. It smells like the puffs of smoke from the factory that produces cute leather shoes on Racecourse Avenue. I tell Dad: Lie down on the couch. Then place ointment over his soft red bumps until the red bumps disappear. Then go back to contemplating his protruding nose.
I used to pray that I would never have a 250 Dad’s nose. This is long before my dad and I move to Tianjin so we can be close to grandparents while near enough to Mom to see her when she is not working, which is never. I am in America. My thoughts are still American. Dad catches me. I am eight years old and am on my scabby knees praying before my bed. What for? Dad asks. I say, innocently, Not to be you. Dad gets a few more red bumps on the skin behind his knees. I add, _An existentialist. _(That’s dad’s polite word for a 250.) He smiles and disappears, I’m guessing to scratch the red bumps blossoming behind his knees. I return to praying I don’t also get his colorful skin condition. My prayer answered, I get a flat rubbery nose as well as my mom’s finely woven skin. My skin grows pale enough so that no one can tell the difference between a real Chinese mother and her half Chinese daughter except when I’m with Dad. So naturally, I won’t be seen in public with him except in an underground market near the No. 2 subway.
Dad and I are together in that dark tunnel when we two see a cup stamped with the face of the old Chairman. It’s hanging from a fake golden hook above a sign, REAL TEA SET FROM THE SUNG DYNASTY. The sign is written in a fake gold cursive. I know what my 250 Dad is thinking. My uncle collects all sorts of memories. Two years ago, we bought him a poster of the Chairman, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai standing knee deep in the snows of Yan’an. My uncle is a tea partier from Iowa and has that poster in front of a picture window overlooking a gigantic field. The swaying of the wheat puts me to sleep. Don’t look at the smiling face of our leader, I tell my 250 Dad_. Mom says our leader is the only non-250 in the whole world_. I continue, _If a 250 laowai looks at the face of our great leader, the price of the great leader can double, even triple. _Dad looks like he’s acquiring a second rash in his armpit and backs off into the blind tunnel. I feel great and start talking down the seller of our Great Leader. I have a trick. I tell the seller my trick for dealing with 250 laowais. I tell him I am the 250 laowai’s little secretary. I cup my hands wide enough to give the fellow a picture of my breasts though they are smaller than the breasts of a little secretary.
If my laowai is given a healthy discount (70%!), I promise to bring back other er-bai-wu’s. The peddler spits on the bottomless floor. He smiles at me and must be from some shithole in the countryside. He has one tooth and lets me see into the darkness. He says 60% and slips another 5% in my fake Gucci purse in the hope that I am true to my word and bring another 250 Dad. Finally, I walk back to my own who is cowering in the most un-darkened place in the underground market. Dad rubs his fingers through my luxurious black hair while taking the small plastic mug with his other palm. I turn to him and call him what Mom calls him, a 250—an er-bai-wu. Dad grins like his face has already been stamped on a plastic mug.
I know why. My 250 Dad is planning to tell about our adventure in the underground market. Dad and I are expected every first week of August to bring one such story along with a fun souvenir to our tea partier relatives in Iowa. For instance, the time when his half Chinese daughter acts like she doesn’t have a foreigner for a dad so, naturally, can talk down the face of Chairman Mao to a peddler who has a mouth like an empty cave.
My tea partier uncle enjoys such stories. When we give him our poster of the three great leaders standing in the snow, he tells us straightaway he loves the face of Chairman Mao and pinches my nose like he’s trying to fix a China doll. Then he taps his cold fingers against my square chin. My tea partier cousins and auntie are laughing. My 250 Dad smiles. Naturally, I play along, grinning like I’m his little secretary.
After that, I walk away.
Charles Lowe’s fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, AGNI, Guernica, and Essays & Fictions, as well as in the anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He is associate professor of English at United International College in Zhuhai, China. (updated 10/2016)