by Sofia Ballon
A late night bite goes criminal and a few fictional ForeignOrs get caught in the fray.
In one of my expat lives I worked at a trendy restaurant-bar and many times stayed working ’til late. It was located in the center of the city, in a peculiar area of constantly-evolving shopping centers mixed with a few off-center backstreets. Ramshackle nightly food stalls were attended by stubborn vendors, staying put as areas nearby went shiny and new. One night two friends, late-working foreigners like me, met me at the stalls around 5AM.
This was between spring and summer, so the food offering was chuan’r / chuan / 串.
It has several meanings, but for us it signified 'food on a stick', and LOADS of it. All the meats and veggies you can imagine, poked through and presented as towers, stacked on the different carts around the alley. We chose a cart, sat on small plastic stools, and hungrily munched through our stack of sticks.
Readying to head home we were told the total, a sum that seemed illogical. We hadn't had more than 20 sticks between the three of us and the vendor was charging us what we considered three times the cost of our meal. We tried to talk to her and bring down the price- offering her more money than what we thought fair to appease her- but arguing over the final price in our limited Chinese left us stuck. As the morning grew brighter the situation turned awry...
In a harried swarm the chuan’r vendors descended upon us. I watched in horror as they went for the friend who had stayed seated during all this, and just as suddenly I was knocked to the ground. A girl hovered over me and tried pulling my wallet out of my hand, but I clasped it tightly and kicked my feet. It all was happening so fast and yet in slow motion at the same time. I just held on for dear life, kicked, screamed... while in my mind telling myself I was not going to let someone rob me. Being from Lima, Peru, I've been violently attacked and robbed several times.
My mental method seemed to work, and the girl let go and left me on the ground after... a minute? Time moved in a weird way, so I can’t say for sure. I stood up and dusted myself off. Dazed but now able to take in my surroundings, I realized my two friends had been separated from me about 20 meters away, and my blood ran cold to see them circled by a mob of people. Screams, arms up in air, chaos!
Never had I experienced this on the peaceful backstreets of chuan’r vendors.
I ran to them and tried to pull them out, and at the same time tried to hail a taxi from the street that led to the alley. That was our only exit. Somehow other foreigners had gotten involved, attempting to rescue my friends who were hopelessly stuck in the mob. A taxi swept up just as these brave strangers were able to keep back our attackers, and we piled in and sped off from the melee. We still do not know what happened those courageous liberators, whether the conflict subsided after our departure... eek.
In the back seat I looked out to the brightening day and breathed a sigh of relief. My girl friend sitting beside me was crying uncontrollably. The second friend was in the front seat, looking a bit disheveled, quiet. I had told the cabby my address, but the crying friend insisted we go to a hospital. I shrugged her off saying we could probably clean our cuts and scrapes at home. We were exhausted from the ordeal and I didn’t think hours in the ER would improve our situation.
Then, a response from the front seat chilled me to the bone.
My friend turns around to agree with me, and while he is talking he raises his arm and we see IT IS F-ING BROKEN. Rather than being a lengthy linear limb, it twisted and turned in and out three times at the wrist. That moment has forever been imprinted in my mind: his weary smile and his gruesomely contorted arm, together in front of me, in that cab. The scene was cartoony at this point, surreal. In another universe I may have even started laughing in reaction to the sight.
I told the driver to re-route to the nearest hospital. The horror continued but now at a dull crawl, with x-rays, switching hospitals, and an eventual operation.
Later, my friend revealed to us that the beam he was hit with was aimed for his head. Thankfully he was quick to react, protecting himself and catching the blow with his arm! My best friend would not be alive and well as he is today, and in another universe I would have not have been able to share this story as one with a happy ending.
It all started with going out for chuan’r. Eerily, my friend’s resulting scar bore a shrinking resemblance to the symbol for chuan’r (串), so in solidarity I got a chuan’r tattoo on my left wrist, the same place where he now has a metal plate and evidence of several stitches. A simple character with a dark new meaning.
The other day I reviewed the dictionary definition, and reading softly to myself I breathed out, “to string together / to skewer / to connect wrongly / to gang up”— I stopped cold. Staring at the screen I remembered that night we got stuck, feeling grateful for my friends and— all things considered— for that strange life we once enjoyed together.
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