Poem by Zhang Er

The Husband of a Younger Cousin on My Father’s Side

… took us sightseeing in the rain and then wined and dined us at a greasy spoon called “Famous Sichuan Fare,” where we were regaled with a “certified authentic” Ma Po Tofu that was absolutely drenched with salt. All the while he rattled on about the day’s fluctuations in the stock market index and was continually on the phone with my cousin, who was holding down the fort on the trading room floor. She’s a physician at a prestigious hospital of Chinese medicine but had elected to take an indefinite sick leave.

“Teahouses? Are there any left? Who’s got time for tea?”

We finally stumbled on one near the Du Fu “Thatched Cottage” Museum with an open court flanked on four sides by corridors with tiled-eaves, under which were set high-backed bamboo chairs and rectangular tables. We sat down at once to enjoy our tea, but my cousin’s husband, who couldn’t stop fidgeting, began holding forth on the ins and outs of stock market trading and market economics. (Did I mention he’s pursuing a degree in jurisprudence?) As if the sermon weren’t annoying enough, he suddenly began affecting the accent of one of those expatriate Americans who has studied some Chinese but can’t tell one tone from another. I guess he thought that if he sounded like a foreigner the foreigner who was with us could finally understand what he was saying. Or perhaps he was simply venting a subconscious loathing for my “fixation with tradition” (that, in this regard, I am too much like a foreigner?).

Not unpredictably, when we tried to get the check, he turned beet red, whipped out his wallet, and slapped the money on the table.

Later, at the Ming Qing Teahouse, when we met up with the poet Zhai Yongming, who was cracking sunflower seeds and savoring an elegant black tea made with Chinese dates, dragon eye fruit, and “petal of rose,” it was just as if the sky had cleared and we could finally see the sun.

— translated by Steve Bradbury

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