A Christmas Gift
By Ouyang Yu
Cultural expectations are different. People reared in one culture may act so differently in another that people reared in the other culture may be shocked, even rendered powerless. If this behaviour is exhibited to a person versed in both cultures, the result is more than expected. Following is the story of a recent encounter by way of illustration but it must be preceded with something that happened years ago when I was a young man in a factory. The man who lived across the corridor from me in the workers' dormitory was interested in radio technology. I have forgotten his name now but not the colour of my book, which was creamy. I readily lent it to him when he approached me for it. Afterwards, on several occasions, I thought of asking him if he had finished reading it but there was something that stopped me. To this day I still do not understand the fear or the embarrassment I felt or exactly why I delayed the question well after I got to the university. At one of the spoken English practice sessions, I confessed this 'crime'— it almost felt like a crime of asking something back that was originally yours but that had somehow become the other person's possession after a while, and won a praise from my Canadian teacher, 'Richard, you are hopelessly romantic!' My classmates got the hint and laughed out loud.
Call me stupid but stupidity of this kind did not strike once; it struck twice, decades after in Australia, at a Christmas party, in my friend E's family home. Actually, it's my wife's friend rather than mine. I, being a writer and confined to the desktop computer, had few friends to speak of; most of my 'friends' were my readers on rare email communications or those conference goers I saw once but were hardly ever seen after. My wife's friends, all from the factory days, were few but firm. They were three but if they came as families they were three by three. In a way, I was friends with them but not exactly their friend, only by association, wifely association, although I knew each and everyone of them by face and where they originally came from. Take B the storyteller. I say storyteller because he was self-appointed. He was from Hong Kong. When I arrived at the party, he stopped for me to settle down in my seat, with a comment or two on how youthful I still looked, reminding me once again that no one seemed to want to take note of my hair that was almost uniformly grey. Then he went back to his story, in a street paddler's voice that was unnecessarily loud. It took me a few minutes to work out what it was about, the gist of the story being a woman living with two men after each of them was divorced. Seeing my face in disbelief, B cried out, again, rather unnecessarily: I know them personally. If you like, I can show you in their house.
I don't know why but by then I had lost interest. To me, a woman living with two men or a man living with two women is infinitely better than a man and a woman living together but secretly not wanting to. Besides, people who choose to live their lives differently are not zoological showpieces to prove someone's point. As I was thinking these thoughts and not voicing them, my wife came in with a copy of my newly published book in America, my first novel, titled, Golden Money and Beautiful Women, waving it like a flag. That immediately caught B's eye. He took it off her hand and started examining it the way he looks at a product in his jewellery shop, while murmuring to himself: Well, that's a real achievement although I'm afraid I do not have much English to understand it. What's it about? I was about to answer that question when I noticed that he had put the book down near a plate of peanuts and with the hand that was holding the book a minute ago he took hold of a handful of peanuts and began to open them one by one, a cracking noise issuing from his mouth as he munched on the contents.
Meanwhile, the party was getting busier. The wives had finished putting the mutton cubes on the skewers and the husbands, including me, were drinking Carlton Cold while waiting for the arrival of the first load of roasted cubes. Unable and unwilling to communicate with the adults in a language they were gradually losing, the kids congregated inside the house around the huge TV set, watching the movies. The book, temporarily, was ignored. It was not till all of us had our first taste of the roasted mutton cubes on skewers that B picked up the book again, leaving two greasy marks on the cover. I could see my wife was winking hard at me to shut me up. B then said something that made me laugh at the same time when my heart sank. He said: A book is only worthwhile when signed by its author. The words surged to my throat but did not end up coming out of my mouth: Then you should wait till I die to get its full value back! Before I had time to say anything, B had set upon me with his request: You must sign this for me. If you sign this for me and my wife, you will make it worthwhile. He didn't say after my death, but I knew he meant it.
I began hating my wife for showing off. I began hating B, too, for not knowing the rule of the game: One does not ask a writer for a free copy of his newly published book, even if one is a friend. There was no way, though, for me to begin telling him this. For he was insistent: Sign me the book to make it worthwhile! His breath on my face, the book opened to its inside page held with his both hands: Sign it here, with both our names: Ba Bi Ba. Where is the pen? Find us the pen. Quick! As I am writing this, I can see myself pinned down with the pen, as if kidnapped or, to be more exact, B-napped, laboriously putting down the names as B dictated. A number of protests rose and fell in my heart: 'But I never give my books away like this' or 'if you want my autograph you'll have to first purchase the book; it's 49.95 US dollars'. In a dramatic total surrender, I not only gave my book away for free but also my autograph, without knowing why, secretly even hoping that he had understood it all and that he had meant to pay me on the spot except that he did not have enough money in his pocket. Did I not show him the spot at the back where the price was printed? It was not till the fall of dark at 9pm or thereabouts when we said goodbye to each other that I realized there was no hope of receiving a cent. As B's wife put the book inside the bag, B held out his hand, to take mine, and said: See you next Christmas!
Next Christmas? That's 12 months away! What about my book that I had expected him to say things like 'I'll send you a cheque; don't worry'? Disgusted, I recalled a similar incident involving a 'friend' asking for a free copy and a free autograph sometime ago and my subsequent decision to send him an invoice for the full price of the book, which he took about a month to pay.
As soon as we got into the car, I erupted, going into a soliloquy that she listened to but did not make a comment on.
'How can he possibly take it as it is as if it cost nothing? I remember you told him that it cost 49.95 US dollars to buy but he acted as if he had not heard that and he INSISTED I sign it for him, saying "a book is worth more only when it gets signed by its author". I even joked that I had to die to make this happen but he did not seem to get it. You are going to give me their address for me to send them an invoice. I'm so disgusted with this sort of thing. Who does he think I am? A writer that is only worth something when dead? Why do they treat writers like dirt?'
'Don't', came my wife's beseeching voice. 'You'd hurt our relationship if you do that. You know very well that his wife is a very generous person. Last time she came back from China she brought me a quite nice silk scarf. I'm sure it cost her a lot. How about I pay you the full amount and you forget about the whole thing?'
'Well, then, I'll write him a letter', I said as she handed me a bunch of notes, 10 fives in fact.
'No,' she said. 'I told you not to. If you do that, that will be the end of our friendship. Promise you won't do it, will you?' I simply nodded my head, without saying a word.
The next day, I broke my own promise by writing the man a brief note, as follows:
Dear Mr B,
You probably did not know this but when the book was taken to the party it was not meant as a sales item or a gift for anyone. It was only taken there to show that this was my latest publication.
A writer, like a businessman, has to live off his writing and the sales of his books. As a rule, I do not give my books away nor sign them for free. In an age when few people are willing even to part with 10 dollars to buy books, choosing instead to spend the money elsewhere, you exhibited an interest in my book as I have rarely seen, for which I feel an immense gratitude to you.
You understand that the book is normally priced at 49.95. I do not get any royalties for it and when I had them shipped from the USA where it was originally published I had to pay not only for the cost of the copies but also for the postage, in USD. In any case, since you asked me to sign it and I have done the signing, keep it even if you don't read it. Who knows if it will not become more valuable after I cease writing?
Yours faithfully, Richard
To make a short work of it, I printed the letter, put it in an envelope, found the address, wrote it down and posted it, hesitating only for a few minutes, in which I wondered if I had committed an act of betrayal, a double betrayal even. As if to prove the point, I jumped in my car and drove to the post office till I saw my own hand push the envelope containing the note through the slit in the red letterbox. I was followed by a number of questions close at heels, chief among which were the ones: What if the address was wrong or one of the kids misplaced the letter? What if they sent in the cheque the following week? What if they didn't send the cheque but sent back the copy? I put an end to all the questions by simply saying to myself: Go back to your writing and finish this story.
The story finished, life is not. What subsequently happened is A, B's wife called, and asked to speak to Nancy, my wife. She immediately went away, out of my earshot but I managed to hear a fragment of the initial conversation as Nancy wondered, 'What letter?' That revealed the whole situation in a nutshell but I was so embarrassed that I went back to my computer and started an online search under the title, Golden Money and Beautiful Women. There was not a single book review. All I could get was a mention in a stranger's blog, in which s/he referred to it as 'trash'. That finding also coincided with the end of her extended telephone conversation when the real drama began for neither of us made an attempt to ask the other what was said in the phone conversation. As I am writing this, I wonder. And I want to give it a bit of wait, too. Our house now is filled with silences, mixed with all kinds of noises, the tap water running that she is using, the mechanical noise generated in the refrigerator and the sound of keys being typed.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012