The Peasant Knife
A. A. Weiss
Patrice Bergeron was thinking about his life back in Maine, about a time he caught himself being racist at a Christmas party, when he sliced his finger with a pocket knife while cutting baked salmon.
Once again, he recognized no one at his then-girlfriend’s residency get-together. She was training to become an anesthesiologist. He shook the hands of all the doctors he was supposed to know by first name, friends of his girlfriend, and was then face to face with a new man, the boyfriend of another co-resident, who Bergeron had definitely never met before. There weren’t that many black people in Maine.
“I’m just so glad to meet someone here who isn’t a doctor,” said Bergeron. The boyfriend smiled, but also cocked his head to the side to express confusion.
“Oh, you’re a doctor,” said Bergeron.
The boyfriend nodded, described his specialty—pediatric oncology.
“I’m a French teacher,” said Bergeron. “I get lost easily in doctor conversations.”
“It’s tough,” said the boyfriend.
They ate cheese and crackers and before the boyfriend moved on, Bergeron stopped him to ask, “Was that racist? That was racist, wasn’t it?”
The boyfriend didn’t answer immediately, but eventually said, “No, not really.”
“Thank you,” said Bergeron.
“Okay,” said the boyfriend. They never got close enough at the party to speak again.
But that moment had been racist, considered Bergeron—assuming a black man wasn’t a doctor—much more racist than any single element of the alleged “pattern of behavior” that got him fired from his teaching job at Portland Academy. Those had been rough times. Bergeron remembered going home after being dismissed for the day at noon, waiting for the phone to ring with an update about his employment status, and then, finally, the headmaster calling after dinner. Bergeron spit a series of questions into the telephone receiver. “Have you been drinking?” asked the headmaster.
Now, in Beijing, it was an embarrassment that he’d considered suicide in the days after his departure from Maine. The idea of jumping off a tall building was evidence of a weak and coddled mind—and it hadn’t been Bergeron’s only bad idea. He’d also considered entering the Hilton mini-bar and mixing unlabeled pills he found at the 7eleven with an entire bottle of bee-jew (pronunciation?) and two glass bottles of local beer with a tiger on the label.
Eight weeks after beginning a position teaching English Language and American Culture at an international school in Beijing, now through two months of self-contemplation that led, ultimately, to seeing where this path of not killing himself might go, Bergeron was now eating farm-raised salmon in the cafeteria of an IKEA located within the city’s fourth ring. This, to Bergeron, was fine dining, and this was his eighth consecutive dinner at the cafeteria.
Outside, a coal cloud engulfed the entire visible city. The day before in Portland it had rained. He still checked New England weather reports daily, guessing which days might have been snow days free from work had he still been living there.
I’m still a teacher, he thought, just now elsewhere.
And, oh, I’ve cut my finger. I’m bleeding.
He folded his pocket knife (the guilty instrument) with one hand against his thigh and slid it into his pocket. Salmon week at the IKEA cafeteria had produced an extraordinary variety of dishes with sides like white asparagus, but something was off about this day’s offering, sesame oil perhaps, or the wrong spice that disappeared on Chinese palates but not on Bergeron’s tongue. He pushed his plate of vegetables and salmon to the side and abandoned it for the busboy to collect.
The cut wasn’t deep. He wouldn’t have to get up and walk through the kitchen and then living room departments to wash his hands in the only bathroom in Beijing with a sit-down toilet. But now, having mentally traversed that path through the furniture store all the way to those inviting toilets, he wished to make the journey. He wrapped his red index finger in a napkin before leaving the table.
Although he didn’t recognize faces, Bergeron was certain he was a known figure in this cafeteria. When he bowed, even slightly, people always returned the gesture.
Once finished in the bathroom, he entered a model of a 500 sq. ft. living room with a coffee table and a leather couch, two tall bookshelves sandwiching a flat screen TV, and he began reading. His book that evening had been assigned to his students the previous year, so this was meant to catch him up. He hoped that reading this book would clue him into what his predecessor—a young woman from Panama City, Florida—had taught his Chinese students about American life: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Bergeron closed the book.
This writing was meant to be impactful to him, to all Americans, yet wasn’t. Nearly every conversation in class at the international school had thus far centered (as though magnetized) on land grabs, persecution, exceptionalism, mistrust of certain ethnicities—but to Bergeron the Wounded Knee names conjured up a simpler time, back at Portland Academy, when a field trip to an Indian Casino with a two-room museum in the back was a perfectly valid way to spend an entire school day. Portland students addressed all casino/museum employees with a chant of “Hi--How--Are--Ya!” in unmistakable Indian rhythm or, still worse, simply said, “We come in peace.” Many entered the life-size diorama of tribal life to take pictures with hands over the nipples of bare-chested mannequins, to flash peace signs, to pretend to harvest corn. One such photo would later appear in the yearbook. Although the casino/museum employees raised their voices at the academy students, no detentions were issued upon the return to school.
Bergeron giggled. That behavior was really quite racist, he was now willing to admit, all the things those students did. You used to be able to get away with a lot. He sighed again and closed the book. He would just have the Chinese students tell him about the book. He was the foreign expert. He was not there to impress, but rather to be impressed.
A snap of wood startled him. His insides clenched. An IKEA employee had opened a collapsible bamboo dinner tray with legs. Bergeron assumed they were adding a new element to the living room set decoration. They might even have fake food to put on the small table.
Bergeron smelled salmon.
The employee waited until Bergeron made eye contact. Bergeron unfolded his legs, placing both feet on the floor in front of the leather sofa, and the employee placed the flimsy table around Bergeron’s feet. A small dot of blood remained on a boiled carrot. It was Bergeron’s abandoned plate of food. The salmon was cold.
“So nice,” said Bergeron. “Thank you.”
Bergeron instinctively placed the bloody napkin that had been wrapping his finger on the tray table. The employee snatched it up with his bare hand. Bergeron cringed. People didn’t handle blood the correct way here; if you squeezed that napkin a drop might still come out.
An older man observed the exchange between Bergeron and the IKEA employee. The employee looked over his shoulder more than once, intimidated either by age or prestige of position. The older man had a name-tag, but not an IKEA uniform, perhaps some type of boss. But everyone seemed happy and the older man said something which relieved the employee of duty. Bergeron nodded at the older man, who returned the gesture.
So nice, thought Bergeron. Everyone here is so nice.
Several weeks before he settled into his routine at IKEA, on his first day of official classes at the international school, Bergeron arrived to meet his co-teacher in advance of the day’s classes. Instead he found Vice Principal Zhu—the man who appeared to fill the role at this school of Dean of Faculty—and the class’s two student leaders, one boy and one girl, waiting for him at the entrance of the classroom. Of all the colleagues and bosses Bergeron had met at the international school in Beijing, Zhu was the only one who didn’t speak English. At first Bergeron assumed it was an issue of preserving dignity, of not wishing to speak incorrectly or with a poor accent, but evidently—according to the pupils, who respected and feared him greatly—Zhu was a learned man who had mastered many things like economics and philosophy, just not English. The student leaders were there to translate.
“English teacher woman go,” said the boy leader. “Esteemed Vice Principal Zhu says you can teach without restrictions.” Zhu said something more to the boy, who translated the explanation as, “She knew too much.”
The departed woman they discussed, Bergeron’s intended co-teacher, was a woman from Florida who’d been with the school for a few years; she was to be the one to show Bergeron the ropes at the school and demonstrate Chinese curricular standards. Bergeron opened his mouth to speak, but the girl leader understood that her colleague had made a translating mistake, that the previous English teacher wasn’t disposed of because of her knowledge, she wasn’t dead or anything, and so she asked a clarification question of the Zhu, and then shared with Bergeron that the correct phrase was know-it-all.
“She pretended to know more than she did. And you may thusly now teach without restriction.”
“Well, okay,” said Bergeron.
Zhu said something and the student leaders giggled, but no one translated for Bergeron.
The classroom space felt clinical, like an office intended for paperwork completion rather than an environment for exchanging ideas. “Hello,” said Bergeron to the class. No one responded. He looked to see if the students had started drawing in their notebooks. He used to do that when he was bored. “I’m Mr. Bergeron,” he said. “But you already know that.”
Many couldn’t pronounce the soft G of his name. Verbs didn’t always go in the correct places. The magic S used when talking about someone disappeared, and questions were merely declarative statements punctuated by rising inflection. In short, they didn’t speak English like they were supposed to. It was, after all, a course titled Advanced English Language and American Culture. The book list for that semester was supposed to start with The House of the Seven Gables.
The teacher from Florida had made that book list.
Where was that woman now? Back in Panama City? Elsewhere in Beijing? He’d met her once, while he was still in residence at the Hilton, and had left that encounter sure that they would have an exciting professional relationship as co-teachers of the class, but, “You know,” she said, “I’m looking to move on now that I’ve lost my classroom.”
So now, alone to do as he pleased, Bergeron wanted the students to lead small discussions about stereotypes. What did they know about America? What did they suspect to be true? To be somewhat true? An exaggeration? Bergeron anticipated conversations about obesity and food habits, guns crime versus gun laws, minimum wage against the salaries of elite athletes. Everyone stood when prompted (though some on a delay after mimicking the actions of the smarter students) and stepped aside as Bergeron rearranged the tables so that students would be forced to look at each other while speaking. Each student retook his or her seat and swiveled in the chair so as to face the teacher. Some of those kids were really straining to keep both feet on the floor while focusing forward.
“No, no,” said Bergeron. “Look at each other. Talk.”
The students all looked to the classroom leaders in the first row.
“We perform small dramas?” asked the boy leader.
This was evidently something fossilized from the previous teacher. Skits. Acting. Engagement through movement.
“You may,” said Bergeron. “You may indeed perform small dramas.”
The girl leader translated for the class, which Bergeron wasn’t thrilled about. During his French classes at Portland Academy students would receive poor participation grades when backsliding into the native language. But then he observed the intensity of purpose in these Chinese students. It was clear that each had a part they wished to play. Had he known them a bit better, he’d have made them approve their ideas with him. In fact, he realized, they didn’t know him at all. Pedagogically, this activity was a huge mistake. He hadn’t gained trust yet. He hadn’t developed a sense of momentum that these skits would complement. Nothing complemented anything and, likely, the students would look to that little girl in the first row for marching orders every single time Bergeron asked something of them. He’d accidentally given that little girl all the power in the world.
“We’re ready,” said that girl leader.
Bergeron didn’t even know the girl’s name yet.
“Before we begin,” said Bergeron. “You should know it’s okay to make mistakes. You only get better by correcting mistakes.”
“We begin?” said the boy leader.
Four students came to the front of the room. One boy and three girls. They bowed to the class and then took their places. The boy went to the door and the other three sat at a table. The girls twirled their hands in the air to mimic engagement in a dexterous activity. One of the girls stood and held her hands apart in two little fists as though one was about to punch the other, then snapped her right fist into a fan of fingers to let everyone know she’d just shot an arrow. She dragged an imaginary carcass back to the table and then all three girls began the imaginary dressing of the animal. The boy came inside, rubbing his shoulders from imaginary cold. One of the girls saw him, motioned for the others to join her, and then put an imaginary blanket around his shoulders. All four sat at the table and ate the animal.
Each hand in the audience raised up when the performers broke the fourth wall.
The student performers looked to Bergeron for approval. Evidently in previous classes the ability of peers to guess the scene indicated academic excellence.
“You didn’t speak,” said Bergeron.
One of the girls looked confused and possibly sad.
“Okay,” continued Bergeron. “That was very good, yes, but let’s hear words in the next presentation.”
The next group came up. They bowed. Three boys and one girl.
The girl began: “My name is Pocahontas.”
All the hands in the audience shot up in recognition.
Bergeron made a point of thanking Julia whenever he saw her at school.
Julia, the international school’s outreach coordinator, had been the one to throw Bergeron the lifeline of a job when he got fired from Portland Academy. Once he grew tired of living in the Hilton she also found his apartment, not far from her own. Beyond that, she seemed to genuinely care about him, to find a mutual happiness when he enjoyed himself in Beijing. In those first days Bergeron didn’t rule out the possibility of romance.
She first brought him to a special mall. A person could live her life here, said Julia. Restaurants, clothing, entertainment, exercise. Several complete families which included grandparents pushed in wheelchairs occupied the open public spaces. Among many options, a French restaurant caught Bergeron’s eye. Julia shook her head—it wasn’t very good and she’d already made a reservation. Later they went to an acrobat show in which Bergeron was certain they’d witness a fatality. Any audience member could see the safety regulations just weren’t there. Six motorcycles in a spherical steel cage? A twelve-year old girl suspended forty feet above the audience, secured only by the strength of her bite on a piece of rope?
Julia mistook the American’s agitation as boredom.
Next they went shopping.
From the outside, the building looked like a six-floor box, the type of unkempt, eroding, earth-colored structure you might find in America at a school for training firefighters. Inside were options for all desires—food, clothing, electronics, jewelry, natural medicines, books in Chinese, a massage parlor—but this wasn’t the kind of place where you could spend your whole life. It was dirtier than the mall, more claustrophobic, more primed for in-and-out dashing than a day-long residency. Still, Bergeron could tell that Julia loved this place. For the first time that day she dropped her tour-guide demeanor, walking silently next to Bergeron as they explored. The shopkeepers addressed them both in English, which seemed to please her. “No thank you,” she said, mimicking Bergeron. “Just looking.”
They passed cubicle after cubicle of vendors selling luxury sunglasses, silverware, suitcases—only name brand items. Bergeron stopped briefly when a young woman motioned for him to look at her collection of Rolex watches. Very good prices. He looked into a briefcase full of gold watches and picked one up. The weight of the piece indicated an absence of precious metal. Oh, thought Bergeron, this is THE black market, the place you buy counterfeit goods and possibly plutonium. And while he wouldn’t be purchasing fancy electronics or diamond pinky rings, there was fun to be had in scavenging a place like this. As they continued walking Bergeron noticed that Julia had keen interest in places that sold designer dresses. Gucci, Versace. But she wasn’t suggesting they stop so as not to bore Bergeron. He proposed they meet up in an hour by the front door—yes, he was sure to find it without problem—and then his tour guide to the city of Beijing was gone into the labyrinth of counterfeit goods.
Bergeron took an elevator to the floor marked men only.
Although he expected something illicit once exiting through the doors, the reality of the men only zone in the Beijing black market was video games and DVDs of movies still in theaters. Walking past these cubicles, a man offered to make a suit in one hour, measurements to final cuts. Maybe, Bergeron thought, and kept walking. By now he’d stopped responding to the English advances of the vendors. Before accepting his indifference as a lack of interest, they tried other languages—Spanish, German, Russian—only disengaging verbally once he’d walked into the influence of a new vendor.
One such vendor, after hearing his colleagues of proximity attempt to engage Bergeron in those languages, spoke some memorized phrases from a different one; have a look, if you please, the vendor said in French. When Bergeron paused, the vendor, sensing a trap now sprung, emptied his brain of friendly French vocabulary. Bergeron was a dignified Monsieur, an ami, and then a gentle wave of the vendor’s hand did the rest to get the foreigner to enter his cubicle of goods.
If Bergeron were a smoker, this would have been an excellent place to pick up a classy lighter. Photos of Mao were on some of them, but American eagles and American flags adorned the rest. Wood and clay Buddha statues rested alongside keychains and transparent envelopes containing packs of postcards.
“Ami, ami, ami,” said the vendor, asking Bergeron to accept trinkets into his hands for closer inspection.
“I speak English,” said Bergeron.
The trinket vendor smiled and then asked that they speak in whispers so that his colleagues would not overhear. “You are a gentleman,” said the trinket vendor. “You need a flask for your whiskey. A case for your hand-rolled cigarettes.”
Bergeron shook his head.
“I need a knife,” he said.
In truth, Bergeron had zero need for a knife. The word gentleman had triggered that statement; his father and grandfather had both carried pocket knives. The solid pieces that they carried were quite expensive, but here, in a forgery market, Bergeron wanted to see how close the Chinese could replicate the fancy blades his father used for whittling and his grandfather used for dressing small, dead animals.
The trinket vendor produced a small knife with Mao’s picture glued on the handle.
“I need a French knife,” said Bergeron. He described the thin blade to the trinket vendor, the curved handle—almost like a steak knife that folded. The trinket vendor held his hands apart to measure the air. How long should the blade be? Bergeron mimicked the vendor’s movement, but held his hands farther apart. “A small sword,” said the vendor. “Come with me.”
They exited the cubicle and walked past the other vendors, who shouted in protests of Mandarin as Bergeron walked away. The trinket vendor, now escort, received what appeared to be a series verbal assaults, but to Bergeron tone was still a mystery, and it could have just been playful banter among friends. They descended a floor, the trinket vendor shuffling down the stairs in what Bergeron now noticed were slippers, into the floor reserved for objects of advanced age and importance. At the end of a long corridor the man selling samurai swords stood ready. They walked in that direction past gold dragons and silk robes and imperial, man-sized vases. No vendors attempted to impede their path, as though they all knew the foreigner was there, on the floor of antiquity, to see the sword man.
The trinket vendor appeared to know the sword man, but not intimately. They shook hands. The sword man only spoke to the other Beijinger, never addressing Bergeron, and the conversation never left Mandarin so that Bergeron could understand the flow of thoughts, though he did think he heard a version of the word Frenchman. Two briefcases were then on the table for Bergeron to inspect. The first held a collection of switchblades, arrow points, throwing stars, and other weapons of assassination. “You can touch,” said the trinket vendor. Bergeron shook his head and went to the other briefcase. There, among plastic and metal folding knives, some with labels, some not, Bergeron found his desired shape. He only had to balance it in his palm to appreciate the deficiency in the forgery. It didn’t weigh enough. It was wood, yes, but a type never used in Europe. It might have been bamboo. Bergeron could stick his fingernail into the space where the wood was supposed to run flush against a metal bolster. And then, as though by holding an instrument of this shape granted access to old memories, he noticed the small bits of missing artistry that would have made this an heirloom worthy of being passed down from his grandfather to his father and so on. The blade of this knife wouldn’t sheer the gentle skin of a fingertip without drawing blood, nor would it dig into a block of pinewood. And the required insignia was missing, a system of tiny rivets punched half-way up the handle in the shape of a cross so that, supposedly, shepherds in the fields of France—when far away from civilization on their wanderings—could stick the blade in the soil and pray to the knife as an altar. This knife said Made in France, and Bergeron doubted a real French knife would say that. Honestly, he didn’t know. His grandfather had been buried with his knife. The one belonging to Bergeron’s father was somewhere in Maine, safely hidden from inheritance.
“This knife is exactly what you are looking for,” said the trinket vendor. The sword man didn’t say anything. “He’ll give it to you for ¥2000.”
It was a lot of money, probably what a genuine version of the knife would cost in a Parisian boutique. The trinket vendor held his breath while he waited to see of Bergeron flinched at such a large number. The foreigner merely placed the knife back into its secured position in the briefcase. But then Bergeron smiled and took up a different knife from the case. It also said Made in France. It had a rounded handle made of beech wood and a stainless steel blade held in place by a single pin—materials so common and inexpensive that forgers couldn’t reproduce them any cheaper. It was a peasant’s blade. Bergeron’s great grandfather would have used such a knife at the turn of the century up on those Canadian dairy farms. Bergeron knew vaguely that his great grandfather and great-great grandfather were named Thomas and Etienne, respectively, but he didn’t know which name belonged to whom. They were both farmers outside Quebec. It was a strong and simple cutting instrument, so perfectly constructed that the design hadn’t changed in a hundred years. This one was a little big for Bergeron’s hand, but there were no smaller versions in the briefcase.
“This is it,” said Bergeron, addressing the trinket vendor.
The two vendors argued for some time, presumably about the price, while Bergeron further inspected the knife. This one had a locking mechanism, a simple steel brace that slid into place to either fix the blade open or closed.
The sword man took the knife, showing the locking mechanism to Bergeron as though it were alien technology, demonstrating the strength of the blade by cutting a piece of paper cleanly down the center.
“It’s a very good knife,” said the trinket vendor. “¥100.”
Bergeron was so pleased by the drastic reduction in price from the first knife that he handed over a ¥200 note to the trinket vendor without bargaining the price down.
The sword man retrieved several bills from a leather fanny pack. The trinket vendor returned a single note back to Bergeron, a ¥100 note, and pocketed the rest, what looked to be about ¥75.
Bergeron smiled to the trinket vendor. “Good for you,” he said.
Later, after Bergeron had waited twenty minutes by the entrance to the black market, a hand on his knife inside his pocket the entire time, Julia emerged with several shopping bags. She apologized for making him wait, and then apologized again that she had to return home to her husband.
“Oh,” said Bergeron.
They took separate taxis from the black market, Julia writing the address of Bergeron’s apartment in characters on a business card for him to present to any driver.
At home he sat on the stool in his kitchen nook to further inspect his new knife. He spent the next hour slicing sheets of computer paper into long strips, and then slicing those long strips into confetti as if he were a samurai dispatching incoming obstacles mid-air. When there were no more scraps of paper to divide in two without placing his fingers in danger, the trance of the knife left him, and he looked around his Beijing apartment provided by the international school. The mattress where he slept was on the floor. His TV was elevated on a small table at the foot of the mattress. The reading lamp next to his mattress was too tall to turn off from a sleeping position, and the light barely made it to the floor. There was no other chair beyond the stool in the kitchen nook, nothing with a back. And there was no table, only the dropdown surface in the nook that resembled an ironing board that folded into the wall when not in use.
The knife had given him energy and the focus (call it patience) to communicate with a taxi driver using his bilingual dictionary.
Furniture (家具) store (商店).
The first taxi driver waved him away, wouldn’t even look at the words, but did point to the next driver in line who was both literate and willing to drive without specific directions. Bergeron said, “Not too far away” and the driver nodded, repeated affirmatively what he’d apparently said before in a louder voice, as though that had been the reason Bergeron hadn’t understood, and then they were driving. They didn’t appear to be turning, so this was still in the same ring of the city as his apartment. Once inside a store, he’d be able to point at the furniture he wished to buy and give the furniture sellers his street address on the business card from Julia. The driver started talking loudly and pointing and Bergeron giggled when he saw the yellow and blue façade of IKEA.
The driver deposited Bergeron in a designated spot in which a security guard with a machine gun and a red arm band opened the door of the taxi. Bergeron said thank you to his stern greeter, which got no response, but he also bowed his head slightly which the armed guard seemed to enjoy. He waved Bergeron inside. As he ascended the escalator into the kitchen section, Bergeron had to admit that he felt safer knowing armed guards protected IKEA.
He noted items for his kitchen that would lend his life in Beijing a routine, that would improve self-awareness and bring pleasantries to dull moments. He would buy a juicer, a coffee maker, a rack for collecting bottles of wine. The signs for each item were in Mandarin, English, and Swedish, and he used one of the small pencils given at the entrance to write down prices.
Later, in the living room section, he moved from chair to chair, testing the padded backs for proper support. Any of them would improve his living conditions. In one of these chairs he’d be able to read for hours, fall asleep, and then return to reading once he awoke. In the bedroom section he found a bedframe that would get him off the floor. And in the final sections of the store he found a lamp that would increase visibility and a potted plant, nearly as tall as he was, that would bring vitality to the living space. He had the prices and names of everything written on a slip of paper. Just knowing he could purchase the items that constituted his vision of a household relaxed him. He wouldn’t need to bend his psychology to fit into China. He could work in a weird place and live separately, more or less as he chose.
He located the perfect chair for reading, and after sitting in the fake display of a living room for twenty minutes, passersby noticing him, pointing at him playfully, though respectfully as though in admiration of his comfort, he thought, yes, I like it here. I will spend time here. IKEA is a safe space.
And that was before he found the cafeteria.
The special that week was Japanese beef. After one attempt with the IKEA cutlery, Bergeron withdrew the peasant knife from his pocket, wiped the flakes of paper dust still on the blade, and cut into his steak.
Attempts to steer future classroom skits away from the atrocities suffered by the indigenous tribes of America proved unsuccessful. A conversation about the founding fathers centered on the irony of all men being created equal. 1920 was not accepted as a cultural turning point concerning suffrage. Richard Nixon, they explained, that great opener of worlds, had brought self-determination into political being.
Bergeron didn’t even know what they were getting at with Nixon.
“Okay,” said Bergeron. “Now you’re going to teach me about the indigenous of China.”
The girl leader, today wearing pigtails, didn’t need to consult her colleagues to express the group’s concerns. With great respect, she addressed the American teacher from the State of Maine, land of the Abenaki and Penobscot nations, to explain that, unlike in America, no colonizer had taken advantage of the Chinese indigenous. In fact, the indigenous “tribes” of China had all united to form its current state, however imperfect.
“Interesting,” said Bergeron. “I’d like to show you a tool.”
He wasn’t great with technology, but he was okay to turn on the overhead projector.
“This is called a VPN,” he said. “This will let us get to something called Google.”
The children smiled.
Evidently they’d already heard of Google, and were not impressed.
As though responding telepathically to the mention of an outlawed foreign corporation, Vice Principal Zhu appeared. Bergeron imagined he routinely cupped an ear to the doors of all rooms belonging to foreign teachers with untested practices.
The pupils all stood when the vice principal entered. Bergeron appreciated what this man must have said through hand gestures, because, again, this was the vice principal who only spoke Mandarin. Don’t stand, he must have said, pretend like you’re in America. Bergeron definitely heard the word America before the students began giggling in a complicit manner.
The boy leader explained Bergeron’s proposed activity, and the girl leader translated the vice principal’s response.
“Why should the pupils research China while in America class?”
“When you study at a university in America,” began Bergeron, “once you’re there, the students will ask you about your own country. It’s good to practice all the words ahead of time in English.”
The vice principal nodded and said something quickly to the girl leader, but it wasn’t a joke aimed at Bergeron, because no one laughed.
“And we might learn something about China,” translated the girl.
On day ten of Bergeron’s IKEA dinner campaign the menu was simple chicken. He thought to leave, try a new restaurant, but he didn’t know where else he might eat. Surely he could find a noodle shop, or a lesser cafeteria that might serve lesser western food. If he entered a hotel someone could direct him to fine dining and it wouldn’t even be that strange to eat alone in a place like that. But those choices seemed distant, involving great patience with hand talking, and perhaps the wrinkle-free clothing he usually set aside for teaching. He was here, in IKEA, and he knew the food would be good, even if it was just simple chicken with boiled vegetables.
When Bergeron approached the counter to enter the food court, a cashier shouted “Oh” and then got on the phone. Bergeron continued on, soon filling his tray with baked chicken, soft carrots, and apple pie. Instead of his normal large soda he’d drink tea instead. In his mind this change of beverage was the first stage in prepping his system for exploring the real Chinese food he’d eventually have to eat.
At the cashier station an older man was in conversation with the cashier. Bergeron wasn’t positive, but this older man resembled the manager who’d observed the IKEA employee serve Bergeron’s left-over salmon in one of the make-believe living rooms. It must be the same man, thought Bergeron. He wore a normal suit, but had a name badge. A manager, yes, or something higher. The cashier took the tray from Bergeron and began walking ahead of him. Evidently, he wouldn’t be paying. The older IKEA man bowed to Bergeron without too much chest, almost a nod, and then they were walking side by side down the corridor leading into the collection of living rooms. Other shoppers parted for the cashier, some pulling children back so as not to crash, and the attention generated by that cashier carrying a tray of hot food through the furniture gallery transferred directly to Bergeron. The entire enterprise was befuddling, but it was easy for him to pass off this entire extravaganza as innocuously Chinese. He was a guest in this culture, and sometimes crazy things happened that other people thought were just normal—though the onlookers didn’t appear to brush this off as normality. They followed Bergeron with their gazes, and yet he felt okay about this, almost as though it were the lowest possible form of celebrity.
The cashier placed the tray in front of a leather chair with arms. In this living room set-up there was a fake fireplace, with real metal fireplace tools, a coffee table, two tall bookshelves, a marble-top side table, and a TV of many inches—over 90, at least—unfortunately made of cardboard, placed only three feet in front of the chair.
The manager motioned for Bergeron to sit. As though to make the scene more complete, the manager seated himself in an equally opulent sofa chair across from the glass-top table. The cashier left and Bergeron began eating.
“It’s good,” he said to the manager. “Thank you.”
The manager smiled, but did not speak. His facial expressions betrayed no knowledge of English. Passersby took pictures on their cellphones. Many paused to touch the price tags on the sofa chair that Bergeron used, some then writing the code for purchase down with the provided tiny pencils. The manager smiled at Bergeron.
“Thank you,” Bergeron repeated a few more times. “For the food.”
“Thank you,” said the manager. “No.”
Bergeron would only later compare the experience to being observed in a fish bowl—the shoppers, the lack of language—but in the moment he felt cheery, well cared for, and special.
Inside the classroom the students separated the tables, pushing them to the sides of the room to form a central walkway that led to the blackboard where two padded chairs had been placed together as a judging station. Two tiny flags—America and China—made a V on a tiny table separating the two chairs. The classroom space looked legal, as though the United Nations were involved, and Bergeron sensed impending doom. This would amount to a formal observation; Vice Principal Zhu would inspect the integrity of Bergeron’s instruction as evidenced by the students’ performances. Bergeron imagined references to Wounded Knee with Chinese landscapes and folk heroes. He feared he might not be referred to henceforth as the international school’s foreign expert.
Vice Principal Zhu relaxed his authoritative demeanor once Bergeron entered the room, smiled, and pointed to where Bergeron should sit on the American side of the judging panel. Evidently they’d all been waiting for him; the presentations commenced without delay.
The first presentation was well-known to the audience as a parable about the origins of modern China. There was mention of fighting, of a uniting emperor, of turmoil, and then success in togetherness. The use of English was passable in that everything Bergeron had mentioned as common mistakes from previous classes had been addressed—correct subject-verb agreement, not dropping the S—and yet a new issued emerged to cause Bergeron alarm; had the students learned anything on their own? Or was it simply the expectation that he constantly correct them, every time, each comment a push forward on a path toward perfection?
Vice Principal Zhu held up a ping-pong paddle with an affixed dry-erase surface; he’d scored the first presentation a seven.
Bergeron didn’t realize this lesson would be a competition with scoring.
Zhu looked to Bergeron, and then to Bergeron’s left, where another scoring paddle and a dry-erase marker were in reach.
Not knowing the specifics of the scoring system, Bergeron also gave the presentation a seven. Zhu nodded in agreement, as though this confirmed Bergeron was indeed an expert in scoring.
The vice principal said many things to the class in a direct and pleasant tone; the boy leader translated for Bergeron that the esteemed Vice Principal Zhu had congratulated the first group on a splendid, accurate presentation. And in that moment Bergeron remembered that the vice principal didn’t speak English. So then why was he here judging an English competition?
The second presentation was brutal, language-wise. Bergeron couldn’t tell what they were talking about. In fact, he wasn’t certain he’d ever heard these specific students speak voluntarily. These were the pupils who’d blended into the back rows when the tables were in neat lines, and into the shadows of more advanced students when the desks were pulled into uncomfortable circles. Farming? Better farming? The science of farming? Maybe they were taking about the Chinese Johnny Appleseed. Maybe the discoverer of rice. Their voices indicated fear, and Bergeron could only assume this nervousness derived from Vice Principal Zhu’s presence.
Perhaps sensing something ill at ease in the delivery, the vice principal scored the presentation a six, as did Bergeron. The girl leader reported that the esteemed Vice Principal Zhu had applauded their effort, but recommended that they dig deeper into the long-term effects of such revolutionary practices. How did these actions influence us today? Does your behavior reflect the sacrifices performed by your ancestors?
The final presentation group included both class leaders.
Perhaps seeking style points, they were the only group to include an introduction.
“Esteemed Vice Principal Zhu and Dear Mr. Bergeron,” began the girl leader. “Thank you for evaluating our presentation. Our topic of reenactment will be the June Fourth Incident in Tiananmen Square during the year One Thousand Nine Hundred Eighty-Nine.”
Bergeron stalled mentally on whether or not to interrupt the speaker so that she could say the year in the correct manner. And then, when the topic finally processed, Tiananmen Square, Bergeron looked over to Vice Principal Zhu and saw a tiny smile as though the administrator had caught someone in a trap.
The esteemed vice principal’s face hardened. He slapped a palm on a nearby desk for maximum sound, and then shouted an assault to the students.
His tone needed no translation.
Bergeron had been anticipating a moment like this since his arrival in Beijing. Never mention Tiananmen! Nor Communism nor freedom of the press. How foolish! China is closed; rhetoric is predetermined and rigid. The students looked scared. Perhaps this was a valuable lesson to learn here, in the safety of the international school; in the real Chinese world there were consequences for disrupting social order.
Vice Principal Zhu stood and walked calmly to the exit door. The students bowed their heads as he departed. Then, just outside the door, the vice principal started laughing. The students inside the room began laughing also.
Oh, thought Bergeron, a joke.
Yes, Zhu was one of those funny vice principals that students enjoy, one that makes them question reality. Verbal aggression is funny when used as a tool.
The vice principal retook his seat, smiling at Bergeron, who smiled back complicity.
The Tiananmen Square presentation began.
The boy in the group who wasn’t a class leader, evidently not wishing to speak, pretended to be a tank. He held two hands out as though he were driving a bus, not a tank, and calmly walked through his compatriots. The girl leader stepped aside, while the boy leader slumped to the floor to be stepped over by the tank-boy. The class giggled. “I want things that other people have,” said the trampled boy leader. The girl leader said, “Corruption is bad, we must talk about corruption because there will be no corruption if we talk about corruption!” Bergeron nodded his head, okay, made a mental note to go over pronouns, and then looked to Vice Principal Zhu, who maintained his grin. The girl class leader continued: “I don’t wish to wait twenty years to attend university in America!”
Bergeron giggled. Vice Principal Zhu looked at Bergeron, but didn’t change his facial expression, though he did nod, as though confirmation that he and the foreign expert were in agreement about something significant that only adults might understand.
The presentation concluded and the other pupils applauded. Bergeron thought it strange that the other groups hadn’t received applause, as though they felt only the student leaders deserved merit.
Vice Principal Zhu held up his paddle, revealing his score—a four!—and then waved it from side to side so that all in the room could inspect his evaluation.
Bergeron didn’t take part in the next exchange.
The girl leader began to question the vice principal in the style of a cross-examination. It was all in Mandarin, and respectful enough to Bergeron, tone-wise, but there was still a bite to the girl’s words. Bergeron would call the vice principal’s tone dispassionate; he had a message and he was sticking to it. The word deng was repeated with increasing emphasis. The boy leader joined the conversation and then bowed his head when the vice principal snapped at him, perhaps for being too aggressive in his mode of conversation.
Zhu pointed to the first group that had earned a seven, said something that must have meant winner, shook Bergeron’s hand, and exited the room. The winning group pumped their fists and the Tiananmen pupils pouted.
Bergeron sought an explanation.
The girl leader stood to speak to her teacher, as though this were suddenly a formal classroom, and said: “Vice Principal Zhu claims out facts are not correct.”
Fair enough, Bergeron thought. He didn’t know what happened at Tiananmen either.
“But we executed research!” said the boy leader. “Baidu and Google, too! And Vice Principal Zhu says we are still wrong!”
The girl leader continued: “We inform him that our acting performance is also based on the education we receive in school in years past, and he still says we are wrong! We ask where we are to learn correct things, if not internet, if not school?” The girl was losing composure and Bergeron feared she might cry. “And Vice Principal Zhu says the only way to learn about Tiananmen is to talk to you, Dear Mr. Bergeron, and that even though you might not know the answers you will yes know how to ask questions.”
“Oh,” said Bergeron.
“He said that’s all you are good for,” said the boy leader. “Asking questions.”
“No,” said the girl leader. “Especially good for. The American Foreign Expert is especially good for appreciating the need for questions, not just asking. In observing what you, Dear Mr. Bergeron, do not know about America, your own country, we will be able to measure the scope of what we do not yet know about our own beloved China.”
The bell rang to change classes.
Students placed materials into backpacks and made noises of departure.
“Yes, okay,” said Bergeron. “That is indeed profound. I promise we’ll ask the right questions tomorrow.”
At the twenty-one day mark of his IKEA dining marathon the menu switched to traditional Italian, noodles in rich sauces, and the manager even brought a carafe of red wine (the Vänlig pitcher, ¥35) for them to sip in classy silence while Bergeron ate his meal and the Chinese customers observed how useful all pieces of furniture were to the American’s living room experience, how necessary and affordable. It was terrible wine, possibly from a box, but that wasn’t the point.
The manager now ate alongside Bergeron each evening. As both clearly benefitted—Bergeron with coupons and safe, free food, and the manager in the commerce associated with customers wishing to replicate the American culinary-home experience—Bergeron felt wanted, and no longer itched from the social pressure to explore other culinary options at other establishments.
Bergeron found himself excited as he walked past the guards at the entrance and ascended the escalator. His classes were going fine—good, not great—the environment had been clearer recently, with only even-numbered license plates allowed on the streets to decrease pollution—and, mostly, he was eager to learn which entrée the head chef of the IKEA cafeteria would attempt next.
Lamb chops with green asparagus and tiny, whole potatoes.
Bergeron pumped his fist. This would be good.
After alerting a cashier to his presence, Bergeron proceeded directly to the living room staging area. There, he found two leather chairs (the Poäng, ¥699 each) with a bottle of red wine on a coffee table. The manager had already started sipping a glass, and poured one for Bergeron after first standing to shake his hand. There was a functional television today inside an enormous console with bookshelves on either side (the Bestå, ¥5,129). The rug and side tables and lamp and storage cubes each had prices. Bergeron liked this setup. Everything together cost, more or less, ¥10,000. He didn’t know how much that equaled in his own version of money, but he decided he would buy this environment for his own apartment in Beijing. He would be happy returning home to a room that felt like this, like a room based on personal rather than cultural identity.
Bergeron was now immune to that once-awkward feeling of being observed. Fathers pointed their young sons toward Bergeron and demonstrated which button to press on the telephone to take a picture. Women spoke to each other with protective hands over their mouths. Everyone smiled, and, if Bergeron made accidental eye contact, he’d raise his glass and give the onlooker a small toast. He imagined they responded with the Chinese version of Bon Appetite, or perhaps Health and Happiness. So he didn’t turn around to acknowledge a woman who paused to inspect him from a close distance. Norms of proximity were different in each culture, Bergeron knew, and the closeness that this woman clearly felt was normal, so close that Bergeron could hear the squeak in her shoes (or perhaps leather pants), was not a threat to him as it might have been otherwise. The perfume covering her essence of cigarette smoke was now a key element in his immediate oxygen supply. People here smoke too much, he thought. He continued watching TV alongside the manager. It was one of the government channels dedicated to sport. Two Chinese basketball teams played. Apparently each team was allowed two Americans, as two seven-footers per team played alongside much shorter Chinese teammates. Bergeron wondered what it would be like to live in China as a seven-foot-tall black man; the onlooking of others might not be so benevolent.
At that moment a hand from behind touched his shoulder.
Bergeron turned his head and looked up to a white face—not Chinese, that is—and he then stood quickly as though his body’s shock had taken control to begin the automatic chemical flight response. He knew this white face—it was the American studies teacher, his predecessor, the Floridian, her name either never learned or no longer accessible under the momentary duress of this chance meeting.
“Hello,” said Bergeron, saluting her with his wine glass still in hand. It looked to all present that he would say something else immediately, one or two words to explain himself and the situation, but his mind wasn’t firing quickly enough to produce something witty. He wouldn’t speak if he couldn’t say something witty. The manager produced an extra glass of wine for his American’s female guest.
“Wine,” said the manager in English. And that’s all he said.
The woman from Panama City, Florida said, “Yes, I see,” and took the glass, placed her nose just above the rim, and inhaled. She touched the liquid with her lips, just barely, and Bergeron couldn’t tell if she’d sipped or was just being polite, like she was demonstrating an observed Chinese custom of forced wine consumption he hadn’t yet learned.
Two servings of lamb chops in a vinaigrette reduction sauce arrived, each with a side of small potatoes and green asparagus. The manager used hand motions to insist that Bergeron’s female guest take the manager’s place at the dinner setting. Perhaps enjoying the look of shock on Bergeron’s face, she maintained eye contact with her former colleague as she followed the manager to the indicated Poäng chair. Just before sitting she fingered the visible price tag, and said, smiling at Bergeron as though sharing an inside joke, “Seven Hundred? Crazy expensive!”
The manger demonstrated how to change TV channels and then handed her the remote.
“Thank you,” she said in Mandarin. The manager smiled, said something polite back to her that she appeared to comprehend, bowed, and then departed.
Bergeron retook his place in his chair. He intended to ask her name just then, to play it off as though he’d forgotten because of poor memory—something implicating a fault of his own, not her unforgettable nature—but abandoned his thought when she interjected how strange it was to be served food out of the blue in IKEA.
Although he hadn’t asked, she informed him that she was working at a different school in Beijing—a better school with flexible hours, additional resources, and more advanced air filters. Bergeron feared any follow-up questions would lead to a cycle of envy. Responding to her declaration of improved circumstances would enter him in a game he didn’t wish to play even though he could most assuredly win.
“It’s not so strange to eat here,” said Bergeron. “I’m known here. It’s an arrangement I have with the manager.”
“Oh,” said the woman from Florida. She sipped the wine and stabbed a potato with a fork to test if it was cooked through.
A Chinese family of four sent their youngest, a daughter, to stand inside the living room scene. The little girl stood directly in front of Bergeron, who turned to face the family of photo takers. The woman from Florida didn’t pause from eating her meal. When the family departed she said, “You do this often, you say?”
“People take pictures of you and buy the furniture you sit in because they think the people in America are like you and they want to be like you?”
“This isn’t normal,” she said.
Bergeron wanted to say something pointed, but he settled on, “Okay.”
The woman from Florida continued eating. She changed the channel on the screen to a nature program in English with Mandarin subtitles. Bergeron assumed she’d be watching this very program in her own home if she weren’t at IKEA. She might be drinking wine, too, perhaps slightly better wine paired with slightly inferior food. If he were at home he’d be drinking tea and eating a cup of noodles made from the same kettle of boiled water as the tea. But once he purchased his new living room things would change. He’d cook. He’d learn where to buy ingredients he recognized and he’d cook them.
More shoppers than usual stalled to observe the couple eating. For the first time in this environment Bergeron felt conspicuous. He took a sip of wine. He struggled to cut the pork chop off the bone with the IKEA cutlery and giggled to himself—how silly to struggle!—and pulled his French peasant knife from his pocket to slice cleanly through the meat. He felt his composure return. This is what it felt like to be in control, to have access to the correct tool, and to dispatch obstacles.
“Can I cut your meat?” offered Bergeron. He felt instantly ridiculous for having asked. The woman from Florida didn’t respond, either consumed by the nature program or ignoring such an infantilizing request. Respect demanded that he not end his attempts at conversation with offering to cut her meat. They were educators in the same field and there were many things they could talk about. When the time seemed right—a moment, two more swigs of wine, a commercial break from nature programing—he would engage her in a conversation about Native Americans. He was curious to know why she’d dedicated so much time to that subject with her students the previous year. He wanted to know if it played into her personal psychology.
Another hand rested on his shoulder. Bergeron assumed it to be the manager checking to see that all was well. Bergeron turned and first saw the red arm band with yellow writing in characters, and then the machine gun at eye-level pointing downward. The security guard bowed to Bergeron, who stood, which prompted the guard to take a step back and place his free hand on the butt end of his machine gun. Bergeron smiled. He was still holding his knife and fork and the guard calmed when Bergeron placed them on the tray table. The guard motioned for Bergeron to sit and then came to inspect the plate of half eaten food. He looked Bergeron in the eye as though to measure the American’s level of agitation and then slowly reached for the peasant knife. The guard took the blade in his hand and, as Bergeron viewed it, was clearly impressed by the combination of light weight and sharp cutting edge. You could cut cardboard with this knife as though it were tissue paper—no problem. The guard stepped back from the living room area, checked his surroundings, and then began violently slicing the air as though the knife were a sword. That’s dangerous, thought Bergeron. The guard was indeed impressed. He nodded to himself, said something to a partner, who Bergeron just then noticed, and then began to pull on the blade, trying to close it without disengaging the locking mechanism. Bergeron looked for the manager, who never did reappear. Bergeron then made a noise, a squeak—not really in any language—to get the guards’ attention, and then, with some more hand gestures, hooked fingers and such, guided the guard in sliding the lock back and forth, closing the knife and sliding it back out into a fixed instrument of cutting stronger than any knife that could be found in the IKEA cutlery department. The guard nodded and motioned for Bergeron to sit back down. The second guard produced a paper IKEA measuring tape, used for aligning curtains and such, and one guard held the tape while the other placed the knife blade on top of it. Bergeron could have told them the blade was just over five inches, but he wouldn’t have been able to convert that into useful centimeters.
The guards motioned for Bergeron to stand.
“Well, this is something,” said the woman from Florida, still chewing.
Bergeron shot her a look. What do you mean something? he wanted to say. But the hand placed between his shoulder blades pushed in the direction he should walk, and that direction was away from immediate conversation. Something, thought Bergeron. A misunderstanding. An unknown civil rule prohibiting properly cut meat. A law in China about folding knives, locking knives, knives over a certain number of centimeters.
Families took photos of the American being escorted out of IKEA. Bergeron was embarrassed, probably wouldn’t come back to eat there or to buy furniture. He’d find other furniture that made him feel like a unique person. When the guards and Bergeron descended the escalator, he saw the flashing lights of the police vehicle and thought, wow, there’s been a crime. And when the guards walked Bergeron through the electric doors and deposited him with two uniformed policemen, owners of the car with flashing lights, Bergeron didn’t think he could possibly be in real trouble because they hadn’t put him in handcuffs—every country used hand cuffs, that wasn’t just an American thing—and perhaps the officers, now in the car after talking to the guards, were just giving him a ride home. Bergeron slipped Julia’s business card to the officers in the front seat through a small break in the plastic partition. The officer not driving took it and put it in his pocket; perhaps he would call her later. They were going directly toward Bergeron’s neighborhood, and he felt relief. And when they didn’t turn at the intersection Bergeron knew led directly to his apartment, when they were past his neighborhood, into another ring of the city, he thought, no, don’t worry yet. There’s still time to turn. Perhaps I’m wrong. He recalled that Beijing was very new, always changing, and no driver in this city found the same address in the same way.
A. A. Weiss is the author of Lenin’s Asylum, a memoir, forthcoming from Bleeding Heart Publications. Other work has appeared in BOAAT Journal, Hippocampus, Moon City Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Visit his website at www.aaweiss.com