Of Checkers and Noodle Soup

Matt Mok

"We want to go to Shenzhen. Shenzhen," Lily says to the driver, then says it again more slowly, as if the man will suddenly say, "Shenzhen? Why didn't you say so. I will show you the way, my American friends!"

"I don't think that'll help," I say, but am greeted with a glare so soul-searing that I immediately avert my eyes. Lily swings her backpack around and fetches her map, which is carefully marked with all our preplanned destinations. Also in her bag is a manila envelope filled with all of our hotel information for the week, a small phonetic English-to-Chinese phrasebook, and assorted little pieces of travel information paper clipped together. What we don't have, apparently, are reliable bus and train schedules or route maps.

Lily unfolds the map, presses it up against side of the bus, and points at Shenzhen, which has been circled with a big fat red marker. "Shenzhen," she says.

"Ah," the Chinese man says and smiles. He says some other things, but it's all Greek—or Chinese, for that matter—to me, and far beyond the grade level of our phrasebook. But Lily starts to nod as he goes on, interrupting once in a while with questions, having inexplicably picked up some comprehension of Mandarin in the last thirty-six hours that we've been in the country. He shakes his head. She nods, then shakes her head. He points at different places on the map. Obviously something important is happening here. I can only assume someone will clue me in at some point.

It's partially my fault—okay, maybe all my fault if you ask Lily—that we're lost in China with nothing but our backpacks, the clothes we're wearing, and about fifty US dollars worth of yuan in our pockets. We've always wanted to come here, to the other side of the world, to a place so foreign that it bears no resemblance to any Chinatown in any other country. We put it off for a while, but then one day I watched a television travel show and convinced Lily it was time to just go for it, with one caveat: we were going to do it right. On the show, and most shows of that type, the host goes to places that are off the beaten path, seeing the real people, the real country, and not some guided tour designed for tourists, which is more like being escorted along a conveyor belt, sharing the same experience as everyone else.

We wanted a trip that would be uniquely us, and not defined by others. It might be ironic that a television show, one that is quite possibly seen by thousands of people, providing them all with the exact same experience, inspired me to be unique, but well, in that I have no explanation.

We began our research and planning. Lots and lots of research and planning. If the Internet could ever be broken from the sheer amount of searches, we would have done it. To say we were excited would be like saying the Titanic needed a couple more lifeboats. We would explore the real China. We were going to do it on the cheap, but it would be amazing. We would be enthralled and overcome with the majesty that one finds during the little epiphanies in life. It would be, if I could slip into hyperbole, magical.

Today is our second day in China.

And we haven't seen a damn thing. Nothing amazing, nothing enthralling, and certainly nothing magical. That is, unless you count the two guys I saw earlier relieving themselves onto a wall in a side street before we boarded the train at six this morning. That was mildly interesting, or at the very least, eye-opening.

Yes. At six. On my vacation. I don't wake up that early for work and I get paid to do that. But we made a schedule, and we stuck to it.

It's hot today, and the mass of people milling around the bus depot is not helping. I see a clearing ahead that might provide some relief. I tap Lily on the shoulder and she turns around. "I think I'm going to go over—" I say, pointing the way.

She waves me off and returns to her bilingual discussion, with much hand gesturing and head nodding to be had.

Having received permission, I wander out of the suffocating crowd. I notice stares and feel elbows knocking into my sides as I push through. The locals, not used to tourists here, are no doubt wondering why this tall and lanky American is disrupting their day. No matter. I forge ahead and get to a clearing where I can finally breathe without feeling like I'm snorting up a lung full of bus exhaust.

I turn back and peer over the heads of the crowd. Lilly is deep in conversation with the driver. She's got a pad out now. Ah, the thrill of progress. I wave but she doesn't see me.

A few yards away, a set of tables underneath umbrellas provide an inviting promise of shade. I walk over to take a seat on one of the stools.

What a day. My feet finally get a break. Hopefully Lily finds out something useful. If we get stuck here much longer, I'll never hear the end of it. Years from now, we'll be arguing and she'll say, "Remember that time in China when...," and she'll have thrown down her winning card.

There's a clunk and when I turn around to face the table, I see a large steaming soup bowl in front of me. In it are noodles in broth, with chunks of unidentifiable meat on top. A woman wearing an apron stands next to the table and looks expectantly at me.

"Oh, no thank you. I don't want—"

She starts speaking and I'm about to tell her that I don't speak the language when I realize how futile that would be. She thrusts a meaty palm out at me, obviously wanting to be paid. I've sat in an eating area. I notice that there is indeed no one else sitting here that isn't eating something, and she must have decided that if I was taking up a seat resting here, I might as well be a resting customer. I dig out some bills Lily gave me. I have no idea how much to give her, but she has no problem plucking from my hand two five yuan notes, which—after some mental math—is a real pittance for a meal.

She strides away back to her cart, which is at the center of the eating area. It's al fresco dining minus the restaurant. Everything is prepared and cooked from the woman's cart, which has a pot of simmering broth the size of an oil drum. There's a line of twenty or so people at the cart, and it seems like every time a few satisfied customers walk away with their takeout containers, new ones take their place. It's a genuine hot spot of activity.

The activity extends to outside the noodle soup business as well. The cart is at the center of the eating area, and the eating area is the hub of an open market. I notice the plaza for what it is for the first time now that I've had the time to really see it. The buildings are modest and wholly unremarkable, cobbled together with wood and pieces of sheet metal. It's the people and the businesses that bring color to the area.

Stalls sell the day's produce. There's one with wicker baskets full of different greens, one with what looks like dried foods and herbs, one with cooked whole goose and chicken on display. There are hawkers selling food on sticks barbecued over grills. An old woman crouches over a stew pot peeling a sort of large white radish. A butcher and a fishmonger sell their products in adjacent storefronts, the butcher cutting off a rack of pork ribs for a man and the fishmonger elbow deep in a large white plastic bucket fishing out the day's catch for a woman.

The open market fills with noise. Customers haggle over prices and merchants call out to passing prospective shoppers. Bicyclists ring their bells as they maneuver their way through the constantly shifting crowd.

My stomach grumbles and I realize I haven't eaten for hours. I turn my eyes away from the shoppers and look at the noodle soup I just bought. Unfamiliar cuts of meat lay over unfamiliar looking greens and vegetables. Noodles sit underneath in a light-colored broth. The unrecognizable ingredients make me a tad nervous, but the smell is good and my stomach groans again in agreement.

I hesitantly dip the chopsticks into the noodles and bring them to my mouth. It's a revelation. They're small, thin like vermicelli, firm yet tender. Then a bite of the meat, which falls apart in my mouth, releasing juices and broth. The greens are cooked, but still slightly crisp. I bring the bowl to my lips and slurp the broth, which is, in a word, wonderful. It has a clean and savory taste, and I would pay just to have the soup itself. I shovel more noodles and meat and vegetables into my mouth, and before I know it, it's nearly all gone.

I lean back and sigh. It's the best meal I've had since we landed, maybe the best in months. Something moves in my peripheral. I swivel around. It's a boy, maybe six, dressed sensibly in t-shirt and shorts like most everyone else, and he's staring at me.

"Hi," I say, and he darts away.

Strange. Or maybe it's me who's the strange one. Can't imagine too many people who look like me wander through here.

I just finish polishing off the rest of my bowl when I catch him out of the corner of my eye again. He stands there again, staring at me, but this time holding a board, a checkers board. He takes a stool at my table without being asked and lays the board out on the table. It's old and the colored checkered squares fade into one another. After undoing a clasp and unfolding the board, he reaches inside and brings out the pieces. They're red and black and they look like they've been used for quite a while, the ridges smooth and showing the wear of age. The boy begins to set the pieces on their respective sides, and when he's done, he makes his first move, then looks at me.

Some table I've chosen. First, a woman comes over and forces me to buy and eat a bowl of noodle soup. Okay, she didn't force me to eat it, and it was delicious, but there was some element of coercion in play there. Now, out of the blue, a child sets up a checker game at my table and expects me to play.

I look over in Lily's direction and can just make out the top of her head bobbing up and down, still talking to the driver. What the hell. I move one of my pieces.

The boy makes his next move with a deft hand, as if he already has it all worked out and was just waiting for me to get on with it. A few seconds and I move another piece. He takes no time to follow up. We trade moves quickly and furiously, but I'm just trying to keep up and not look like I'm the slow one, while he appears to be in total control. He hasn't looked up once since the game started.

Until now.

And I can see why. I'm trapped, and down to my last piece. It doesn't matter which direction I move. He's got me. I make my last move, but it's only a formality. The boy jumps over my piece with his and takes mine off the board.

"Good game. Good job," I say, but he only looks at me.

I give him a thumbs up and a smile. This he understands and grins in return, revealing a gap in his smile where a tooth has fallen out.

"There you are."

I turn to find Lily at my side. "Hey."

"So, I think I've made some sense out of what that guy's saying," she said. "If we get going now, we can make it before it gets dark." She sees my empty bowl. "Were you eating? What is that? And who's this?"

"I haven't the slightest idea what this is, but it's amazing. And this is my new friend, the checkers hustler," I say.

The boy looks up from the board, which he is already done setting up with startling speed. I give him a wink and he giggles.

"Well, okay, but we have to go if we want to stay on schedule. It's going to be hard enough as it is and if—"

"Lily."

"—we stay here any longer, we'll never—"

"Lily."

"What?"

"Have a seat."

"But..."

"I still have a rematch to deal with. Besides, you need to try some of this noodle soup." I reach for her hand and bring it to my lips for a kiss.

She sighs. "Okay. But just for a few minutes."

"Good," I say with a smile. "You won't regret it."

I raise my arm and look over to the cart for the woman, but she's already on her way, clutching two steaming bowls of noodle soup.


About the Author

Matt Mok grew up in Queens, New York and now lives in New Hampshire. He started writing a few years ago after rekindling an interest in reading. To his surprise, his stories were accepted for publication. In his spare time, he enjoys procrastination.