Fiction, Translation

Headscarf Girl14 min read

New fiction by Cao Kou – translated by Josh Stenberg

Cao Kou’s short fiction often masquerades as the casual recollection or chatty anecdote of a youngish male first-person narrator. People who have lived in Chinese cities will recognize this streetscape, with its gritty locales and paucity of private space. Non-Han Muslims are a visible part of that landscape, especially in eateries like the one where this Han narrator has started taking meals. The protagonist is attracted to the “headscarf girl,” but he combines this with an incuriosity so fundamental that he likely doesn’t know her name; her vanishing at the end earns only a shrug. This brief anti-romantic tale speaks volumes about the realities and anxiety of the intersections of gender, ethnicity and religion in the contemporary Chinese metropolis, and it is likely this unease which had led to it being published here for the first time, rather than in China. – Josh Stenberg

I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I’ve eaten at all the places to eat near where I live. And there’s one or two where I’ve eaten lots of times, so there’s an owner and a waitress, both women, that I’ve gotten to know. I couldn’t tell you about their looks, I mean they’re alright, definitely not ugly, or else why would I get to know them, right? I just remember that one of them was from Tianchang in Anhui province, and one is from Huaiyin which is in Jiangsu but further north from here. One of them’s already married, and her husband was the one cooking up the twice-cooked pork and all that shit; and the other one’s not married, and she keeps a pink OPPO cell phone in her back pocket.

I mean, I’ve gotten to know them, but I don’t actually know how to get things going with them. So at the end of the day I’m just a customer who comes in for a lot of his meals. So that’s how they treat me too, they chat with me for a little bit, and then when I get the bill they round it down for me a little – stuff like that. One day I went late and when I was done eating they shut the place down. I said to the waitress, I’ll walk you home, OK? She thought about it and said, fine. She lived pretty near, so we just went through the housing estate and we were there. So then I suggested that we sit down for a while on one of the covered walkways in the little square they have there, and she said OK to that too. At the time, there were a bunch of insomniac geezers there too, tinkering around on the exercise equipment or whatever it is they do, in their shorts and singlets. So I couldn’t get much of a conversation going, basically it was all me asking stuff and her answering, like I was super curious about her or something. Actually as far as her family background her pretty good marks at junior high especially in English but how she didn’t pass the high school test but she didn’t want to go there anyway so she left home to find work and her boyfriend was working in Shanghai so that was really exhausting and she wanted to call it quits and so forth I wasn’t interested anyway. I was just trying to figure out how to spit it out, and whether before spitting it out I could reach out my hand, even if I didn’t get to start groping her slender waist yet, but even just laying my hand and on hers would be OK. Her hand was right next to mine, not more than 10 cm away, and under the light from the residential tower (which was just like moonlight) if an ant had climbed up the back of her hand I would have been able to see it.

You’ve got an ant there. I just announced my discovery, I didn’t help her get rid of it.

She lifted her hand and shook it, then blew on it a few times, then put her hand back where it had been before going on again about the boyfriend she picked up in junior high.

Later the old geezers ran out of steam, and one by one went home to sleep, swinging their arms. Only then did I have the courage to sidle up closer to her, placing one arm around her shoulder. 

What are you doing? That’s what she asked. Because there was a sudden increase in volume, I gathered that a geezer behind us must have stopped swinging his arms and walking backwards.  

I didn’t turn around and said, what do you think? 

I’m not a very smooth talker. 

So then she left in a huff, and I went home to my own place. 

When I got home I had a think about what had happened. I decided that if I didn’t want to give it up because of what had happened, then I should see her home again tomorrow, and after a few more times like that it wouldn’t be totally hopeless. But then I thought that then she was going to tell me again about how she was pretty good at English in junior high and how her boyfriend was in Shanghai and all that, so I decided to let it slide, and then I quickly became aware that the food in their eatery was nasty, and that I’d been sick of eating there for a good long time. 

But I still had to eat. That’s when I discovered that the Lanzhou noodle shop that had opened up was alright.

That Lanzhou noodle place looked like to be a family business. Dad was in the kitchen, the daughter was in charge of bringing in customers and of keeping the place clean, and there was a little kid who took care of deliveries. The little kid was really little, and in my judgment – and I have been a high school teacher – if he was still in school, he was in junior high, tops. Probably because he was young, he didn’t like to wear the white cap. And he was very short, not even 1.5m, but his voice was changing. His dad, who did wear the white cap, was a brawny guy, and at least 1.8m. And that made me think of how, when guys reach puberty, the changes might not only be gratifying but also terrifying.

Of course it’s the daughter I want to talk about. Seventeen, eighteen? I’ve heard that Muslim girls get fat after that age, so that must be about right. Svelte. The head scarf looked good too, green. The headscarf really framed her face. Two pink cheeks, which I’ve heard is a racial thing and because of the high plateau, but it had the same effect as rouge. And the eyes, a little bit slanted, but black and shining. Aside from her looks, one of the big differences with the waitress from before is that she never smiled. Her dad and her brother didn’t, either. Sometimes the family spoke in their own ethnic language, and I never once saw her smile then, either. For a customer like me, she just said, what’ll you have, then she brought it to me, and then I paid and left, and that was it.

Honestly, I approved of them. So there was a period where I went regularly. Though I would still be a bit of a jerk, would try to get the kid to talk to me. I asked him why he wasn’t in school? He answered, why should he go to school. So I asked him, what did he think of Bin Laden? He said, dunno. I said, can Iraqis understand you guys if you speak your language? But he still said that he didn’t know … the only reason the kid would answer my questions is because every time I came I would always give him my iPhone 4 to play around with. There was a cell phone in the shop, the dad’s I guess, and every time it rang it was someone ordering delivery. Maybe the dad thought the kid didn’t need a cell, or else that he hadn’t reached cell-owning age. The sister had a cell, but it wasn’t a smartphone, and it was a rare event to see it taken out of its drawer under the cupboard. So the kid could only play with my cell. He played Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds but the one he liked was the one with the cat, and he especially liked trampling on the cats’ legs. That was the only time he would grin. His sister would come over and take a look, but it seemed like she wasn’t interested at all.

I have a friend who of course is Han Chinese like us. For years he’s had more than a few girlfriends, while also doing a lot of girls who weren’t his girlfriends, too. One day he told us, except for a Russian whore he bought years ago one time in the Northeast, if you went through them all, every last one in all these years was Han Chinese. That was just wrong, and he said, “I’m fucking tired of fucking Chinese girls.” Of course that’s pretty cocky of him, but it would have been cocky of me to call him out on it too. Although, in one way he really had hit on a truth. Specifically about me, namely, could I really date this Lanzhou noodle shop Muslim girl (although just the thought of the whole procedure of dating disgusts me), and then get married, and then have a kid (so would it be a mixed kid?) – like, was that even possible or not?

On this I really did ask a few supposedly very wise guys, including Grandpa Wang from our estate who had buggered around Xinjiang many years ago. Grandpa Wang was locked in a daily test of strength with the sporting equipment and could flip over and over on the horizontal bar like a gymnast. He was a star in our housing estate, and every day towards evening when he started his exercise routine, the young married women, fresh from dinner, would walk their dogs or their children to gather around him. Angry, I tried to call him out one day by asking whether he had ever been an athlete and he said no, it was just that he had often done this sort of thing a lot when the farm work was finished in Xinjiang, years earlier. So that’s how I more or less knew him.

Grandpa Wang offered an answer to my question which approached the matter from two different perspectives. The first was that these headscarf Muslim girls were totally different from the Hui Muslim girls who mixed freely with us, their religion and their customs predetermined that they would never marry a Chinese guy. Second, although with the exception of the headscarf there didn’t seem to be any serious difference between them and Chinese girls, they really did belong to different races, and the records indicated that their sexual skills were wholly unequalled by Chinese men, which is to say, we fundamentally weren’t up to gratifying their sexual demands. Was that the truth? I didn’t know. But seeing that he spoke from conviction and seemed to know chapter and verse, I didn’t dare doubt him.

But this did not stop me from heading down the path that led to the Lanzhou noodle shop. I still went often, proactively handing my phone to the kid so he could play with it. Then I would take the opportunity to shoot a glance or two at the headscarf girl. She really was a beauty. Sitting motionless on the stool, she looked vacantly out at the street in front of the shop. Besides the pedestrians and the cars, there was a special garbage can, covered in grease and dirt, for the shop to tip its garbage into, overflowing with filthy liquid, with the occasional rat venturing out of the gutter to explore it. She had never taken a real look at me. But that was even better, I reflected, and the thought almost moved me, because I couldn’t remember ever liking anybody so persistently, so anonymously before.

I even took a picture of her with my iPhone 4 and in the wee hours I uploaded it to my computer before jacking off to her like my life depended on it. The pleasure of this far exceeded what I got from prostitution, one-night stands, or from Japanese nudies like Sola Aoi. I tried to convince myself that this was love, and then I nodded in agreement, and then I shook my head in shame. I’d never be able to shoulder love. I almost cried.

Besides going to eat in the shop, I also got delivery from them. I chose the times to order delivery by observing when the boy in the shop was absent. I wanted her to climb up the stairs of my building and knock on my door. Unfortunately when I opened the door, if it wasn’t the boy, it was her dad, with the white cap. Then, when I had almost given up, she came.

Oh, hi. I opened the door, very excited. 

Potato and beef on rice? She asked.

That’s right. That’s right. 

Twelve bucks. 

Have you got change? I gave her a hundred bucks. 

She went through her pockets and shook her head. 

Wait a second, let me have a look. 

I ran into the bedroom, but I didn’t actually go looking for money, instead I leaned on the wall and panted heavily. I felt a bit dizzy. I pretended to be looking for money in the room, occasionally peaking my head out to look at her standing by the door. She didn’t, as I had imagined she would, examine my apartment, but was looking at the cell which was usually locked in the drawer and almost never came out.

I put the money in her hand, and her hand was very rough. I said thanks and she said you’re welcome. She turned around and was about to leave, and I said to myself, not so fast. Then she went down the stairs. I ran out onto the balcony, she walked really fast. A bunch of leaves were blocking her upper body, and then there was nothing more to see.

There’s not much to say about what happened after that. A burglar got into Grandpa Wang’s place and they lost 10,000 yuan and some jewelry. After that I didn’t see him on the horizontal bar anymore. Like it had all been agreed upon, the Huaiyin waitress left for some other place, too. Staff turnover in all the local shops. The Lanzhou noodle place is still there, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that headscarf girl, maybe she went back to where she came from. That’s my best guess.

Toward the end of the year, I was struggling home with two big bottles of salad oil that I got as a bonus from work. An electric scooter rang its bell behind me and I got out of the way as fast as I could. It was the kid from the noodle shop. Although that was no longer the right way of putting it, because in only half a year he had grown up, if not to 1.8m at least to 1.7m, and it was like there wasn’t enough space for his two long legs on either side of the bike, and now he was finally wearing the white cap on, and also he had a cell, which was a smartphone. The volume was up really high and he was playing a pop song the whole way, except I just didn’t know the name of the song, that’s all. ∎

Header: “Chinese boatwoman wearing a headscarf, Canton” circa. 1870 (Wellcome Images/Wikicommons)