One Saturday in Shanghai, John and I eschewed our usual date-night standby — the Tianran Vegetarian restaurant — for a Mexican joint my coworker recommended. The place hovered over a bar street in Shanghai that I’d heard of — from heavy ads in all the foreigner mags in Shanghai — but never visited. I maybe had a beer or glass of wine once a month, and couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in a bar. Still, in a country where avocados were more foreign than I was, I missed Mexican food desperately — desperate enough to go to a neighborhood I’d never gone to before.
With all of the bar ads for this street — and all of those “happy hour” promos — I expected the patrons and music to be overflowing as much as the alcohol. But instead, I could barely hear the music, and saw only a handful of patrons here and there lurking in the shadows, as if this was the Prohibition era and no one wanted to be caught. And even stranger, the restaurant, perched on the second floor, had the same lascivious glow of a red-light district brothel in Amsterdam. Was this really the Mexican food dinner my friend, a girl at that, had recommended?
Reluctantly, we wandered upstairs, relieved to discover that it still was, in fact, a Mexican restaurant — but it was as deserted as the bar street outside. “Should we even stay here?” I wondered aloud to John, who had the same puzzled look as I did. But stay we did. After all, we’d come all this way for a burrito — and if not here, then where?
John and I slipped into a booth by the window that overlooked the ghostly street below, and only noticed the other two patrons — a pair of thirtysomething European guys hunched over the bar nursing their beers — in passing.
But I didn’t just pass them by, because they looked at me and shouted across the way: “Are you from France?”
I should have known this was trouble. Why would anyone ask your nationality, just like that, after entering a restaurant? I felt a little nervous, uneasy even, to have strangers address me so suddenly. But I thought, maybe they mistook me for someone else? Maybe I should just tell them?
So I did. “No, I’m an American,” I said.
Why did I have to say American? I could have just said “no,” and left it there — and probably spent the rest of the evening lost in date night reverie, never giving the cheeky lads at the bar another thought. But I volunteered the extra information, and at my own peril.
“Oh, an American! I’m an American!” they taunted, in their louded stage whispers. “Those Americans, they think they rule the whole world, don’t they? They’re just war trash! An American, ha!”
And so it began, their drunken monologue about the evils of my country and people, for everyone — particularly me — to hear. To be sure, in the wake of the Iraq war, which had begun more than 6 months ago by that evening, it hit my ears hard.
Suddenly, I felt like I was back in high school again, with yet another bully facing me down — and yet another urge to get the hell out of there. I never wanted to punch or kick — with words or bodies; I always just wanted peace. But now here I was, in a foreign country, on a nearly deserted entertainment district, and the confrontation felt even more threatening than ever.
I sank into the corner of the booth and stared at John in an effort to forget the hooligans there. “Should we just go?” I asked in Chinese, guessing — correctly, as it turned out — that the two foreigners couldn’t even speak the language of this country.
John looked straight in my eyes, like a coach to a desperate player. “We cannot leave here. We cannot let them have the pleasure of that. We came here to eat, and we’re going to eat.”
His words washed over me like a cold shower, and washed away the urge to flee. I could stay. I could have my dinner. I could still have my date night, in spite of them. So I took a breath and decided to fix my gaze on John or the street, and nothing else, as the two of us lived in a virtual world built of our own conversation, and our own hopes — even as the hooligans droned on in the background.
“Americans are such arrogant assholes,” one laughed. “Those Americans!” And on, and on.
And we talked in Chinese, and sat, and finally ate our burritos. But we never left. Never.
In the end, the drunken hooligans walked away first, tumbling out the door — probably to another near-deserted place on that street for yet another round of beers, or even something more. As for me, for the first time in my life, I walked away with a little more courage.