( Xiao di, little brother, is a common term of address in Chinese for a younger man in south China.)
Little Brother sits at the barbecue grill with black smoke streaming into his face. We walk up with calls of, “Ni hao, ni hao.” He responds with the only English he knows, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD.” He finds amazing versatility in the phrase. With a variety of tones and inflections, he uses it to respond to everything from greetings to requests for more beer.
It is a raspy old man's voice for someone who looks about 12. In fact, Xiao Di is 17, but you'd never know it. He's got a crew cut and huge ears that are rotated forward, bat-like. One of his ears has a growth on it, an extra ledge that somehow grew out at right angles to his earlobe. He's not tall but looks tall. Thin in a way that looks like a pole grew bones, arms and legs, and started walking around. He is a natural actor and looks -- if it's possible to imagine this -- like a cross between a Chinese James Dean and a slightly affable and less-tortured Gollum.
Xiao Di is cook, bartender and waiter at a local barbecue stall outside the wall of the East Gate of the university. It's hard, given how long I've been here, to see the East Gate as it really is.
When I see it as it would appear to the foreign eye, it looks more like a refugee camp then a dining location. Dirty dogs tend to lie about under a scrubby tree. Broken concrete and gravel cover an empty lot that narrows into a dusty road. At night, stalls and food carts dot the dusty lot. There are a handful of restaurants along the road. In those ramshackle restaurants they make some of the best food I've ever eaten.
The barbecue stall that Xiao Di mans has Christmas-tree type lights strung up under the sky, and plastic, fake-wooden folding tables and chairs. On a white push cart sit items for grilling. Above the food whirs a fan with bits of plastic taped to its blades, spinning quietly to keep the flies away.
Chinese barbecue is not American barbecue. Everything is on a stick, and the portions are small. Beefballs, chicken legs, eggplant, tofu, -all are skewered and dipped in honey or pepper sauce. Xiao Di brings them out as they come up, grinning so wide his ears seem like they are moving out several inches from his head.
“Your – tofu,” he says, in a Chinese that is so non-standard and idiosyncratic that it seems like a private language. He rasps out the words and grins psychotically, rolls his eyes, and lopes off to bring beer.
One night he comes up and starts rubbing a friend's shoulders.
“One more beer?” he asks. He knows his job and is a good salesman.
“Not tonight,” my buddy answers.
“OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD,” Xiao Di says quietly, shaking his head in disapproval.
He then harangues my friend for a good ten minutes about how he is losing face because we are all drinking more, that if he were a real man, he'd have another beer.
One night he has a coughing fit and falls out of his seat at the barbecue. Another night he chases the boys working at a nearby restaurant. Another, he gets in a fight with the people he works for at the stall. For a couple of weeks in the winter, he appears in a dirty yellow suit jacket two sizes too big for him. We tell him how all the girls will be crazy over him. On another night, he's wildly throwing a butcher knife at the large rats that haunt the bushes behind the barbecue stalls.
Tonight I go down alone to the East Gate. I'm about to start my third year at the Chinese university. Few students and teachers are back yet, and the seats around the barbecue stalls are mostly empty.
For the first time, I sit down and have a real conversation with Xiao Di.
He is wearing a red sleeveless t-shirt with 23 on the back and a montage of hoop dreams on the front. He loves basketball. He plays in a nearby town and wants to know if I want to play there sometime. He has been smoking since age eight. He says contradictory things about whether he goes to school or not. He says he doesn't like working here -- in fact, has switched the stall he works at because they treated him badly at the other one. He wants to get a factory job.
In a country that encourages if does not require each family one child, he has four brothers and sisters. One brother looks just like him, he says. His sister is in Guangzhou. When I ask about his parents, he looks down and mumbles something that I don't understand. I don't press. If Xiao Di isn't an actual orphan, there is something about him that radiates isolation.
We talk. I eat, and he smokes. I have an English book. He picks it up and says he doesn't understand. I tell him he needs to study more. He tells me how much he would love to have a mobile phone. I tell him if he had one, he could call his girlfriend. He grunts and chuckles, says something in his private language, and begins rubbing his head.
After an hour or so, I pay and head home into the warm Chinese summer night. I glance back. Xiao Di is hunched over the barbecue, puffing the white smoke of his cigarette into the black smoke of the grill.