The smog

Graphic by Bram Keast

“What do you want?” Ian looked at me, as direct as his question.

I didn’t know him at all.

I came with Justus, whom I met from the class “USA Today and Tomorrow.” I took it to substitute my core course “American Literature and Culture” back at my home university. Justus took it as an optional module – he was a social science student.

We came for a drink and thought we’d talk about our presentation on legalizing marijuana. This is, after all, an ideal place for such a thing.

I noticed Ian once I entered the bar. He was Latino.

Berlin was very international, but behind a rusting iron gate hidden in an abandoned building, this bar was not. He stood out the same way that I did.

I ignored his constant glances, but eventually he came over.

“I want to have choices,” I said.

“I assume you are not a big fan of the Communist Party.” Ian smirked.

“Not a big fan, but not a hater either.”

“You just said you want choices,” he said. He was being provocative.

“Look, what I’m saying is, it would be nice to have some options to choose from. I might still choose the Communist Party, but that would be an active decision.”

I sounded like an activist.

I took a glance at Justus – he was concentrating on rolling a cigarette.

“You know what I really don’t understand?” he asked.

He didn’t wait for my response. “That one child policy thing.”

He was probably expecting my amazement at his knowledge of China. But I just nodded. Not that I didn’t want to satisfy his pride; I simply didn’t know how to answer.

“Are you the only child?” he continued.

“Yes, unfortunately.” I gave a bitter smile.

It was funny though. Whenever I told people in Berlin I was the only child, I spontaneously put on this miserable look, as if I was a victim of the policy. In fact, I was a big supporter.

I never felt lonely in my childhood, as many would have presumed. I enjoyed being the focus of my parents and I didn’t want to share their love with anybody. But somehow, I felt obliged to put on this pitiable look, to meet a social expectation.

“Having no say on how many children you want? That’s crazy,” Ian was getting excited.

I’d actually never thought about it that way.

“You’re probably right. My mom always wanted more children,” I said. That was true; my mother loved kids.

“See, that’s what I am talking about,” he said triumphantly.

After taking a long drag, Justus handed me the cigarette. He slightly tilted his chin, meaning that I should take a drag.

I told him the other day that I had never smoked in my life. It was very considerate of him to offer this, especially when a stranger was sitting with us.

“It is cigarette, right?”

“Yes, it is,” Justus chuckled.

In hopes of covering up my clumsiness, I imitated him and took a long drag. Then I started coughing like an idiot.

“You inhaled too much,” Justus said to me earnestly.

He then turned to Ian and explained, “She never smoked before.” It was so very considerate of him.

“This is so embarrassing,” I could barely utter a sentence.

“No, no. This is normal.” Both of them were eager to express their understanding.

“This is exactly why we travel, to try out different things,” Ian comforted me.

“How does it feel?” Justus asked.

“Like torture,” I said. It was actually not that bad.

“Only at first,” Justus said.

They both laughed.

OK, enough on me smoking.

“I get the point of implementing the policy, though.”

I turned to Ian and said, “There are too many people in China, and that causes severe problems.”

“But in sacrifice of human rights?” Ian stared at me.

“I think you are too used to labelling China. Everything China does violates human rights, right?” I was suddenly very upset.

Then nobody said anything for a while.

“I think what Maya wants to say is, sometimes individual freedom cannot be the sole principle. It is a tricky question when freedom is up against starving babies and poverty.”

Justus tried to ease the tension.

Ian shook his head.

“I don’t get it.” He looked at me. “First you said you want choices, but seems to me there’s nothing to be changed.”

I was tongue-twisted. The conversation made me exhausted. I found my eyes fixing on Ian’s super long sideburns. I wondered how far we were from monkeys. Justus got up to get another beer.

“There are things to be changed, lots of things,” I finally said, “but I don’t know what, and I don’t know how.”

I ended up making a confession to a person I knew for 20 minutes.

When Justus came back, Ian had already left. He proposed to exchange numbers, but I said I was leaving Berlin in a week. Of course, I didn’t tell Justus this part.

“I was hoping he would leave us at some point,” Justus said.

“Is it normal here,” I asked, “for people to invite themselves over?”

“It happens sometimes,” Justus chuckled. “I am sorry that you had to talk about China all night. It must have bored you to death.”

I felt many things that night, but boredom was not one of them.

“Not really. I seldom talk about things like this.”

“You don’t?”

“No. I guess it’s part of Chinese philosophy. We are taught to be satisfied with what we have.”

“That’s interesting,” Justus said, thoughtfully.

“I find it very hard to express what I think.”

“Those are difficult questions,” Justus said.

“Wanna try again?”

“Sure, why not?” I took another long drag.