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Do all Chinese girls lie?

I asked Choy Yen, a dancer at the Hungry i, that question. She had been drilling me in Chinese on the parts of the body. When we got down to the waist, the conversation turned general, then to the subject of truth and honesty. That's when I asked her about Chinese girls and lies.

She smiled sweetly at me, as though in recognition that I had just penetrated one of the great mysteries of the East.

She had been telling me that she lied to her father about getting a grant to go to school. Her father used to be rich but is not now. She wanted to spare him worry about sending her school money from Singapore. He doesn't know that his "little girl" is a dancer. A lot of fathers don't know that their littler girls are dancers. They think they are just going to college.

"Yes," she finally said. Now I kind of admired her lie, but I had been told other—what would you call them?—"stories" by other Chinese girls that simply fit the occasion. When I talked with someone else, I would find that the same girl had told that other person quite a different story. Zhenshi, truth, and jiahua, lie. I had begun to think about what these words meant.

For example, I have a friend who recently moved to New York, or told me she did. To a mutual friend she said she was going back to China because her father was dying. Very different stories, to be sure. After much thought it finally dawned on me that both stories were "true" in some sense. Each was simply tailored to a situation and listener and provided a good explanation for her absence. Apparently we Westerners are picky. We take "true" to imply literal, almost scientific, exactness.

Zhenshi in Chinese seems to mean more like "good story" or "believable explanation". It is closer to the feeling you get about verdad or fidelidad in Spanish, which seem to inject honor into the concept of truth. Whereas to us English-speaking people truth is more like a pass-fail laboratory test. By the same token, an explanation that is literally true but does not sound possible or likely—that is a lie in Chinese, or at least to a young Chinese woman. The less the story sounds true, the more it becomes a lie, a "bald lie" or "damned lie." Or at least this is my theory. And as a corollary ("corrollary"? see how Western I am?) don't ever say "You'll never believe this" to a young Chinese woman, because then she won't.

I wanted to ask Choy Yen more about this, but it was her time to remove the few clothes she was wearing and go on stage. Ni shen piaoliangde. Wo chi zuichun, I said. (You are very pretty. I eat your lips.) She laughs. Now would I see her "true" body or just the one she wanted me to see? Whatever I saw looked real to me and exciting. I guess it must have been her true body.

The world is wearisome, and yet there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Now for some reason there are people who think I own the Hungry i. Really, I am not there that much. Maybe it is because of my age—I'm not the young horny guy I used to be—or maybe it is because I don't seem to pay much attention to the dancing and the girls on stage. I seem to be always talking with management, the folks who wear the clothes. And when I'm there, I usually sit down at the end of the bar near the fax machine. I talk to Nina the bartender about her boyfriend problems or my girlfriend problems and why the world is not perfect when it comes to finding the perfect mate, or any mate, for that matter. Anyway, I want to set the record straight on this one matter: I do not own the Hungry i. If I decide to buy it, you will be the first to know. I tell you true. I am, however, hungry, sometimes horny, and with one good eye can see more than I can consume. The eye can see a lot, you know. No one can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears of hearing. And I might add, tongues of tasting, fingers of feeling, and noses, even, of smelling. But let's be more specific.

I want to hold the whole world in my mouth and suck on it.

I have become obsessed lately with tasting. I don't know why. Maybe it is the intimate connection to the substance of the "real world" that tasting brings. It is a little like making love; and like love, it is a universal language. Anyway, I like the taste of things and I want to know how to be a better taster, both on the higher plane and the lower one that my mother warned me about—and any other vaguely discernible planes in between. If I can taste truly enough and fully, maybe I will know something. You see I have always had this feeling that knowledge without experience is not knowledge; it is theory, equations, a classroom without a playground.

Now Tasting, in a way, is like looking at something. If you are an artist, you learn to look harder, longer, and differently at things than the average guy on the street. First you look at the thing directly, then you look to the side and around it, pretending the "thing" is not there, then you shut your eyes and ... Well, ask an artist. Each will say something a little different, but each will have a technique or swear adamantly that they have no technique at all. Don't believe the latter; they are lying. Anyone who says they have no technique has a technique, and you have just discovered it. It is denial of technique and cultivation of extreme mental openness. They are of the Zen-koan school. Smile at them Buddha-like and slowly walk away.

As I was saying, however, I want to become a better taster. Thus I have made it my habit to ask those who are expert at preparing or concocting beverages how they go about tasting. Sometimes my questions are regarded as being indelicate, like asking someone how they feel during an orgasm, but mostly my question is regarded with benign tolerance. Somehow I think I may be able to extrapolate tasting to a higher level of knowledge in which I will feelingly understand the world. But I never tell people that. I just ask them how they go about tasting stuff.

The other day I walked over to Enrico's on Broadway. It was early afternoon, the weather was lovely, and there were were a lot of people out walking around soaking it up. When I go to Enrico's I like to get the end seat near the door at the bar. Failing to get that I will go for the end seat away from the door near the kitchen. Nothing between seems to be satisfying. The jerks always sit in the middle where they will be seen, and getting an end seat provides a nice buffer zone between the jerks and their jerk-friends, and me. I will be honest with you: Sometimes I feel even a little upset if the end seats are taken. I go somewhere else.

Today the end seat near the door was taken but it was a pleasant surprise. There was Marco Dionysos, one of San Francisco's master bartenders. Marco bills himself as a "Beverage Specialist" but he is also something of the apothecary, the druggist, herbalist, the mixologist, and maybe even the alchemist. Watching him work is like watching a magic show. First inspiration strikes, then his hands begin to grab this bottle and that. Thing are poured, dumped, mixed, combined, stirred or shaken, then a little frown appears on Marco's face, his brows knit, then relax. He pokes a straw into the finished product, caps the straw with his index finger so that it retains the fluids, then, tilting his head back a little, removes his finger from the end of the straw and lets the fluids drain into his mouth. "Ah, yes, that is it," he seems to say. And that is probably what you will be saying too. Marco is good.

But today Marco was not working. He was reading the paper and having a drink. We talked about this and that. I told him I had taken a tea seminar with Roy Fong at the Imperial Tea Court—that seemed to interest him—and then I hit him with the question. Actually, I told him I had been trying out various ways of tasting drinks—tea, coffee, wine, and recently cocktails. Cocktails are really Marco's specialty.

From Lorenzo Petroni, owner of North Beach restaurant, I had learned the technique of letting the wine settle into the mouth and under the tongue; from Lawrence Romano of Wine Appellations I had learned the technique of sucking on the wine, though he only reluctantly told me of this technique, himself taking a more holistic approach of matching wine with food and enjoying it "in context"; and from my French grandmother, sadly to say no longer with us, I had learned a technique of percolating the wine in the mouth, sending the lovely bouquet into the nasal passage (ah, yes, mamie was a lively one and I'm sure she is causing a great disturbance up there, down below, or wherever she may be).

I told Marco that I had tried mamie's technique out on a Negroni cocktail not too long ago, and that I had found it was rather pleasant. Marco smiled knowingly.

"But leave your mouth half open," he said.

While a Negroni is not too strong, being a mixture of Compari, sweet vermouth, and gin, with stronger drinks you can burn your nasal passages, Marco told me. He sounded like he was speaking from experience. The senses, ah, yes, they are sensitive.

And if I taste the world and all its flavors, if just for a moment, then I will be one with the world and will know it.

Kam-sa-ham-nida. Chon-man-e Mal-sum-im-ni-da.

I have a Korean friend who works in one of the "houses" downtown. I don't know why she does it; she is a lovely person. But that is how she earns a living. But she surprised me the other day. We had been talking about getting married someday. No, not the two of us. It was just sort of a general discussion, and a bit dreamy, all things considered. We had probably been drinking too much at the bar nearby where she works.

"You know, some girls marry their customers," she told me.

"Really?" I was surprised to hear this.

"Yeah, they do," she said enthusiastically.

"And they continue with their 'job'"?

"Well, Coco's married," she said.

"And that doesn't bother her husband?" I asked.

"I guess not," she said. "He rides around in one of those low cars with the boom boom. He's not real high class." Nor is Coco, I might add but I didn't say it.

"Do they love each other?" I asked.

"Who knows, but they are married."

"And how about you?" I asked. "Every been married?"

"No, but I want to get married someday. In a few years, after I quite this job."

"Well, what would you tell your husband?" I asked.

"Oh, I wouldn't tell him anything. I think it would disturb him."

"But what if he found out someday. Say, you have two kids, you're happily married with a house in Marin, and someone comes over, says something and ..."

She looked disturbed and I cut off my what-ifs.

"'nother drink?" I asked


"Two more," I said to Sobina, bartender at 441 Club. Sobina is a nice Chinese girl who looks 16 but is 32. And she's the only Chinese girl who has ever not lied to me about her age.

"Well, yeah, it might work," I continued. "It's not exactly a lie" I said, pondering the situation. "But I think you would need to be careful. If your guy found it, he could be pretty blown away. Guys are that way, you know. At least the "decent" ones. They care if you've been with someone else and how many. Your numbers would be pretty high. But I'll have to admit it's all pretty stupid."

"I know, I know," she said softly and sadly. "What about you?" she asked. "Would your care."

"I'm as bad as the others, but I might be able to work around it somehow," I said staring into my drink.

I put my arm around her, and she leaned her head on my shoulder.

"You're nice," she said. "I like talking to you."

Kam-sa-ham-nida, I said.

Chon-man-e Mal-sum-im-nida.

"How about this?" I asked. "You tell him that you shot and killed someone a long time ago, went to prison for it, and are really really sorry. That way he won't put you on a pedestal and if he does find out ..."

"Stop it," she said laughing.

I'm still trying to figure out why she does it. She's such a nice girl.

My senses are burning but I think I know the way. Care to hear a true story? Or some really good lies?

I'm over in the Mission today and it is very hot, muy caliente.

Y verdad, tengo calor y todo el mundo tiene color, y tomo tu ojos bonitos.

The fog just doesn't seem to make it over there. Downtown, Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach, the fog is an almost constant companion, often visiting with its friend the wind. But I like it. I have been a beach person all my life. Without the fog I feel like I am personally drying up. It is like running out of wine or whiskey or beer. But for the fog there is no corner market. It is made "out there" over the sea and moves in by the movement of air. It is natural and healthy and good—totally organic—whereas my booze may not be. The fog is a sweet embalmer and a protector of the dream world. Our of the swirling mists and moisture arise living images and new forms. They are like the mind itself in a dream. The dream may not be reality but it is true in the only sense in which a thing can be true. It's seemingness makes sense, and its vagueness is the most concrete reality the soul really understands. If I tell you a lie, know this: I live in a land where nothing dies and everything does and I love you. That too is for the record.

The sun is very bright in the Mission today, muy luminoso. Nothing is concealed. I see a young man in a T-shirt under a car changing the oil, his hands grimy with oil and dirt. But do I see him, or just the oil and the dirt, the smudge on his shirt? I look harder. Then I look away. I see a young woman on a street corner in a short skirt and heals, but do I see her? Do I sense her substance, or do I only acknowledge the existence of her form? Have I drunk her essence? Do I know her or only of her? Do I see here shape and form or do I feel her dark places, as she does, with longing, anguish, and desire? Do I hear her prayer, do I pray it with her? Do I know her deepest lie and the reason for it, and her shallowest truth, and am I able to forgive it? Do I want to lie in bed with her lie and tell her I love her? Have I drunk her essence and become one with her? Can I conceive lies with her in a dark room, then stand on the corner in the bright sun and still say I love you? Can I move from sensation to substance and from substance to essence and from essence to love and truth and beyond? Can I take her hand and rise from the hard splattered street of gray and brown to pierce the blue dome of heaven and hear angels sing in a new language? Zhoeng tchon sanzhwan mnondo, zhoeng tchon sanzhwan ...

You tell me, amor. Is the truth one big lie? Or is it the other way around?

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