"I AM SO STUPID," said Xiao Fan as I walked into Red's on Thursday. She was sitting in back of the bar on a stool looking forlorn. There was no one else in the bar but an elderly Chinese gentleman.
You know Red's Cocktail Lounge on Jackson in Chinatown? It's been there since the 1930s. It's a small bar, frequented mostly by Chinese, but on weekends an occasional tourist, spilling down the hill from Grant Avenue, comes walking in, looking like the first non-Chinese to discover the place.
"I am drunk," said Xiao Fan, looking up at the ceiling.
"Drunk?" I asked. She did not look drunk. She hesitates.
"I was drunk," she utters slowly. She remembers the past tense. Chinese doesn't use it the way English does.
"When were you drunk?" I ask.
"Tuesday?" I ask looking a little surprised that she is still feeling the effects.
She explains to me that she drank about twenty shots of Remy Martin cognac.
Xiao Fan works as bartender two or three times a week at Red's, and part of the job is drinking with customers. This of course increases sales considerably. A guy who might buy a single drink and go away may buy five for himself and five or more for the pretty bartender. This, as you might guess, is a common scheme used in Asian bars to increase sales. It makes the cash register hum.
Some of the young women who do this like to drink and can hold their booze, but Xiao Fan is really not much of a drinker.
She tells me the Chinese word for "vomit." That is what she says she did on Tuesdayright out in the street in front of Red's. She says she still feels sick. She is not smiling when she tells me this, which is a good indication of how bad she is feeling. She is a natural smiler, and normally her conversation is laced with laughter and delightful little giggles. Now she looks like a child with a fever who needs to be put to bed.
I ask her what the word for work is in Chinese. She tells me and I say to her that she has vomit work. She holds her side and laughs painfully.
Xiao Fan has been in the United States for a couple of years. She came when the economy was good. Now it is bad and she has trouble finding much work. She is a trained dental hygienist with a degree in China, but here she can no longer get much work as a dental hygienist. She does not speak much English and the Chinese dentist she works for has lost many of his mostly-Asian customers since the economy went bust.
We have a deal. I help her with her English, and she teaches me a little Chinese. It is fun. I never thought I would be able to pronounce Chinese words. Now I can sometimes say whole phrases. Of course my vocabulary is almost nothing. Nevertheless, the other day I was practicing with Xiao Fan on a longer phrase when some Chinese guys came into the bar and they looked pretty surprised.
"Xiao Fan's friend learn very fast," I think one said. "Must like her."
Xiao Fan bought a used car the other day and then found out about getting it smogged in California. It didn't pass the inspection and the seller, if I have the story straight, when back to China. It cost her $300 to get it to pass. Then she starts hearing a little noise in the transmission. The noise she can put up with, but it doesn't shift right. The bill on that will be $600 when she gets the money together. In the mean time she drives like a skilled mechanic, listening to the sound of shifting gears, sensing just the right moment ... Welcome to California and the automobile, Xiao Fan.
But she is learning. When she first got the car, she was afraid of it and could not find a place to park. The first day that she drove it over to Red's she drove all around Chinatown looking for a place to park and ended up parking over on Columbus in North Beach. Now she has become a skilled San Francisco parker, often finding a place just a few spaces away from Red's. When I arrived recently she smiled proudly and pointed to the sleek blue Toyota just outside the door. Yes, it was hers.
"Sa buy dee." (I am good.)
"La kon." (Good bye.)
Here nickname is "Fong" and she is teaching me Thai. She is the bartender at 441 Club on Jones in the Tenderloin. Her real name is Fornthipa Xongyingsakthaworn. She is twenty-five and very pretty and has a smile that is genuine and delightful. I don't quite understand why she is working in the Tenderloin bar but there is a lot I don't understand in this City. Usually when I don't understand something it has to do with money.
Slowly and carefully she writes out the Thai alphabet, which consists of 44 characters. She shows me how the word "kao" can be pronounced five different ways and mean five completely different things. At first I do not hear any difference in the pronunciations.
"Kob kun kub." (Thanks you.)
"Kun chue a rai kub?" (What is your name?)
Now she seems to be preparing me to converse with young women in Thai bars.
She is actually Chinese, not Thai, she tells me. Her grandfather was a merchant who brought the family to Thailand. He parents then brought the next generation to the United States. I ask her how she likes the U.S. She has only been here a couple of years.
"Thailand better," she says mournfully. I am not surprised by her answer. I have visited Thailand myself and had to drag myself away. It really comes down to money. There is more of the stuff in the U.S. The move was her parents decision. But she does not look happy. It is as though she has a memory of happiness which she brings with her, and when she talks about Thailand she is happy.
"Miun derm." (Same.)
Outside on the sidewalk there is now shouting. Two guys, one white, the other blackstreet peopleare shouting at each other. The white guy is clutching a soiled pillow and some blankets. They are both in each other's face with looks like they mean to kill. The black guy yanks the pillow out of the white guys arms and flings it into the middle of Jones Street. The white guy screams.
"WHY DID YOU DO THAT? WHY DID YOU DO THAT?"
Then he goes out into the street to retrieve his pillow. The black guy proceeds on up the street. Fong looks used to the routine. Most such outburst in the Tenderloin, despite their deadly appearance, are just blowing off steam.
She asks if I would like to hear some Thai music. I say yes and she puts money in the jukebox. She sings along with one of the songs.
The songs is "Noon Na Kao Sao Na Geu." She leans across the bar and stares into my eyes as she sings it. Her eyes are very dark and wide, her lips appealing. But she is not really coming on to me. It is the song. She feels a need to share it, and I am the way to do that. When it is over she tells me it is about "the guy who works on the salt farm and the woman who work on the rice farm." For a moment I imagine that I am the salt farmer and that Fong is the rice farmer. It is a pleasant thought, anyway.
"It was popular when I was a little girl," she says, sounding now like a little girl.
I ask her a few more questions and she asks me for my pen and writes me this essay about herself.
She draws me a picture of the family house in Rayong. She is like a child now. I wish I had crayons so she could color in the house for me. Instead, I buy her a drink. Yes, she drinks with customers too. But she is not a big drinker and stays away form the cognac that so many Asians seem to love.
She talks about growing up in Thailand, and while she talks she looks happy. She lives in Oakland with her family and drives over to San Francisco every day to work in the bar. While growing up in Thailand she was protected. And now what is her life like? How much protection does one get living in Oakland and working in a bar in the Tenderloin? Suddenly I am feeling sad. Money, as they say, is not everything. Economic indicators? How about human indicators? Happiness indicators? If you haven't seen the lush green grass in Thailand and tasted the food, you may not know what rich means.
She has a degree in marketing from the University of Bangkok but she has no desire to work in marketing. Why did she get the degree? "I don't know what I want to study.... I don't like science, I don't like computer, I don't like accounting...." Marketing, she thought, might be interesting. She has since changed her mind.
She also went to a fashion institute but the world of fashion no longer interests her. Is she spoiled, as a lot of kids are who can't make up their minds about what they want to do? In Thailand, she says, the family had servants but she says her family was not rich.
"I didn't even know how to cook rice," she says laughing. Most people in Thailand have servants, she tells me.
"And what about the servants? Do they have servants?"
"No," she says, "they are poor." She looks serious.
If she is spoiled, it is a nice form of it. She probably needs to "grow up" a little. Who in San Francisco doesn't? But if she has to grow up, I hope she does it without giving up the precious "little girl," which I suppose is related to that abstraction, the "inner child," that psychologists used to babble about nonstop. She is a sweet person and I don't think her career is the 441 Club in the 'loin.
She goes back to drilling me. A teacher? I think she would make a very good one. A mother? The best. I would happily help her achive motherhood if I were not so preoccupied learning Chinese.
"Kun chue a rai kub?" (What is your name?)
"Kun chob a rai kub?" (What do you like?)
"Sa buy dee mai?" (How are you?)
"I have very good life," she tells me. Yes, I think, but then or now? Past tense or present? Sa buy dee mai, Fornthipa Xongyingsakthaworn?