Shaken by China by Rob Walters - Read Online
Shaken by China
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Summary

Shaken by China is a pacey novel based in modern China. It is eventful, thoughtful, and provides an intriguing insight into the modern republic.

Very briefly Shaken by China is a story in which a young man escapes his overpowering problems at home by taking a teaching job in the rapidly changing world of modern China. It is targeted at readers who like a fast moving story based in exotic surroundings.

The novel has a strong beginning in a Xian hospital where Keith Hackett, the main character, twice attempts suicide. The reader is rapidly hooked into the tale: why is Keith in China, what has he done that he is so ashamed of, and how was he reduced to the very depths of depression?

We next launch into Keith’s story: his teaching experience with Mary, his friendship with Peter, their ‘minder’ at the school, his observations of the joy and misery of the impoverished people who live around the school. Then suddenly, mysteriously, Mary disappears and Keith’s life starts to unravel as he becomes entangled with a pretty student. Realising his own stupidity he ends the relationship and slips into less passionate friendships. However, this new found contentment is fragile and is quickly dashed when the affair with his student rebounds with chilling repercussions.

The story then develops around Keith’s ignominious escape from the school, his long march across the mountains of Shaanxi province, and his debilitating life as a forced labourer in an illicit brick factory.
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The novel is based around my own experience of living and teaching in China and uses true accounts of slavery and corruption that have occurred in the republic.

Published: Rob Walters on
ISBN: 9781465889287
List price: $5.99
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Shaken by China - Rob Walters

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Walters

Dedication

To Margaret without whom this book would not exist

Chapter1 Fame

I knew nothing about the guardians of the flame, yet they were my route back to sanity, my transport back to a wholeness of body, the restoration of my will to live and my belief in good fortune.

Since my recovery I have seen footage of them in action. Tall young men dressed in blue with cropped hair and serious faces, square jaws. They could be taken for American GIs out on a cross-country run, or athletes training for the then approaching Olympic Games, or convicts running around an exercise yard in a US prison. There was just one characteristic that set them apart in the western world, that marked them out as different, foreign. Something that seemed at odds with their height, their demeanour, even their role. Each of the men had slant eyes. They were Asian – Chinese to be exact, which also explained the slight yellowness of their skin – barely detectable on the TV screen.

They were protectors of the flame and the ambassadors of China as they carried the Olympic torch across the world from Athens to its ultimate resting place in Beijing. They were symbols of the growing prowess, power and influence of China upon the world at large. Giants within their own country, they proclaimed a new China: confident, open, influential. So why didn’t the world like them – or their country? This rejection was a difficult thing for the Chinese government to understand, so too were the demonstrations that dogged the guardians and the flame as it passed through different countries on its way to the Chinese capital.

In China itself this reaction to its emissaries was virtually unknown. The progress of the Olympic flame on its long journey towards Beijing was reported with the triumphalism which characterises an unfree press. Only good news was allowed to hit the headlines: another great breakthrough by Chinese scientists, a further increase in GDP, yet more Chinese people given modern accommodation, and so on, and on. And so the flame’s progress was reported with great precision within China, but with little detail.

Nonetheless, some Chinese people did know what was happening. Some knew of the demonstrations, the lack of welcome, the circles of policemen who protected the flame’s guardians, the last minute route changes to avoid flashpoints, the ungracious refusal to allow the flame into key areas of capital cities, the tendency for top politicians to delegate to underlings the task of meeting, greeting and making carefully phrased announcements as the flame passed through their countries. Amongst those who knew were the advisors to those who advised the central committee. Something had to be done. How could those ungrateful foreign wretches keep harking back to the events in Tiananmen Square which happened more than a decade before? Didn’t they know that China had changed? The government appointed a committee to revitalise Chinese international public relations in the build up to the games. The committee recommended a diversionary story: I was that story.

I knew nothing of this. My mind was in retreat. I did not wish to think of the past and did not believe that I had any future. I was listless, physically debilitated and morally spent. I spent my days looking out of the window whilst lying on clean white sheets in a hospital bed in the Chinese city of Xian. I could see very little, just a patch of sky and the branch of a leafless tree. This was sufficient. The passage of the occasional cloud irritated me, the fussing of the nurses annoyed me, the conversations and the movements of the men occupying the many other beds disturbed me. I tried to blot everything else out by fixing my attention on that branch and little patch of sky. As darkness came at the end of each timeless day I drifted into a deep sleep - my body needed rest. Sometimes I woke screaming. No one bothered me; the others knew why I screamed; they knew the nature of my nightmares. Ignored I soon slept again, always with the hope that my sleep would be dreamless, perhaps endless. Vaguely I knew that I had done something wrong, very wrong. I also knew that I had been wronged. I just did not want to think about all of that. When thoughts of the past emerged like clouds blowing through my injured mind, I dispersed them, I thought of nothing.

One day they moved me into a different room. I did not know why, though I expect that someone explained the reason for my move to me. I did not wish to move, but was too disinterested to protest. I was not surprised to have a room to myself: a large private room normally reserved, I supposed, for an important party official. I resented the move but was glad to get away from the others, from their chattering and their movements and their own screams in the night. Here I had a much bigger window. I closed the curtain almost completely so that I could just see a patch of the sky and a windowless wall. I lay on the sheets and tried to continue as before.

Visitors now regularly interrupted my empty-headed study of the sky. Men and women appeared bearing gifts: flowers, fruit, Western books. Others brought cameras and notebooks. I ignored the gifts, ignored the visitors and would not smile for the flashing cameras. I closed my mind to them; it seemed the best thing to do. I no longer tried to understand Chinese and found that, without devoting the effort needed to understand this difficult language, it rapidly became unintelligible. Some tried to speak to me in English, but their accents were so strong that it was easy to switch them off too – bar them from my empty mind as I continued to stare at that little patch of sky, the bare wall.

Then one morning, soon after I had been taken on my first visit to the toilet of the day, Xiu Mei arrived. I did not notice her come in, or if I did so then I had simply ignored her and continued to stare through the glass of the window to the sky. It was cloudy; I was irritated. She began to speak. At first I ignored this too, but then something unusual happened - the words began to register upon my dulled mind like the chimes of a bell raising one from sleep. The words were in English, clear, pure English without the trace of an accent: pristine English of a quality that I had not heard for a long time. I tried to ignore her speech, tried to bring down the curtains of my mind, but I could not. The words penetrated my poor retreating psyche in a way that was irresistible. My resistance was as futile as ordering the sea to stop its advance as the tide sweeps in. Though I attached no meaning to her words, they filled my mind. I could not concentrate on my patch of sky, my slice of bare wall. And there was more, something about her voice. It was beautiful, yes, female, vibrant, soft, musical. But more than that – I knew the voice! Knew it so well that it seemed part of me.

Still I stared at my little piece of sky, forcing my eyes to remain on that little bit of the world that protected me, that sustained me, that shielded me from the unacceptable past. A woman’s face appeared before me, blocking my vision. It was a lovely face, Chinese, yet not Chinese. A face I knew, a face I loved.

‘Hello Keith,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t you know me? It’s Xiu Mei. I’m here to help you get better.’

I turned away, buried my head in the pillow. Not because I didn’t want to see her - I wanted nothing more – but because she was part of my past, part of my guilt, part of everything that I wanted to forget, the things that I would not let myself remember. And I wanted to hide. I had burst into tears, floods of them. I didn’t want this splendid woman to see me cry, to see me sobbing like a child. I did not want her to see my face made ugly by emotion, to see the tears, the streaming nose, the trembling lips. In a woman such an outburst may be normal, acceptable: it produces waves of sympathy, makes the woman appear vulnerable, pitiable, deserving of protection. In a man it is a sad, embarrassing, hideous sight. Something to be avoided if at all possible, something unmanly – or so I thought. I felt a hand laid lightly on my shoulder. Heard, but did not comprehend, soft words. I continued to sob, holding the pillow tightly to my reddening, sodden face. The hand was removed. I began to relax, the sobbing abated. I felt drained but slowly regained control. I dried my eyes, face and nose as best I could on the sodden pillow. I slowly raised my head and looked around the room: it was empty; Xiu Mei had gone.

I passed the day staring at the ceiling. I could not even raise the energy to look at my little piece of sky or the blank wall. I fought the thoughts of Xiu Mei as they came constantly into my mind. I did not eat; I did not drink. At last the darkness came. A nurse came into my room, she spoke to me but, as usual, I did not listen and did not react. She left switching off the light and softly closing the door. With darkness would come sleep, escape, oblivion. But it did not. The face of Xiu Mei burned in my brain and I could not obliterate it. Her words: ‘Hello Keith. ‘Don’t you know me? It’s Xiu Mei. I’m here to help you get better,’ constantly repeated, echoing, unstoppable. Flashes from our life together came bursting into my thoughts, unbidden, unwelcome.

I got up. I did not switch the light on; there was just sufficient light for me to find my way around. I opened the bedside cabinet. It was empty apart from a few books, the gifts from my unwelcome guests. I felt around in the drawer locating a pen or a pencil, I couldn’t see which in the dim light. There was little else in the room except a vase full of the flowers brought by another of the guests, or perhaps from Xiu Mei, I hoped that they weren’t from Xiu Mei. I fingered the glass of the vase meditatively, then walked towards the door. Opening it allowed a shaft of bright fluorescent light into the room and almost blinded me. Recovering, I looked from left to right – the corridor was deserted. I had no idea where to go, no idea of the layout of the building that I had spent some weeks in. I turned to the left and soon came to a set of stairs. I descended. A nurse came up the stairs towards me. I almost stumbled as we passed each other, an attack of physical weakness and nausea had overwhelmed me. I stopped in order to recover my balance.

‘Are you OK?’ she asked in Chinese, I nodded and tried to smile. She looked a little concerned, hesitated, then hurried on. I descended the stairs, walking slowly – I wasn’t used to this sort of exertion. Arriving at the ground floor I had another decision to make. I chose to go right, soon arriving at a wide corridor which had notices taped to the wall with directional arrows. I did not know many Chinese characters, but the one for ‘exit’ is quite simple – basically a square. I walked slowly towards the exit. A few people were using this corridor but no one looked at me. I had another attack, this time I was so dizzy that I had to sit on the floor. I must have passed out for a few seconds. When I came to a doctor was peering down at me, looking concerned and seemingly waiting for an answer to a question that I had not heard.

‘I’m fine,’ I said gradually easing myself up, using the wall of the corridor for support. He helped me to my feet. I thanked him then carried on along the corridor. I tried to walk in a straight line and tried desperately not to look back. I felt sure that he was watching me. Though I felt completely drained of energy, I could now see the large exit door. It was not too far away, I could make it.

The door opened automatically and the cooler air revived me. The hospital faced a busy main road which was not far from the exit door. Though it was dark there was still plenty of traffic, the many different vehicles were moving at maximum possible speed as they do in China. I stumbled down the steps. I had no need to keep up appearances now. At the bottom a wide pavement stretched towards the road. The lights of the cars, lorries, scooters and motorcycles were blinding me, increasing my dizziness. I did not care. I wanted to be amongst them. I rushed forward, trying in my weak state to gain as much impetus as possible. The noise of the traffic was deafening as I tottered towards it. The lights grew brighter and brighter. Horns sounded then wailed off into the night. I had almost reached the kerb and was preparing to dive into this raging torrent of motorised hell when I felt something or someone grip my left shoulder. I span around and fell heavily toward the kerb at the same time. The lights of the cars span past my eyes followed by the lights of the hospital, then nothing.

I woke in my room. The light was on; my right arm was in a sling and ached badly. I looked up. A young nurse sat at my bedside, reading. Maybe it was the same nurse that I had passed on the stairs, maybe not. She looked up, startled by my movement.

‘It’s OK,’ she said in Chinese, ‘you have had an accident. The doctor found you. You almost fell into the traffic on the highway. You are very lucky to be alive.’

‘Lucky,’ I said in English, my mouth so dry that I could barely speak. She looked puzzled.

‘Lucky Keith,’ I continued. Once again she looked puzzled, then brightened up.

‘Yes, Keith. That is your name. How do you feel? Can I get you anything?’

I looked around the room. The vase of flowers was still in its place. I desperately needed water, but one glance at the basin with its paper cups beside it caused me to suppress the request before my lips had moved.

‘Coffee,’ I said weakly in Chinese. I knew that would be difficult to find in a Chinese hospital. ‘I must have a cup of coffee.’

‘We do not have coffee. We have tea. You would like tea?’

‘No, I must have coffee. They had coffee in my last ward. Please get me coffee from there.’

She looked very doubtful. ‘But you will try to leave the hospital again. The doctor said that I must stay with you all of the time.’

I gave a look that was supposed to convey ‘do I look capable of leaving the hospital’ then said, ‘You can lock the door if you like. The windows are barred, so I will be quite safe.’ She did not look happy but she placed her book on the bedside cabinet and rose from the chair.

‘You must stay in the bed,’ she said very seriously.

‘Where else will I be?’ I responded, but she did not seem to understand this. Nonetheless, she did leave the room, locking the door behind her. I eased myself from the bed. Besides the pain in my right arm, there were sharp agonising twinges from my shoulder and hip. I managed to lift the chair she had been using and jammed it under the door handle, a trick that I had learned from films. I tossed the flowers from the vase and bashed the thing against the wall. It made a large dent in the plaster but did not break. I swung it against the metal frame of the bed, still it did not break. I limped over to the porcelain basin and swung the vase at the thing with all of the strength I had left. Both the basin and the vase shattered with an enormous crash. I looked at the door; the chair was still in place.

I am not a brave man, not brave at all. I doubt that I could have used the shards from the vase effectively anyway. My right hand was pretty well useless and fear of pain would have deterred me from completing the job. Fortunately the recalcitrant vase had broken in a way that was perfect for my purpose. The base was still intact yet from it projected a broken pyramid of glass, sharp and deadly. I placed it on the bedside cabinet then positioned my wrist softly on the jagged point, aligning the artery and the point as best I was able. I then raised my hand to shoulder height and slammed it down onto the broken vase as heavily as I could.

‘Fuuuuuuuck,’ I screamed. The pain was incredible, indescribable. But for some reason I did not pass out. I sat down on the bed and watched the blood pumping out onto the floor. Strangely the pain was abating, I felt sleepy. The room began to swim. The cabinet appeared to be falling downwards to the floor and the chair beyond it moved further into the room. I lost consciousness.

I awoke in a different room. At first I thought that I had died. I could remember everything that had happened during my two suicide attempts, maybe this was an out of body experience, my being having escaped from my corpse. But no, I was still in my body and the thing was very much alive, hurting, aching, throbbing, especially in the area of my left wrist. I looked down; it was swathed in bandages. Blood had seeped through and onto the sheets. Someone had attached a drip to my upper arm.

The room was very white; it was much larger than the previous one. In addition to the bed, cabinet and chair there was a comfortable sofa and a television set in the far corner. Near the sofa was a table with a bowl of fruit placed at its centre.

There was someone in the room. A doctor. He saw that I awake, but said nothing. He took my temperature, checked my eyes, wrote in a notebook attached to the end of the bed then injected something into my thigh. The pain began to lift. He then pressed a button and waited, arms folded, glancing at me occasionally, then looking quickly away towards the window or studying his nails. A nurse came in with a trolley. The doctor conversed with her in a low voice; I could not hear what they were saying. The nurse removed the bandage from my left hand. The wound looked bad; the broken vase had not made a very clean cut. Together they cleaned it, the doctor using tweezers to remove some remaining shards of glass. There was no pain. I felt --- nothing. They redressed my wound and the nurse offered me water. I tried to sit up, but found that I could not. I was strapped to the bed. Something was restraining me; I could not see what. I took a sip of the water; it was good. Otherwise I felt --- nothing. I existed in some sort of cocoon. I knew that I had tried to commit suicide, that my life was such a mess that I strongly wanted to die, but just then I felt nothing, absolutely nothing. Then Xiu Mie came into the room. The nurse moved away as she approached the bed. She placed her face close to mine, whispered, ‘Oh Keith,’ and began to cry. Then I did feel something. An overwhelming gratitude to someone or something surged through me; gratitude that I was still alive. I knew that I was floating on a cloud of morphine, yet I knew that I now wanted to live. I too began to cry. I could not bury my face in my pillow, I could not move. And this time I did not want to bury my face at all. I wanted Xiu Mie to see me crying. I wanted to be, desperately wanted to be, honest. ‘Oh my beautiful plum,’ I whispered as the tears flowed. And I wished that I could hold her, but I could not. I was not a man to be trusted.

Exhausted, I slept – a long dreamless sleep. When I awoke Xiu Mie was still with me, sitting in the armchair close to the bed. She was sleeping. I looked at her sleek black hair, that lovely face that I knew so well. Emotions of great tenderness filled me, mixed with regret, guilt and the faintest stirrings of desire. Her breasts rose and fell as she slept. Her hands lay crossed over her stomach and she leaned forward slightly. Then she jumped a little as if she had tilted too far. Her eyes opened, she shook her head and looked at me, a smile lighting her charming Eurasian face.

‘How are you feeling?’ she asked softly.

‘I think that death warmed up would be an appropriate description,’ I replied lightly.

The smile faded and she said very seriously, ‘Why did you do it?’

I pursed my lips, not knowing where to start, then said, ‘Shame, cowardice, embarrassment, fatigue, I don’t know. It’s a long story. Lack of esteem would be the modern label I suppose.’ I paused unable to précis my feelings into anything more cogent.

‘But how about you?’ I asked. ‘You look lovelier than ever. What are you doing here? How did you find me?’

She laughed at the compliment and her smile returned.

‘I am here for the Olympic Games, and to stay with my father’s family. We are all going - were all going - to the games. Then I saw your picture in the papers. The headline said Western Man freed from Slavery by Chinese Government. At first I wasn’t sure that it was really you, the man in the photograph looked so thin, his eyes so empty, so sunken. But there were other pictures and I became convinced. I travelled to Xian and came to the hospital. I told them that I was your wife.’

I looked at her as she said this. She looked away, embarrassed perhaps.

‘But why am I in the papers, surely they would have kept this slavery business quiet, especially with the games coming up?’

‘My father says that they are using your story as propaganda – to offset the bad press China has been getting around the world as the Olympic flame was carried towards Beijing.’

‘But why were you not sure whether it was me? Surely the article has my name in it?’

‘They did not know your name until I arrived. The article said that you were from the West but that you had lost the power of speech and did not understand Chinese. It said that they were searching for your identity and that the Chinese doctors would soon restore your power of speech. You have become some sort of national hero. The rescue of a foreigner would, they hoped, offset the discovery of slavery in Shanxi province and give the international press something to write about rather than the protests that followed the flame and its guardians.’

‘Did it?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. The British papers that I have seen have been more interested in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. They didn’t cover your story at all.’

‘So that is why they would not let me die,’ I said tiredly.

She shook her head sadly then looked up as the door opened to admit a doctor and nurse. They asked Xiu Mie to leave whilst they redressed my wound and administered another injection. Then I slept.

Over the next few days I told Xiu Mie everything. I wanted her back. I wanted her back but not as a wronged survivor of slavery, nor as the survivor of two suicide attempts. I wanted her back with the full knowledge of what I had done, what I had become. The slavery, the stay in hospital, the suicide attempts, my whole experience in China had changed me. I wanted to be honest. I wanted Xiu Mei to love me with all of the horror of my past exposed. I told her of my arrival in China. I told her everything. I held nothing back. At times she cried and so did I. At times she left the room and I did not know whether she would return. I would not blame her if she decided to return to her family, but she did not, each time she returned to me and I continued the tale.

Chapter2 Welcome

The arrival of new English teachers at a remote Chinese school is a big event. The deputy head and his protectoress, Melody, one of the Chinese English teachers, met Mary and I at the station. Melody could actually speak English quite well. Later we found that many of the other English teachers could not, or dared not. The deputy head did not speak English. The Foreign Affairs Director would normally have accompanied him but this man, we learned later, was away on a short vacation. Melody was his stand-in; she was delightful but nervous. It was her job to translate for the deputy head, make us welcome and answer our questions about this strange place where fate had landed us. As a deputy head our man had access to a car – and a driver. The poor driver tried to carry our luggage from the train to the car single-handed, and then to stow it in an inadequate boot – so small that the lid would not close. We drove to the school with the boot lid flapping like the jaws of gasping fish and with the constant danger of the incredibly potholed road jettisoning our stuff onto the streets. And what streets! I had never seen anything like this. We had seen odd vehicles in Guilin, the place where we received a short introductory course, but here the things were even stranger. Added to which there was an intensity, a madness, towards the entire business of transportation and a complete disregard for human life coupled with a great affection for the hooter. Hardly a moment passed without the angry sound of a car horn, the bellow of a lorry’s klaxon or the pathetic whimper of a bicycle bell.

Somehow we reached the school unscathed and were both looking forward to a period of rest and recovery. We had recently survived a long train journey and were now suffering from nervous exhaustion following our first trip in the school motor car. Unfortunately the chauffeur did not stop at the school. Melody pointed it out to us as we charged by then we stopped outside a nearby restaurant that we were later to call the ‘School Canteen’. Unloaded onto the busy pavement, we followed our minders into the place as if we were VIPs. Worried back glances at our exposed luggage prompted Melody to tell us that the driver would take it back to the school for us. Great.

Though only four of us entered a private room that could easily have coped with twelve, there was a great melee about seating around the large round table. At first I could not understand what was happening. Mary and I sat down together in adjacent seats near the window. Mr Zeng, the deputy head took a chair which was near the entry and as far from us as was possible. Melody fussed about looking worriedly at the deputy head, then at us. She tried a seat which was exactly half way between Mary and her boss. He looked unhappy about this and so did she. I got up and moved to another chair. I had no plan in mind; I just knew that the current arrangement was wrong for some reason. Mary smiled and stayed put. The deputy head still looked unhappy. Melody moved to the other side of Mary who was now sitting next to the deputy head though spaced by six or seven empty chairs. What next? I decided to move to the space on Mary’s left taking up one of the expanse of empty chairs. Mr Zeng then moved to the chair next to me and Melody took the one on Mary’s left. There was an immediate release of tension. Somehow this was just right. Was it a cultural difference or simply seniority and male chauvinism at work? I had no idea but the wordless game of musical chairs had ended. The great study of the menu could then begin.

This was the job of the deputy head. No one even bothered to give us a menu – quite rightly since it consisted entirely of Chinese characters. In most countries of the world you have some chance of recognising something on a menu, if nothing else then you can at least relate to the letters on the page. Chinese script has no direct relationship to sounds, and to us the menu looked like an abstract work of art or something like the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians – only worse. Mr Zeng studied the menu intensely whilst smoking a cigarette. He made comments in Mandarin which Melody bravely attempted to translate.

‘Do you like spicy food?’

‘Well not too hot.’

‘Would you prefer meat or fish or both?’

‘Meat,’ said Mary

‘Fish’, said I.

‘Both,’ we said together to the fretting Melody.

‘Why doesn’t the deputy headmaster choose for us,’ suggested Mary.

‘Yes, we would like that,’ I said in support.

Mr Zeng listened solemnly to the translation, looked at us, then looked back at the menu with a slight smile. He nodded to Melody.

‘Mr Zeng would be happy to do that.’

And he was. He began to fire off a string of impenetrable orders to the hovering waitress and her two assistants. This done he spoke to Melody again.

‘What to drink?’ she translated, ‘there is wine or beer or water in bottles. I know that Western people like water in bottles.’

‘Water for me – with gas,’ said Mary, ‘Same for you Keith?’

‘I will have wine,’ I replied, thinking that it would be interesting to try the wine of this region.

Melody looked a little worried, but passed the order on to Mr Zeng who again looked pleased.

‘What are you drinking Melody?’ asked Mary

‘Water, just like you. Chinese women do not drink alcohol,’ Melody replied very seriously, then added with a little smile, ‘not often.’ So, I thought to myself, our prim little Melody can let herself go sometimes, though not often.

The wine and the water arrived. My wine glass was disappointingly small, and the wine itself was entirely clear. Mr Zeng poured us both a little, then picked up his glass and said ‘Gambay’. I turned to Melody for help.

‘Gambay means that you should drink together. It is usual for men to drink all in the glass.’

Ah, so gambay meant bottoms up. Excellent. I put the glass to my lips and Mr Zeng followed suit. We both tipped our glasses up and the clear fluid rushed into our mouths. Good god, it was like liquid fire! What’s more it was awful, really awful. I had never drunk methylated spirits, but if I did it would surely taste like this. I tried not to splutter. Mr Zeng was looking me in the eye. If I spluttered I would cover him in this corrosive liquid. This stuff was as near to my concept of wine as petrol is to beer. I bravely swallowed the stuff and, with tear-filled eyes, smiled weakly at