free writing #3 | shangchi
It was 2pm on a Thursday and Jeff was just on time. He thanked the Uber driver and stepped out onto the newly paved asphalt. His neck glistened with perspiration, the taxi ride’s reprieve from the relentless humidity but a happy memory. He eyed his surroundings and decided that some time out of the service apartment would do him some good anyway, even if it meant traipsing about gaudy red banners and whiskered old men. He caught a glimpse of the familiar egg tart shop in the distance and allowed himself a small smile. Same old glass display with mismatched fluorescent lights, same disgruntled lady boss who always seemed ready to launch a lethal vendetta against the next customer to ask for free samples. He chuckled, some things never change.
A cacophonous rise of excited voices drew Jeff’s attention away from reminiscing to a growing crowd. Between the elbowing and neck craning, he saw two men in the throes of a Chinese chess match. An amalgamate of dialects were being used by the onlookers and Jeff (albeit the least qualified to discern) managed to pick up hints of Teochew and Hokkien. The two players seemed like equals and the stakes were higher now that their friendly match had become such a spectacle. His roommate back in Leeds, an ardent chess fan, always frowned upon xiangqi, calling it an old man’s pastime. It was the way he said it that got to Jeff at first. Shangchi. Such a jarring, flippant sound. But no amount of tongue rolling or coaching could salvage his pronunciation and eventually Jeff resigned to calling it shangchi too. Jeff smiled to himself as he moved back a few paces and angled his phone for a snap. He sent it to Lloyd and imagined his eyes rolling, fingers already typing a middle finger emoji in response.
Within the crowd, Jeff saw some eyes flicker towards him and it almost felt like a wall of hostility pushing him away from the crowd. He blinked and chided his overactive imagination. Still, it was as if the crowd knew he’d been shangchi-ing his way into blind anglophilia for years. Slightly befuddled at his own presumptions and no longer invested in the match, Jeff stepped out into the main square and noted the sudden coolness of the Chinatown air.