It didn’t feel right; he held the six-point elk in the crosshairs of his Leupold 3 x 9, but it didn’t feel right. He wanted to know, he wanted to know now in these aspens of another high October tucked away in the divide between the St. Joe and Clearwater’s North Fork. So while the bull humped its escape into another drainage, he slipped his rifle into its scabbard, jumped on his mare and squeezed her from Bad Assed Ridge down the veloured slopes to the corral-camp by his pickup bound for the nearest Chinese restaurant in Moscow.

Past the swinging half-doors of the Peking in his muddy boots he asked the waitress for a fortune cookie.

“You can’t have one until you’ve had a meal here,” the waitress with the dark lips and serious ways said.

“But I’m not hungry.” Impatience was growing, he needed to know without another moment’s interference.

“There’s another way, but you already know that, don’t you? You’ll have to tell me a story first, and you must tell it to me truthfully and without changing a word of it.”

His will conceding its pulse to this substitute mandate, the two of them got into his pickup for the return drive to his camp.

They both knew the ritual well in this scheherazade. At the corral she saddled up the blue roan and rode up to the lean-to by the side of a cirque. While he tended to the horses, she started a small fire with the toothpicks and credit card slips she had pocketed on their way out of the restaurant. Then they sat down on rocks opposite each other, the fire between them ringed, a sliver of day-moon rising over the ridge beside them, his loaded rifle by his side.

While her attention drifted away into a shadow, he started the story very cautiously. “It is early autumn, and the morning sunlight shines through the window onto my opened copy of Vanity Fair in front of me.” He knew it was not his story, but he felt he was the story’s in which its space and order took over. He wanted to tell the story in the third person, but it came out in the first; he wanted to tell it in the past, but it came out happening in the now; even if he wanted to, he could not change a word of it, its sequence and language clarifying its own shape and direction in his voice.

During this short pause she looked over to him and said, “Careful now, you know what you must do,” but it was as much a self-reminder as a warning.

So he continued. “The visiting foreign expert is a literary scholar from the University of London who will direct our graduate seminar for the year, but he can see that I am the only student who is not taking notes on his Thackeray lecture. He continues to call me by Daniel, a name given to me by my first-year English teacher at this language institute a few years ago, instead of Luo-jun.” He stopped here to check the authenticity of this identity. The waitress looked up from the fire too, but didn’t say a thing. So he continued. “But the two of us have an understanding, even though we do not trust each other.

“It is the fourth week of class, and he has not called on me since I asked him during our first meeting if there is any significance that nine of the ten authors in this novel course are British, the tenth being Henry James, and that all ten were published before the twentieth century. He reminds me of our cadre leader, a party member who conducted our ideology studies every day in middle school. But the professor tries to be different, and introduces a small joke in Chinese in the middle of every lecture, about his minor bicycle collision in downtown Beijing, about being cheated buying fruit in the open market, after which we all smile politely.”

Adding sticks to the receding fire, the waitress leaned down and blew some air to revive its flame while the cowboy took a drink of water from his canteen thermos.

“One of my brothers still sells fruit at the open market every morning, as all the children in the family have at some time since our father died. So I look away from his joke and see the wall around this new department building, and the wall around the entire institute and at all the walls in and around Beijing. Before I was born my parents farmed this land that is now the campus, as did their parents and their parents before them when they were not servants to the emperor or empress, like everybody else in Peking who were not members of the burgeoning bureaucracy. After the war of liberation, the government decided to build the language institute here on our land that we never did own, but promised us dormitory housing and caretaker jobs for all their children. Within a year after the five of us moved into our dormitory room, our father died.”

He stopped here and watched the waitress take down his lean-to and place its materials next to the fire ring. Sitting back on her rock, she added one piece at a time to keep the fire burning slowly.

“I had just started first grade, and was learning to write my first words, Long Live Mao Zedong, a hundred times in my blue exercise book. I had even written it three times with a stick in the dirt-yard in front of our dormitory. On the day my father died, I took revenge and scraped dirt over these first five words in the yard. But Mao lived on, smoking until he died in his 80s, having lived twice as long as my father. A year later my older brother decided to drop out of high school and start making some money, because he didn’t want to be poor like a teacher, forester or farmer, because he didn’t want to see our mother going to work everyday wearing her same janitorial-blue blazer for the rest of her life.”

The fire was down again, and the supply of sticks from the lean-to depleted. So the waitress walked over to his side, picked up his rifle, carefully ejecting the four cartridges from its chamber and magazine, placed it on the fire’s remaining coals and said, “This should keep it going for the rest of the story. Please continue.”

“A few years later the Red Guards entered my high school and took over everything. One day as I walked down a hidden path by the school building, I saw our former history teacher sweeping the dirt and fallen leaves with a broom. In embarrassment, I pretended not to recognize him and he didn’t look up, but he turned away from me as I passed him. At that point, I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as an observer no passion can touch. It was then that I decided to become a teacher, even if the pay isn’t good, and to teach others what I know. It was then I learned that one could not love the peasants and make a movie about us because none of us would want to watch it and be moved by it.

“So now I find myself in this seminar with this foreign expert who doesn’t seem to care at all about what we really need. He reminds me of the Christian missionaries who came with the foreign economic exploitation of our country in our earlier era. At least the nuns seemed to care about us, even though we were not their main agenda. At least I know about the dangers of this foreign exchange. But look, the sun is at least shining today. We Chinese have always smiled through our worst adversities—maybe what we need now is a big laugh. But we need to do something about these walls first. The interior space they create fosters servility, resentment and hatred, like the space for the peoples in Santiago, Lima, Johannesburg, and the West Bank. Yesterday I bumped into our professor at the post office. Either he didn’t want to see me, or pretended not to, same colonial thing. Later when I saw him jogging around the inside path of the wall, I understood: he was continuing to navigate and define a course from which we must become increasingly more absent. I believe this, if I believe in anything at all inside a true story.”

After he finished telling this story faithfully word by word, he felt all the anxiety leave his heart. The waitress gave him his fortune cookie which blossomed into a simple message, You will go home to your story in peace, and disappeared. He continued sitting by the warmth of the fire, and decided that he would not try to second-guess what he could remember of his adopted west.

“The Peking Cowboy” is reprinted with permission of the author from Lipstick and Other Stories, by Alex Kuo (Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Ltd.).
Copyright 2001 by Alex Kuo.

Not Safe

Alex Kuo is a poet and a Peking cowboy. No, no, wait! Let’s start over.

Born in Boston, Kuo lived in his ancestral China in the early 1940s, in the middle of World War II, with his parents. Before landing at Washington State University 22 years ago, he was a fire crew chief with the U.S. Forest Service and a vice chancellor at the University of Colorado, careers he abandoned for different reasons.

Currently, he is interim chair of Comparative American Cultures (CAC) and is the University’s first writer-in-residence. He teaches Asian American and Native American literatures in CAC, cultures of the American West in the American studies program, and creative writing in the Department of English. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Fellowship, and grants from the United Nations and the Idaho Commission for the Arts for background research in China for his completed novel, The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze. In 1991-92 he taught in China as a senior Fulbright scholar and in 1997-98 in Hong Kong as the Lingnan visiting scholar in American Studies.

The last few years have seen about a book a year from Kuo: a novel, Chinese Opera (1998); a collection of poems, This Fierce Geography (1999); and a collection of short stories, Lipstick (2001), which has been nominated for an American Book Award. He is contemplating a new novel about land mines and is shifting some of his focus to international relief work.

Kuo has been known to observe that American publishers favor a safe kind of Asian American literature, both quaint and marginalized. His writing is neither.