Photo: mrhayata

One traveler’s relationship with a Chinese Clown opens all kinds of questions, the least of which is: what’s actually real?

I was on the rebound with a Chinese clown. My boyfriend, the son of an American diplomat, broke up with me over lunch at the only Western Sizzler in Beijing. The Chinese version of the Sizzler, much like the Chinese Pizza Hut, is considered classy, with white tablecloths, wine goblets and a steady stream of Kenny G.

That afternoon, I told my sob story to the neighborhood clown—a countryside cutie with high cheekbones and a girlish laugh who wore a green and yellow polka-dot cover-all to deliver flower bouquets on his electric blue moped.

“My old boyfriend doesn’t like me,” I stuttered. My Chinese was shaky, and I didn’t know the word for breakup. I improvised. “He says he doesn’t want a girlfriend.”

“Mei shi,” the clown assured me, no problem. “I’m here. I can be your boyfriend now.” It was as easy as that.

We sat outside his flower shop on kindergarten-sized folding chairs. Chinese pop music and the cloying scent of lilies wafted through the humid night air. Two schoolgirls jumped rope on the sidewalk, and a thin man in a Mao suit cycled past, his three-wheeled cart piled high with clouds of Styrofoam.

This wasn’t a first for the clown and I to talk, but it was the first time I hadn’t felt guilty about flirting. That night, I’d accepted his invitation to sit down, and he’d magically produced two big bottles of Tsingdao beer and a package of barbecued chicken feet.

The clown set down his bottle and grabbed my hand. His fingers were thin but strong, skin weathered from a childhood harvesting cotton and corn. I felt the electrifying tingle of a new crush, followed by a hollow disappointment as he let go. “Feng shuo,” he said, break hands. “Ni ming bai ma?” he asked, or literally “you bright white?”

Photo: Katharine Mitchell

“Wo ming bai,” I said. I understand. My hours-earlier boyfriend had never been a hand holder, and in that magical Beijing moment, I understood, clearly and brightly, that he’d already been replaced. I’d traded in a prep-schooled jokester for a countryside clown.

“I like your hat,” I told the clown.

He adjusted the silk rose pinned to his green skullcap then tugged on his plastic nose. In broken English, he slurred, “Thank you…verrrry, verrry much.”

At the time, I was living near the ancient Drum & Bell Tower in downtown Beijing, beside the noisy entertainment district of Houhai, a manmade lake surrounded by hundreds of concrete and plywood bars and old people’s playgrounds.

Our hutong (the traditional living quarters for Beijing families) comprised a concrete maze of alleyways, populated with beer and cigarette stalls, bicycle and shoe repairmen, prostitutes fronting as hairstylists, and generations of families living in courtyard homes, hidden behind formidable, red wooden doors.

Blankets, frilly pushup bras, birdcages, and strings of raw fish, set out to dry, hung from laundry lines crisscrossing the alleyways. Old people sat on the streets wearing pajamas or sleeveless undershirts, playing mahjong on makeshift tables, or fanning their mop-haired dogs. Men and women washed their hair and clothes on the street, pouring hot water from a ticking kettle into a plastic washbasin and chatting with neighbors as they scrubbed.

Amidst this, the clown sold flowers with a twenty-year-old business partner whose Chinese name, Han Shui, sounded like the phrase for “very good looking.” Mr. Very Good Looking arranged the flowers, and the clown delivered, throwing in magic tricks for an extra fee. Weddings, funerals, breakups, love affairs–business was blossoming.

Every day the clown wore two red lipstick circles on his cheekbones, above a big red mouth outlined in white. His suit was half yellow, half green, dappled with multicolored polka dots and a jester’s collar fringed with cherry pom-poms.

The Chinese characters stitched up his thigh advertised, “Clown, Fresh Flowers.” He didn’t wear the buffoon’s long, red lace-up shoes, but he did wear mismatched sneakers—one black All-Star and one red Double Star knock-off.

Alleyways of Houhai. Photo: Zulfipunk

Giddy with this new development with the clown, I wrote home to my American friends for the first time in weeks. I anticipated a slow stream of the usual responses: How’s your Chinese? Are the dumplings amazing? Have you bought a bicycle yet?

But one after another, my friends phoned, texted, or IM-ed after a night of drinking, catching me during my morning coffee. They bombarded me with pie-in-the-face questions about my new crush: Does he have magic fingers? Does his nose squeak? Have you touched it? Can he twist balloons into sex toys?

I responded defensively. “He’s not just a clown. That’s only his day job.” But, actually, the clown worked from 6:00 or 8:00am to 10:00pm every day, and then disappeared into the darkness on his moped. I didn’t really know anything about this fellow. For all I knew, he was a telltale drunk or the victim of some rare, Rudolphian disease.

Over the next few weeks, we continued to spend time together sitting on the sidewalk outside his shop—he cooked for me, taught me Chinese and waved away passers-by who lingered and giggled, spellbound by the sight of a Chinese clown sitting pretty with a pale-skinned foreigner.

He told me childhood stories about slaughtering chickens and sneaking hot peppers into his grandmother’s porridge. He gawked over photos of my tow-headed nieces and nephews, amazed by their fat bellies and white faces. We exchanged cell phone numbers, and then finally, after weeks of flirting, he told me his name.

He gingerly lifted my hand and airbrushed the characters across my sweaty palm, fingertips lightly brushing my love line. Each stroke was a butterfly in my stomach: Song Guang Bin.

Life was a circus. And yet, two things still bothered me. For one, I’d never seen him without his make-up. And second, I wasn’t clear if we were friends who flirted, or if we were dating. Sure he’d cooked me fish and pork dinners and driven me out on errands, me perched sidesaddle on the back of his moped.

Yet we hadn’t actually been out on a date. We’d always socialized during his work hours. And aside from holding hands—if that’s what I’d even call it—we hadn’t made physical contact. I wondered what would happen if he did ever kiss me. Would he remove his nose to smooch? If not, would I just have to work around it—a flashback to kissing with braces and glasses?

Photo: Katharine Mitchell

Even though language and culture were our primary barriers, I questioned if intimacy would be an issue until the day I saw his real nose. My critical self stepped in: Was it really necessary to see a man, absolutely and completely naked, in order to trust him?

Of course not! I’d kissed plenty of people and never even seen their bare feet. So how was a red plastic nose different from a tie or eyeglasses or even flip-flops—they were all accessories, sartorial statements. So what was so irksome about the nose?

It seemed strange that he’d foregone the clown figure of the Beijing opera for the red-nosed wardrobe of the western clown. I tried to think critically about Bakhtin’s scholarship on the carnivalesque in Rabelais’ work, but lofty theories about overthrowing class and social order seemed too complicated to describe a florist, even if he was a clown.

As my curiosity grew, so did my imagination. I considered the Chinese concept of losing face, and too literally imagined that he’d done something so humiliating and dreadful that he’d vowed to forever screen his face from public view. But that, too, was absurd.

Perhaps, I decided, that red bauble cinched to his head with a common rubber band hid something–a hairy mole or a botched nose job. Plastic surgery was gaining popularity among the Chinese, so a knife-slipup didn’t seem too implausible.

But what if…he had a terrifying case of leprosy? Maybe all of his extremities were slowly disintegrating, and he intended to replace all of them–ears, fingers, toes–with red plastic noses! I shuttered at this nightmarish image of Gogol meets Bozo.

I decided I must take action. I implored the assistance of a friend’s younger sister, in China on a Wellesley study-abroad program. Relena was practical and savvy. “Ask him to go swimming,” she told over a plate of spicy eggplant. “He can’t go swimming in that get-up. He might lose his nose.”

Photo: d’n’c

The only near-by, feasible option for swimming was Houhai—the greasiest of greasy lakes. Among foreigners, Houhai is looked upon as a septic tank.

Beneath its green film lurked pollutants, rumors of dead things, and the possibility of the even deadlier Chinese snail—a vicious variety of crustacean that carries an aggressive disease that can literally eat away the human nervous system.

(During the Cultural Revolution, troops of workers waded out into lakes across China, acting as the pied pipers of snails. More recently, there was an outbreak in a rural village.) Yet I refused to be spooked by slime—or snails.

Song Guang Bin was quick to accept my invitation, and we agreed to meet by the lake one night at 10:30pm. “I’ll find you,” he said, in Chinese. “You won’t recognize me without my clown clothes.”

Sure enough, I was startled when a skinny bald man dressed in a drab blue T-shirt and baggy shorts grabbed my elbow. In the milky-green light of a dying streetlight, I held my breath as Song Guang Bin stripped. I went from only having seen him zipped inside a polka-dotted coverall to beholding his reed thin body, swaddled only in snakeskin Speedos.

I beheld his smooth head, angular hips and lovely toes that descended in perfect order. I gazed at his jumbled teeth, gaunt cheeks and delicate earlobes, now evident without the makeup. And last, but not least, I stared at his nose. Not too long, not too slim, pocked with a few blackheads, his nose was as common and ordinary as a doll’s. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it—except, of course, that it was his.

I followed Song Guang Bin into the lake. We plunged through a school of old men bound in saggy pairs of waist-high tighty-whiteys. We raced to an unmarked destination, and fought off giggles as we treaded the deep black water.

The night was beautiful. A few stars shone through the pervasive pallor of Beijing smog, laughing couples scuttled by on paddle boats, firecrackers exploded on the other shore, and the music and lights from fringing bars blurred into the tinkle of ice in a highball.

Song Guang Bin asked if I could go under. I took a deep breath and plunged. The water was warm and soothing and I wondered why I hadn’t asked him to go swimming before now. I came up for air, hair sticking to my face, and he reached out and brushed back a clump of wet strands from my forehead.

I asked him to go under and he disappeared. Ten seconds passed, twenty. Thirty, and I started to worry. And then his arms were around me, and he was lifting me out of the water. He kissed me—short and intense. I shook my long black hair and felt as lucky as Brook Shields in Blue Lagoon.

As I raised one hand out of the water, it felt heavy and disconnected from my arm. Yet when I squeezed his nose, ever so gently, I felt the shudder throughout my body. The nose, our relationship…all of it was real.