The smell of food is in the air. Sichuan pepper, the distinctive smell of hotpot. People gathered around tables that are hastily put outside as more people arrive. The lava like hotpot bubbles as they put their food inside to cook. Across the road from them the old lady picks bottles from out of the dustbins. Hoping to collect enough to give her a small bit of spending money. She talks to the security guard in their dialect. Intelligible to most who hear it. She laughs as she walks away with her plastic bottles. The hotpot diners still engaged in their food, beer and chatter.
The young girl sitting on her apartment balcony watching over them. Pretending to do her homework while really just people watching. That’s what she loves to do, she loves to watch the people and create stories in her mind about where they are from, what they do for work, where they go on their holidays. Her tall apartment building one of many overlooking the bustling street of restaurants and bars. She looks back down to her books, maths she can not understand nor does she have any desire to understand. But she must understand, without it she’ll never pass her exams. If she doesn’t pass it’ll bring shame to her parents.
Another hour passes and the street is even busier. The Uigher man has arrived with his trolley full of lamb kebabs. People queuing up waiting for them to cook on his charcoal barbecue. This man allows her mind to run wild. Someone so seemingly exotic. His looks different from everyone else. The Turkish background giving him thick hair. He probably can’t even speak the local language. She wonders where he lives back home. Maybe he came from out in the desert, owning camels. Sitting outside each night watching the star filled sky. Why has he come here? You can barely see the sun during the day. Thick smog obscuring its view.
There’s also a man with a monkey. A tiny monkey that clings to his shirt. A chain wrapped around his neck. He walks up to each table offering people the chance to touch it. Everybody declining. They are not drunk enough yet, when he comes back later in the evening they will all be taking pictures with the frightened animal. The man walks away, probably looking for a place to eat before they get drunk and he gets busy. The girl wonders what he feeds the monkey, where did he even get the monkey?
Another look down at her books. The desk beside her still piled with different ones, all to be done tonight before she goes to bed. Now she is looking at her English books. She likes to learn English but her books are boring. They are too easy for her, there is no challenge. She wants to write stories, she could sit here every night and watch all the people, choose some and write a story for each one. Give them imaginary, fantastical lives that they would never believe themselves. But no, she must learn grammar that English people themselves probably don’t even know.
Tonight the moon has managed to push through the cloud and the pollution. A big white ball in the sky. It seems to have made the people even more crazier than usual. Young girls in high heels falling over and laughing. The young men with them shouting loudly in an attempt to impress. She watches and tells herself she’ll never be like that, even if she does fail her exams. The man with the monkey is sitting by another man who has fallen over. His clothes wet from spilled beer. The monkey clinging even more tightly in fear.
As the street begins to quieten and the people move away the restaurant owners eat their dinner. The girl’s pile has diminished to just one. Her politics book. A book full of boring texts that no one cares about. The scenes below her of people flaunting wealth, the debauchery, the rampant capitalism, all contradicting the German man with a beard on the front of her book. She puts the book back into her bag without reading it. The teacher will give us the answers anyway there is no need to read it.
Using the time she would have used to read the book she takes these moments to allow herself to choose one of the late stragglers leaving the club. A young man with an open shirt, staggering down the street barely able to walk. She picks up her pen and begins to write, giving the man a new story and a new life, one far away from his drunken night in the bars. She thanks the man in her head, he has given her an opportunity to escape for an hour.
This is inspired by a girl I used to teach English to in China. She loved English and would love to look down from her apartment building and tell stories about the people down below. The education system doesn’t really promote creativity and this was one of the few opportunities she had to express her obvious talents.