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J U L Y   1 9 6 8
Fiction
Two in the Bush

by Paul Theroux

THE grocery store on Uhuru Avenue (formerly Queensway) was owned by Sam Fong, a Chinese immigrant. They called him an immigrant; actually he had lived in East Africa longer than the Prime Minister, who was an African. But to be one Chinaman in a country of seven million Africans is not easy: you stand out; the East cannot save you; you remain a visible immigrant all your born days, and so do your children, and so do theirs.

On the window of the store, in white irregular letters, was written "Friend Frocery Pop in Please for Better Price Anywhere in Africa." Some Swahili progress slogans had been written on the window but were now scratched out. Four years after independence Sam Fong discovered that the less said about progress the better. The slogans antagonized his customers and often got him into ideological hot water. Take "One Man, One Vote" (a stick figure with a ballot between its fingers illustrated this slogan). Many Africans came into the grocery store and said, "Big words, big vote. Where is this thing vote? You tell me."

"Like the Holy Spirit" -- Fong was a Catholic  -- "the vote is everywhere. But you can't see it, that's all," said Fong, grinning, and thinking how much better the sentence would have sounded in Chinese than Swahili.
Return to the Interview with Paul Theroux

Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

See other travel essays and short stories by Paul Theroux published in The Atlantic:

  • The Imperial Icehouse,
    April, 1979.


  • A Circuit of Corsica,
    November, 1978.


  • Greene,
    April, 1978.


  • The Johore Murders,
    March, 1977.


  • The Odd-Job Man,
    April, 1976.


  • The Last Mohican Between Khabarovsk and Moscow,
    August, 1975.


  • Misery on the Orient Express,
    July, 1975.


  • Pretend I'm not Here by Paul Theroux
    February, 1974.


  • Burma,
    November, 1971.


  • "These bloody-fool politicians," the Africans would answer. "There is no freedom, just their fat asses in big cars forever, finish, that's all. Give me the British anyday. At least they say what they mean. If they think you bloody baboon, they say straight out, 'I think you African chap are bloody baboon.' British are too honest, you know. That why everyone like them kabisa, much-much. But these African politicians are bloody sheet."

    "Be patient," Fong would say. This he had been saying nearly every day of his thirty-five years in East Africa. When he realized that the progress slogans upset his African customers, he scratched them off the window.

    In spite of the fact that many of Fong's white customers might say (and often did say), "The Chinese are born grocers," Sam Fong was not a born grocer. It should have been clear to anyone standing in the grocery store that Fong's real genius was in carpentry: the hardwood shelves covered every wall from floor to ceiling; bins, vats, counters, stools -- all mortised and tenoned (not a nail in the place) -- were everywhere, unbreakable, sturdy, hard, with chamfered edges and smooth surfaces. But on the formidable expanse of shelves were only a few cans, a few lonely packages of tea and hair straightener and skin lightener. On the smooth counter, as big as the Congo, was a tin receptacle containing stale bread and a few old cream buns; in the bins some onions were starting to shoot green stalks into each other, in the vats maybe a dozen handfuls of rice. Speaking plainly, there were no groceries in the grocery store. The only piece of grocery-store furniture that appeared to be fulfilling its design and justifying its labor was the stool Sam Fong's wife, Soo, sat on, week after week, smiling at the empty shelves beyond.

    Sam Fong had been a carpenter. He had been a foreman in the carpentry shop of the Ministry of Works when East Africa was a British protectorate. Shortly after independence, an Englishman came up to Fong and asked, "In point of fact, I want you to tell me straight out, Fong, who you would say is the keenest chap in the workshop. I don't want a dog's body, you understand." The Englishman bared his teeth. " I want someone terribly keen."

    Sam Fong thought a moment and then pointed to Mohinder Singh, chief fundi of the workshop; Singh was gnawing a dowel that he found too large for a hole.

    "No, no, not a Muhindi," said the Englishman. " I want a native, an African chap, you see? A black one."

    "Take anyone," said Fong.

    "Are they all that keen?"

    "No. All the same. Useless buggers," said Fong in Swahili. "Buggers" he said in English.

    "I'm afraid I can't agree with you there, Fong. No, sir, I just can't. You give these people half a chance, and there's no telling what will happen. Oh, I know, we're not in charge anymore, but that's hard cheese; we'll just have to live with it. Now for goodness sake, Fong, point me out a keen chap. I'm a busy man."

    Fong shrugged in the direction of an African man in rags sawing a board. The man sawed very quickly with one hand and picked his teeth with the other hand. The board was held firm by the man's toes, which curled around the edges and prevented it from moving. "Keen chep," said Fong, "like the rest of them." These words were Fong's undoing.

    The next day the Englishman appeared again and handed the African an envelope. The African, who was working on his back under a table at the time, glanced over and took the envelope firmly between the large and second toe of his right foot.

    Sam Fong looked on in horror. He half expected the African to rip open the envelope with his toes and hold up the letter with his left foot for all to see. The African did not do this. Instead, he just raised his right foot a few inches, holding the envelope above the sawdust, the wood shavings and spittings, and continued drilling the hole under the table. Neither the Englishman nor Sam Fong nor the envelope moved for a full five minutes. The African put down his drill and moved out from under the large table sideways, like a crab. He passed the envelope from his foot to his left hand, and squatting on the floor, opened it. He looked at the Englishman.

    The Englishman's face brightened and twisted itself into a smile so large that it was almost not a smile; the Englishman's eyes popped, and he clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. He turned his face to Sam Fong and continued rocking and grinning, although Fong remained horror-struck, yellow, his eyes and mouth only slits in a lineless face.

    The African looked bewildered, almost harmed. He walked up to the Englishman, and said softly, "I am going to England."

    "You deserve it, son," said the Englishman, bouncing once on his toes. "You're a keen chap."

    The African went over to Sam Fong. " I am going to England," he said.

    "May your misbegotten children die diseased in a whorehouse there. I hope you never come back," said Sam Fong in Chinese. He grinned, and then uttered a Swahili proverb.

    The small barefoot African and the large English man, bags under his eyes, bags in his trousers, his paunch-tightened shirt bursting over his belt, left the workshop arm in arm and walked down the driveway to a waiting Mercedes with Department of Technical Assistance written on the door. Before the Englishman got into the car, he stopped, looked up the driveway to Sam Fong, winked, and erected his thumb in what he intended as a gesture of mutual triumph. Sam Fong raised a ripe middle finger to the man, something he had not done since he was a very young boy in Central China.

    Sam Fong's curse was not as powerful as the will of the Department of Technical Assistance. The African came back six months later. He had gone on a carpentry course in Birmingham where he found out about drill presses, steam drills, and table saws that could do the work of ten men. If Fong had been in the habit of going to the movies, he might have seen in News From Britain the African he cursed being shown around the Birmingham Technical School by a man in a white smock. Looking on were two Nigerians, a Zambian, a Ghanaian in a robe, a Sudanese in a fez, and a Kenyan in a three-piece suit carrying a fly whisk, which he flicked at giant whirring machines. Sam Fong's keen chap was wearing real clothes and even a pair of shoes, and later in the film operated a drill press while the six Africans and twenty white Birmingham Tech students applauded and waved into the camera. At the end of the film, while the narrator said, "But it's not all work and no play for these keen carpenters," the Africans were riding a red double-decker bus, eating a meal of fish and chips topped off with large helpings of jellied eels, being shown what looked like a museum by a bald man with a thick gold chain around his neck, and ("there was lots of merriment in store for these keen craftsmen in wood") dancing with large-chinned and flat-chested English girls from "right across the highroad at Birmingham Domestic Science College, where five Zanzibaris will finish their course this year."

    When Mohinder Singh came to work the next morning and described News From Britain to Sam Fong (" dancing with a Muzungu girl and goodness knows what"), Sam Fong wept. His tears were. scarcely dry when the African showed up and announced, with an official letter of appointment as proof, that he was foreman. Fong was given a drill. He handed his clipboard and pencil to the African, and cursing in Chinese, took his place under the half-made furniture on his back, "like a whore in Shanghai," he reflected.

    The African now wore suits, bought a motorcycle and a fountain pen, and carried a humming transistor radio with him wherever he went; he showed up to work late and drunk, called the other Africans bloody baboons and useless natives, and began saying to Sam Fong, "Carry on then  ... I'll leave you to get on with it  ... pull your finger out  ... belt up or I'll sack you off  ..." One day, about a month after Fong gave up his clipboard, the African foreman said, "Carry on, you bugger, or I'll buy one of those super drills that does do the work of ten fat men!"

    Sam Fong sighed. "What do you want, bwana?"

    "I am asking are you knowing what the drill is this side?"

    "This is the drill," said Fong, holding up his drill.

    "Are you being cheeky with me?" asked the foreman angrily. "I can have your bloody job if you act kali  ..."

    Sam Fong stood up, brushed off the wood shavings, looked at the foreman, said, "You belong in a tall tree" in Chinese, and then, "Kwaheri, bye-bye." He mounted his bicycle and peddled quickly out of the Ministry of Works compound away from the Work for Progress posters and the shrieks of the foreman, who was attempting to disperse the crowd of workmen that had gathered.

    SAM FONG never went back. On the way home he made three resolutions: never trust a white, never trust a black, never be a carpenter; as he repeated these resolutions to himself he saw a sign reading "Store for Rent Aply Fakhru Enterprises Ltd.," and later that afternoon signed a ten-year lease with a pajama-clad Ismaili who demanded £50 in advance for a moldering empty shop at the lower end of Uhuru Avenue. In the contract was a clause which read, "And I promise to buy all stocks and stores and goods from the abovenamed Hassanali Fakhru at prices to be agreed upon so help me God." Only later, in the heat of argument, was this pointed out to Fong. The lumber or the shelves and counters, the bins, the vats, the scales, the light bulbs, the plate glass, were also bought, again under protest, from Fakhru. Twice a day, in Chinese and Swahili, Sam Fong said to Fakhru, "I hate you, I hate you  ... you're a bloodsucking Indian, and if you did this in China, the Emperor would cut your tongue out, your hands off, and he would wisely make your penis into sausage for the dogs!"

    Hassanli Fakhru listened to the jerky Swahili, smiled, and answered, "The trouble with you foreigners is you're not interested in building a nation. You have no spirit of Harambee. You just make money, and then go back where you came from and leave our poor African brothers with nothing. Now me, I can tell you I am interested in developing this country and building a multiracial society. Buggers like you make my job very hard, let me remind you, and give Asia a bad name. Now piss off, my friend."

    Sam Fong would utter a vile Chinese oath and make his way, past hand-colored portraits of the Aga Khan with a garland around his neck, to the door. With a belch and smoothing his pajama front, Fakhru would return to his papers. It happened twice a day. There was no need, he felt, for either party to get excited: such was business. During these first six months Sam Fong worked on his shelves, and even taking into consideration the tyranny of Fakhru, Fong considered the six months to be very happy ones. He worked all day and far into the night sawing and sanding and banging pegs into to the shelves and counters. He did have to draw plans: he had a good eye and could measure everything by merely looking at it. He was foreman, workman, and customer. He was alone in his work and very happy with his tools and wood. He worked steadily, and the shelves in the shop in his mind soon became the shleves in Fakhru's hired duka. They were lovely large shelves, very strong and smooth, braced and solid. Fong knew they were beautiful, but still he remembered his resolutions and refused to do any carpentry for anyone but himself. He vowed never to allow himself the humiliation of being an employee ("Get on with the job or I'll sack you off!") or even a confidant ("Tell me, Fong, who's the keenest chap in the workshop?").

    As the weeks passed he grew more and more worried about the prospect of becoming a grocer while still resolved that he would never be a carpenter again. Being a grocer frightened him, opening his own store frightened him, and soon all this fear transformed itself into rage at night, and he started beating his wife to calm himself. His wife, Soo, understood and received each beating in good faith. It was just another wifely burden. Many times she had to remind herself of her obligation to shriek.

    Two days before the store opened, Soo stayed in and busied herself with white paint and a large board. At the end of the day she showed Fong the sign: "Friend Frocery Pop in Please for Better Price Anywhere in Africa." She smiled. "This is your sign. This is your store, noble husband. You are now a grocer man," she said in Chinese. Instead of being pleased, Sam Fong felt only fear, and for her sign and her words Soo Fong was so severely beaten that she was unable to attend the Grand Opening.

    "I am abundantly heppy  -- overjoyed I should say  -- to be the honored patron of this Grand Opening day of the Sam Fong grocery duka," Fakhru said to Sam Fong and the five African stragglers who had caught sight of the ribbon across the door of the grocery. Fakhru's speech written by his son, who had been directed: "Big words in this, or I'll kick your ass to Zanzibar," took over thirty minutes to deliver. Fong agreed to the speech only because his own English was faulty; in fact, his entire English vocabulary consisted of nouns for food and perhaps ten verbs, which he always used in the present continuous tense. He felt humiliated and helpless; his bitter enemy and master, Hassanali Fakhru, stood in the doorway and spoke.

    Fakhru referred to Sam Fong's perseverance and high values, Asian values, tried and true. He went on to speak at length of how he, Fakhru, had started out from just such humble beginnings. He spoke of the necessity for lifting oneself up into the world by one's own bootstraps. Snatches of the Koran, progress slogans, and parts of pop songs ("As our friends the Beatles say, money cannot buy us love") were also in the speech, and he finished by saying, "I do believe I have covered up all the major points  ..."

    Soon it came time to cut the ribbon. Sam Fong held out a pair of Mother's Own Cutting Scissors (Fakhru Enterprises Ltd., four shillings, sixpence), and Fakhru and Fong, each with his thumb in a metal loop, began sawing away at the ribbon. The leverage was wrong, and instead of the blades working against each other, they were far apart. A good minute passed, and the ribbon was not even frayed. Fakhru lost his temper, pulled Fong's thumb out of the loop, and threw the scissors down. Then he lifted the ribbon, and chomping down once with betel-stained teeth, tore the ribbon in half. "That's how we do such things where I come from," said Fakhru, holding the two ends of the ribbon. Sam Fong stood impassive and stiff. The people on the sidewalk clapped and then went away. Off in the distance Soo moaned.

    "And now for the Grand Opening," said Fakhru. "I shall be your first customer."

    The two men entered the store. Except for the carefully made furnishings, the store was almost bare. Sam Fong went behind the counter and folded his arms.

    "If you please, kind sir," said Fakhru, showing his teeth, "I would like a becket of tea."

    "Big-big or small-small?" inquired Fong, now leaning on the counter gingerly in the manner of a grocer.

    "Bit smaller," said Fakhru.

    Fong went to a corner of the store where on a large shelf sat a tiny box of tea. He placed the box of tea in front of Fakhru.

    "You see," said Fakhru, "it's not that I am not liking tea. I'm craze for tea. But I am having lots of tea beckets already. I just want to be your first customer. I'll take it."

    "Two shillings only," said Fong.

    Fakhru slapped his fat palm against his wide perspiring forehead and made a meaty plop. "You said two shillings!"

    "Right. Now I grocery man, you customer. You pay, I take money."

    "You buy this goods for me for sixpence, you sell to me for two shillings. You call that business?"

    "What you calling it?"

    "When I have to pay you one shilling sixpence to be first customer, I rather be second customer and save money. I call it robbery."

    "You steal from me, I steal from you. That business," said Fong.

    "I give you ninepence only. If you refuse I give you broken arm quick," said Fakhru, throwing two coins on the counter. "That the thanks I get for being first customer."

    Fakhru spat a long stream of betel juice through the notch in his front teeth. The juice landed on the floor like a red bubbly snake, a bad omen suddenly materializing out of thin air. Clutching his tiny box of tea in his hand, he stormed out of the shop with a swish and flap of his large pajama trousers. His jaw was moving back and forth rapidly, kneading his betel for another go.

    With Fakhru gone the shop was in silence. The two Grand Opening ribbons had fluttered when Fakhru brushed by, but now they hung limp. Sam Fong stared past the empty shelves to the empty door. From the woodwork came a slow wail: Soo in pain several rooms away. Fong dropped the two coins into a wooden box, leaned against the counter, took a deep breath, sighed, and four years passed.

    IN FOUR years all that Sam Fong had managed to do was to perfect a tight grin which he was able to switch on and off. As a carpenter he did not have to grin at all. As a grocer he found that he spent most of the day grinning. He would not have noticed it except that it made his face hurt. On the other hand, his wife, who had very large teeth, found it a great relief to grin. All of this, Fong reflected, was business.

    The carpenter in Fong did not die. Fong continued to hammer, saw, and plane; when the counter got very dirty or the shelves very greasy it was the carpenter and not the grocer in Sam Fong that took charge. Instead of washing the counter, he sanded it down; if there was a lot of grease on the counter, it was planed. When a feeble African woman dropped a whole bottle of vinegar on the floor one day, Fong rushed into the back room, grabbed his crowbar and hammer, tore up the floorboards, and fitted new ones. After these carpentry exercises, done at top speed, Fong felt very well; it was a much better feeling than he got from beating his wife. Hammering helped him fight his moments of depression, though after four years, spent mostly leaning against the counter, Fong felt like throwing up the whole business and walking away. His moments of remorse over quitting the carpentry job were quickly dispelled, if not brightened, by the memory of the African at the Ministry of Works telling him to carry on, that keen chap who tormented the carpenters and who, if given a second chance, would make Fong's life miserable. Fong remembered his resolution and went back to hammering mindlessly on the counter; at other times he would go to see Fakhru and buy what Fakhru called "stocks and stores."

    The largest-selling items in the store were the five kinds of skin lightener (three for women, two for men). Sam Fong thought it was odd that there should be only one kind of bread, one kind of matches, one kind of cigarettes, one kind of ketchup, and five kinds of skin lightener. He made up a joke which he told to everyone who bought a tube of skin-lightening cream: customer walks in; customer asks for skin lightener; Fong gets skin lightener, and hands it to customer saying, "Now you be Chinese like me." No one thought it was funny. Once when he asked an African what he was going to do with the cream, the African said it was good for the cold weather; it prevented lips from getting stiff and (this was the African's exact word) "unsightly." With each crate of skin lightener a poster was enclosed; Fong studied these carefully. There were always four characters in the picture, each a different dusky shade. Fong's favorite was the airplane poster. On this one the four people were deployed around the movable stairs of a just arrived plane. A shiny purplish man oiled a tire, a man with a dull carbonized face wiped the rail of the stairs, and both men looked blackly upon their shabby tasks; their coveralls were soiled with blotches of soot and finger wipings of plane grease. Standing on the runway was a mocha air hostess greeting a prosperous quadroon-yellow African carrying an attaché case. A sizzling part had been burned across one temple, and a thought bubble at the side of his head contained the following: "Boy, she sure is some dish! I'm sure glad I brought that extra tube!"

    This yellow African with a slightly Oriental look about him stuck in Fong's mind and would not leave. And though none of his customers saw the humor in it, and went on believing privately that even a small tube of skin lightener could squirt them surely into the middle class, Sam Fong persisted with his joke: "Now you be Chinese like me."

    When Fong went to buy "stocks and stores" from Fakhru, he made up his mind that he would buy only the necessary items; inevitably he came back with much more than he wanted, though much less than he bargained for. On paper what he bought looked like a great deal. When it was delivered in the rattling gray Peugeot van that bore Fakhru's name, it looked like very little. These sessions with Fakhru wore Fong down and caused Soo Fong many days in bed recovering from the bruises which the enraged and humiliated Sam Fong inflicted on her. The beatings were, as before, accepted by her with great forbearance; "welcomed" is perhaps the wrong word, though there was more than mere acceptance in her attitude toward the beatings, and often she was pleased in the knowledge that she was fulfilling a useful function. In order for Fong to get what he wanted from Fakhru, he had to agree to buy other things.

    Fakhru had introduced Fong to the fascination of black market merchandise. "You know bleck market?" Fakhru had asked. Sam Fong stared. Fakhru translated into Swahili.

    "Yes," said Fong. "In town."

    "Where in town?" asked Fakhru.

    "Where they sell the bananas," said Sam Fong.

    Fakhru smiled and wiped his whole sweating face on his pajama front, which he lifted with two hands. He spat. "Not that market. Now I tell you about real bleck market."

    He told him. But after two transactions in the Congo (one in Kinshasa, one in Lubumbashi), Fong was lost. He never understood why the border guards should be bribed; he never fully comprehended the smoked fish thrown on top of the merchandise, the exchange-control shell game in which Congolese francs were converted into salt, then into ivory, then into cigarettes, and finally, at some equatorial outstation, into shillings, and at some future date into rupees.

    Fong nodded. "Now I know black market."

    Black market, with its ritual of almost religious proportions, came to be synonymous with high quality and instant wealth. Sam Fong accumulated mattresses, yards and yards of Belgian cloth, galvanized pails, and dozens of other items which no one bought, but which Fong thought useful to have around in case a customer should come into the store with more than a shilling. At the start of the bargain, when Fakhru would mention an item, Fong would recoil.

    "Good recapped tires just arrived."

    "Don't want tires," Fong would say. "I selling grocery food."

    "Good recapped tires you don't want," Fakhru would say. "'Sall right with me. Everybody want those tires, those bleck market tires."

    "You say black market tires?"

    "That is what I did say."

    And Fong would buy a dozen. Eventually he would sell three, and the rest would be used in flower beds for planned but unfinished gardens; one hung by a rope would become a swing; others would be cut to pieces to be made into sandals.

    With the exception of some tea, sugar, matches, rice, patent medicine (Samson Blood-Purifying Lozenges, Uncle Pompey's Gripe Water), hair straightener, and skin lightener, the goods that Fakhru fobbed off onto Sam Fong -- and, in particular, the black market goods -- never sold. If they did, they yielded no profit. They were usually too big to be displayed, and so the store always seemed uniquely bare. Soo thought of taking down the grocery-store sign every time Fong bought a new black market item. When he bought mattresses, Soo imagined a new sign: Sam Fong Mattress Shop; or the tires: Sam Fong Tires for All Occasions; but always he would sell a few and permit the rest to be transmogrified into sandals and flowerpots. The mattresses that were not sold were torn apart by a cripple who, for two shillings a mattress, made each spring into a coat hanger. The coat hangers did not sell either, but when Soo pointed this out to Sam Fong, he replied, "Yes, I know, Africans don't want them: no coat, no coat hanger. But they're easy to store, no?"

    A system was inevitable; it was the difference between life and death, and after four years Fong had worked it out in detail. He made lists of the things Africans bought and had a final list of high-priority items: cigarettes sold singly, matches, blood-purifying lozenges, fruit salts, sugar, hair straightener, skin lightener, aspirin, kerosene, unrefined Nubian gin, tea, and a few other things. The dust-covered canned goods he learned never to restock; they had been on the shelves since the Grand Opening day. Among these were ten cans of Spam which had been packed in Austin, Minnesota; thirty-five cans of Australian processed cheese from Melbourne; and about a gross of cans with no label except the following scrap, sometimes studied by Fong, stuck to one of the crates: "The ruddy-bright delicious juice of fine tomatoes -- excellent for any meal or as a between-meal refresher and a terrific source for Vitamins C and A" -- the next part was illegible -- then: "Serving Suggestions. Serve chilled as a beverage; hot as a soup or beverage; or use it for making aspic salads, sauces, stews, etc. Drink it morning, noon, or night ... Quick 'n' Easy Appetizer or Snack Idea: With your favorite crackers add one three-ounce package ..." The rest was torn.

    Sam Fong had stopped dusting the cans and had given up trying to fathom the writing on the crate. To open one of these label-less cans was to throw three shillings to the winds, for whatever was in cans Fong did not like. At first he had said to his customers, "Just arrived from Minn -- nice good meat in very strong can," or "Honest better price for this sent today by my brother in Australia," or, in the case of the gross of unmarked cans, "What is inside is secret -- only three shillings to have secret revealed." No one bought the cans; this ceased to worry Sam Fong and even pleased Soo Fong. No grocery store was complete, she felt, unless there were cans on the shelves. Empty shelves upset her. It is perhaps in the nature of every grocer to develop a weird anthropomorphism for groceries: Soo felt sorry for the tiny stacks on the large shelves; to stare at a pyramid of three small boxes of tea, alone in a corner of the store, untouched, caused her genuine pain. She averted her eyes from the pathetic little piles of unsold merchandise in the grocery store.

    LIFE went on. Somehow Fong managed a small profit, but nearly all of it was spent in rent, "stocks and stores," and overhead expenses. Some he put in the bank, but only as a gesture, for he never banked more than a few shillings. The last week of the month -- the week before Soo took her abacus down from the shelf and began flinging the beads to and fro as her husband barked his cheek-tightening Chinese at her -- was a terrible one: the tea was watered to a sickly urinous color, meat did not exist, no one used soap, and grasshoppers caught under the streetlights at night and fried were the main course at every meal. The children sat in their corner of the back room and grumbled over their grasshoppers. Sam Fong would silence their complaints with "Eat these nice fat insects. You are lucky to have them. In China they are a delicacy."

    Often Fong regretted having made his resolution about never being a carpenter, but the resolution was irrevocable. The other two -- never trust a white man, never trust a black man -- also caused him considerable anxiety. His customers, when they appeared at their infrequent intervals, were either white or black. If a white man bought something (the whites never bought much more than cigarettes, but they always bought the whole package of twenty and never asked for only two or three), Fong felt he was being cheated or spied upon. Africans made him nervous as well, and many were the times when an African in a clean shirt and tie, perhaps even wearing a suit, walked in and awakened fear in Fong, the helpless fright that envisioned the African announcing that he was the new owner of the grocery store and that Fong should pick up the bundle of papyrus and begin sweeping the floor. This, in four years, had not happened; but the anxiety, together with the knowledge that Africans were in power and he himself was "free" (the image of a man splashing in a wide muddy river occurred to him), prompted another saying which he repeated incessantly to his wife: "A man who is free to feed himself might choose poison." The African who, in six brief months, became foreman of the workshop also became the symbol of what Fong imagined would be inevitable frustration and eventual failure. He trusted no one except a fellow Chinaman who ran a camera shop and spoke of going to Canada. There were, he had heard, two other Chinese in the country, but he had never seen them. They lived in the bush. His dealings with whites inspired less anxiety than his dealings with Africans, but much more futility, for he was certain that the whites were responsible for his ended career in carpentry. His resolutions did not cover brown men; he continued to do business with Fakhru, and, with more rage than anxiety, more insolence than fear, get cheated. He knew he was being cheated by Fakhru, and he explained this in another proverb: "Behind every dark man is a white man making money."

    Fong was more worried about being cheated than he was about making money. Cheating made him squirm; it made him nervous and murderous. Making money was not one of his dreams. He did not sit in his store and dream of Nubians carrying trays of fried pork and jugs of rice wine, tall black men in silk, wearing gold daggers and waiting on him, cooling him with feathery fans. He did not imagine himself sitting in the back seat of a big car shouting for his driver to turn left, or, with the car radio blasting, drawing up to the Nile Villa Hotel while dozens of curious and greedy onlookers asked, " Who is that wealthy Chinaman?" and stared. These were Soo's dreams, two of them at any rate, and she stopped speaking of them to Fong when quite in earnest he beat her unmercifully for repeating them to him. He had explained to Soo that this was another world, her world of fantasy, and it was not populated with people like Sam or Soo Fong. The idea of wealth was not that it was unattainable, it was unthinkable; when the thought was uttered he ridiculed it. He was meant to serve, to work; and lately his preoccupation with being swindled prevented him from having the time even to ridicule the thought of wealth.

    Sometimes he thought of happiness. This idea of happiness was set among wood shavings in a noisy workshop. Table legs were being turned on a lathe, drills scraped against wood and bored into the center of thick boards, gouges turned up long curls on doors that would be graceful, and muscular men pounded pegs into joints, while Sam Fong, like the leader in a Chinese musical revue, directed the busy men with a little lemon branch, his nostrils full of sawdust. No one was paid, no one was cheated, and lovely smooth furniture bounced out of the workshop, on short hard legs, like indestructible little men, sturdy and mindless. This could hardly be called the dream of a voluptuary, but this was Sam Fong's dream, based on his happiest days in Africa when there was no money and when he had plenty to eat. He had renounced it, but because he had renounced this as a way of life, it became sacred to him: he would see it after death. The workshop in this other sphere was bathed in a rosy glow from the lumber room; each naked man acted on his command and was dwarfish and serene in his industry. Money had nothing to do with it, though cheating certainly did; he knew that for the time being he had been cheated out of it all.

    He narrowed his eyes at the empty shelves and sold an African a two-ounce tube of skin lightener and three cigarettes. Though the tube cost three shillings sixpence and the cigarettes tenpence, he took the African's twenty-shilling note, and without blinking or moving his head, or even without looking at the man, gave him the exact change. And so Sam Fong became, after more than four years, a shopkeeper; or as Fakhru put it, "Now my friend you are a dukawallah. It should be abundantly clear that there is a place for you in East Africa to grow and prosper."


    Copyright © 1968 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1968; "Two in the Bush"; Volume 222, No. 1; pages 74-84

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