My Early Days in China - My Dangerous and Violent Best Friend
He was 2 years older than me, the boy who lived next door, in this small suburb Laodaokou of Shenyang. Ever since I had memory, we were already playing together.
Among all the activities, arcade games were our favorites. You could find Street Fighter in every arcade. Back in the days in my hometown, arcade was a place that took some balls to get in. Everything was offline, the player you fought against was the guy stood next to you. If you won the game, you were literally costing the money of him, you could only wish the guy had a good temper, which those street fighters normally didn't acquire.
Arcade was a hunter-prey place, where spoiled domestic boy like me had a great chance to get myself hunted, like a lamb to the slaughter. It was dark and dirty and smoky, perfect set up for such violence scene. Some even made it a job, robbing money from little kids.
Age and height were the dominant factor in this stage of fighting. One day, I got knocked down unconditionally, the guy was taller than me, my coin and money were taken. I cried and ran back to my neighbor, I told my friend what happened. "Let's revenge!", he took me back, punched the guy who hit me minutes before, and got all my money back and also, all belongings of that guy too, as little punishment.
Knowing I was short and powerless and labeled by the local hunters, I never went there without my friend. He would normally just watch me play single player mode, and when someone put a coin and challenged me, he would make sure there was no any suspicious move from the guy. If the guy dared to pick up a fight, he would give the guy a slap and normally that'd be enough. I had never seen any guys fought back after a slap. It was like the most effective move, you didn't need to master a course of kung fu at all.
Later I got my first gaming console. I surely invited him a lot to my house and we played together. By the time his infamous street reputation - smoking, fighting, robbing, stealing - had spread among the parents of the suburb, my dad officially forbid me to hang out with him.
Of course I didn't listen to that order right? We came up with some secret code, whenever he shout that outside, I would prepare myself and go to his house to play. I even put the gaming console there for the ease of "transportation". To me, it mattered more about how he act in front of me, I never saw him using any violence when it was not needed.
Oh we even talked about girls! Uh... yeh I was still maybe around 7, maybe too early for such thing but I remember I started to notice myself wanting to stare at one girl specially at school, and I didn't know what to do about it, I thought there was something wrong with me. Once I heard he was talking to another guy who was similar to his age about girls, so I chimed in and shared my little secret, awkwardly. They burst into laughter, "That is totally normal! Good job yo!", he assured me that I was fine, I was not a weirdo.
One summer vacation of elementary school, I got the assignment of writing composition with the title of "My Best Friend", I chose to write about him instantly. Until that moment, I had worshiped him, idolized him, honored him. He was like my brother, my protector, my mentor, my best playmate, my go-to for everything. Maybe deep inside, we all eagerly longed for such brotherhood stuff in early age.
After I showed him what I wrote, he gave me a short but satisfied smile, and turned it back to me immediately. "Well done", I thought he was flattered.
Meanwhile my dad was still doing his education on me, saying he would affect me in a bad way, it was dangerous to hang out with him. He couldn't afford any snacks, books or games. He was simply using me to get what he wanted. No one would play with him except me, that didn't make me look good.
None of them kicked in my head.
1 or 2 years later, we went to a totally different district of the city, it had been a while since we played in the fields. We went to an arcade for Street Fighter, like old days.
"Hey hey, you, yeh you, you got any money?". Suddenly a local hunter came close to me, he was so small, a total head shorter than me. I admired his bravery, and moved my gaze toward my friend, I was already kind of used to such situation, I was confident to even protect myself.
"We are just here to play games, could you leave us alone?", My friend showed his courtesy.
"F**k you, you wanna die today hah?!"
The boy raised his right hand as if we would hit us. He definitely got the motion, but my friend already slapped him 3 times in a heartbeat, pushed him to the corner and gave him quite a "good lesson". It seemed the little boy only learned how to do the posturing but was never once into the real fight. Maybe it was his first hunt. It was like a successful commercial - always intruded in the middle, but you watched it through and it even make you laugh a bit.
A few minutes later two bigger figures approached us. They were the "brothers" to the little boy, I saw the image of myself inside him, it was the exact same version of me seeking protection from my friend. They weren't that tall, but the way they walked showed experience, they were definitely older than us, and more dangerous. "Let's go for a walk", one of them spoke in a very demanding and commanding tone.
So we followed them to the middle of nowhere. I did my calculation. It was a simple 2 vs 2 situation. They seemed strong, but if I managed to pin down one of them, then my friend would join me after he knocks down the other, I was certain he was capable of doing so, together we might claim the victory. I simulated lots of possibilities in my head, running away was none of them. They had been grining from the beginning, they were confident. I hadn't realized that it was me doing all the "negotiations", and I hadn't heard a word or even noticed any signals from my friend.
One of them suddenly slapped my friend, there was no any sign of upcoming violence, it left my friend with no time to prepare, if he was going to. He immediately burst out crying, like an infant, looked so vulnerable and innocent. I couldn't tell who were more surprised among 3 of us.
"Wow wow stop, stop, where was that tough guy who slapped my friend hah? Man-up! Come on!" I never imagined my friend would collapse with a single slap. Soon enough, I understood the situation, there was no chance for us at all to get out of this without "penalty". Fighting at this age was always one-sided, there were rarely back-and-forth fights, the result was decided from the encounter.
I surrendered, gave in all of my money, and made sure they didn't hit my friend anymore. It was my turn to protect him, if it was not too late. I tapped his back and tried to calm him down, we took bus home afterwards.
It seemed they had taken more than just pieces of metal coins from me, part of my admiration, belief and fantasy toward my friend was taken too. Or quite the contrary, perhaps they brought me back to the reality: I was simply blinded to see him straight. He was mere 2 years older than me, he couldn't save me every time like a hero, a non-exist figure I wanted him to be. Maybe it was my overconfidence that led us there. if I didn't follow those guys so quickly, if I included the submission of him in the calculation, if I could notice his pale face earlier, if we decided to run on our bare feet, we may still got a chance...
Everything had changed permanently. That was almost my last memory of him. Give-and-take, master-and-servant, old-brother-and-younger-brother, whatever the relationship was, it was gone. Perhaps I could take care of myself and needed no more his protection, perhaps he was shame of what happened, we didn't hang out much after that, none I could recall.
Was I being used? When that single thought along with other sayings from my dad kicked in, I felt nothing but disgusting. I hated myself to even doubt the motivation of our friendship, yet I couldn't eliminate that thin possibility that some part of my dad might be right. I felt I was manipulated, brain-washed, even though at the time I didn't know about these words, that self-hatred feeling was there and never went anywhere else. Nevertheless, when I showed him my writing, his smile was sincere, that was enough.
My family moved shortly after the incident, and I've never met him after that. There was no Facebook, no smart phone, no email, not even a phone or pager in the house. The place we lived now is in the middle of some modern highway, no single piece of information I could collect.
His name is 张亮 (Zhang Liang).
I would love to meet him again if possible, and say thank you in person. Thank you for those years, it was you that made me feel safe in the street. Thank you for your company, and hey, I wrote about you again.