A short story by Yaxue Cao
(Originally published in the September, 2007, issue of Boulevard, an American literary quarterly.)
Six-Peace Restaurant stood at the end of a narrow road that had been built, apparently, for the Compound across the street, because the asphalt surface reached only to the front gate of the Compound, and beyond that, the road turned to dirt, leading to a field of debris and overgrown weeds. Across the field on the east, you could see the towers of the Asian Games Village where the new cityscape was unfolding. The restaurant adjoined a bicycle repair shop on one side and a hair salon on the other. It had about twenty tables, and was the only restaurant at this corner of the city’s northern outskirts, not counting a couple of tiny eateries in the outdoor free market at the entrance of the road.
I started going there, a book tucked under my arm, for lunch around two in the afternoons soon after I had moved to the Compound. At that time of day, the restaurant had few customers and sometimes none, and I liked to sit at the last table by the window. The owner was also the chef, a man in his mid-thirties, my age, slim, tall and erect. I read Proust while eating, his tentacles spreading themselves deep and wide the way the roots of a giant tree do. From time to time, I emerged from reading to watch the street scene (the sun was high and glaring, the din of life dropped a few decibels, but the two young soldiers guarding the gate of the Compound were meticulously upright as always) or the owner who was busy in the front (it was an endless chore to operate a restaurant, and the owner didn’t seem to have a helper, at least I hadn’t seen one). Perhaps because I was a woman and alone, the owner was extraordinarily polite to me every time I ordered or paid my bill and left. But I could tell he was a shy man. One day, he asked, while getting me change, why he hadn’t seen me in the area before. I said I had just moved into the Compound. My answer didn’t satisfy him. He went on asking, “Do you come from … the south…?” At this point, I told him I had just returned from the United States. “No wonder,” he said, smiling, “you look different.” Then he started apologizing for the homeliness of his dishes. I said my taste was simple and homely dishes were the best. I asked his last name, and he said Shang.
“Why come back?” Mr. Shang sighed when he saw me again. “How wonderful America is!”
Having exchanged names, Mr. Shang and I were on more familiar ground now. Halfway into my meal, he strolled to the back of the dining room and sat down two tables across from me. I pushed Proust aside.
I had been back for only a couple of weeks, and had been asked the same question several times already. My family asked, my college friends, whom I had not seen yet, asked over the phone, now even a stranger like Mr. Shang wanted to know. I should have prepared a standard answer, so I wouldn’t be at a loss again as I was then. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to answer. I had sensed, from people’s sighs or their pauses, some sort of reproach, as though I had done something stupid, or I was a loser, and had grown a little resistant to their inquiries.
“America is great, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a developed country after all.”
“I bet it’s not as dirty as here.”
I followed Mr. Shang’s line of sight and saw, outside the window, a small van had just hurled by, a cloud of dust swirling in its wake.
“Yeah, it’s very clean over there,” I said. “Not much dust, and the air is fresh.”
“Where did their dirt go? Don’t they have any?” Mr. Shang was bewildered.
“Dirt is everywhere on Earth,” I laughed. “Except that in America, wherever roads and buildings are not, there are lawns, natural vegetation or trees to hold the dirt.”
Mr. Shang looked like he had just heard some bizarre theory. Then he too laughed, “Of course, of course.”
He went back to his work in the front.
He was a Beijingese. One could tell from his accent. But otherwise he was rather atypical of a Beijing man. He was not glib as many of them were, and far from being caddish, he reminded me of a gentler, cultured kind that the bamboo groves and limpid streams of the south traditionally had produced. He was as busy as any restaurateurs, but he looked neither overly shrewd nor hyperactive as many of them were. This somehow gave me the impression that he was doing an unsuitable job in an unsuitable place.
I had not expected to see a city beyond my recognition. But that was exactly what happened. When I stepped off the plane and into the brand-new, spotless international airport, I thought, for a moment, I had somehow circled back to America. The airport I remembered resembled a country bus station, only bigger, more upscale and more complex. I could still recall the stench coming out of the toilets. Outside the airport, the taxi turned onto a new highway lined with meticulously ordered poplar trees. The flickering sunlight on the leaves evoked something familiar, but I couldn’t recall the old road anymore. Soon the skyline of the city came into sight. Before I could figure out where I was, the taxi had merged into an endless river of cars under the shadow of skyscrapers. I asked the driver where we were, he said, nonchalantly, “The Third Beltway East.” “Was there a Third Beltway?” I asked hesitantly. “Oh there was, but it’s completely different now,” the driver said. It dawned on me then that I had come back to a strange place. “You are not Beijingese, are you?” The driver asked. “I lived here before and left in 1990.” “That was six years ago!” The driver exclaimed, “it’s totally different now!”
The next day and a half, I visited my sister and a friend of mine, and rode through more streets that I didn’t recognize. The city did not become any more real. Instead, I grew more bewildered. The next evening I passed by the Gate of Heavenly Peace (or Tiananmen) and for the first time felt I had really arrived in Beijing.
A few days after moving into the vacant apartment my sister had in the Compound, I found an email service provider in the yellow pages called chinaonline. The next day I took my laptop with me heading to the Friendship Hotel, where the provider had its office, to install software. The streets now were filled with yellow mini-taxi and white mini-buses. Even outside the Fourth Beltway, where I was living now, I could get a mini-bus as soon as I reached the main road, a few minutes walk from the Compound. As new as I was to the city, I was already growing accustomed to the howling of ticket men hanging half their bodies outside the bus window beckoning passengers. I had already seen a lot of new buildings with ornate styles, such as faux Chinese palatial designs or imitations of Western grandeur. And I kept seeing more every time I went out. From the billboards on top of the buildings, another life enticed: a luxury car accelerating on an immaculate road in the midst of a breathlessly beautiful mountain forest; the Marlboro man on his horse at the edge of a cliff; a warmly lit chamber and sparkling chandelier; a dewy, red rose.
On the Third Beltway North, I transferred to another mini-bus whose destination was the Friendship Hotel. Before, when the municipal buses were the only transportation, they were always packed like cattle cars. Now, with the mini-buses, everybody had a seat. I sat comfortably in the back of the sparsely occupied bus as it turned onto the avenue leading from the Zoo to the university district, looking forward to see a part of the city I had traveled most and been most familiar with during my college years. But it soon became clear to me that, even here, I couldn’t recognize anything but the proper names. After a while, even those names started receding from familiarity.
Presently, the ticket man jumped off the bus and disappeared for about ten minutes to attend his own business while the bus and passengers waited. While he was gone, a middle-aged woman got on and sat in the seat right next to the door where the ticket man had been. He came back, seeing his seat had been taken, shook his head in disbelief and launched a torrent of invective.
“You fucking idiot! Are you blind? There are so many empty seats around and you, stupid bitch, had to take mine? …”
The woman quickly got up and moved to a seat across the aisle. Apart from her, there were only two other passengers—a man in the front holding a computer monitor on his lap and myself, in the back.
“Look at you! You imbecile from the province!” The ticket man continued still standing, still pointing his finger at the woman. “Have you ever been to Beijing? Have you, stupid?”
The woman said nothing, her head turning away toward the window.
“I’m going to give you a lesson today,” the man went on. “Listen, this seat belongs to me, your great-uncle! If I haven’t beaten you up, that’s because I’m merciful. Understand?”
I fidgeted in my seat, and could hardly stand it any more. The man with a monitor sat motionlessly like a rock.
“Anybody off?” The driver called out.
The door opened, and the woman bolted out. Then the man with the monitor got up and hurried off too.
I took out my sunglasses and put them on.
The bus moved a little bit further down the road and then stopped.
“Hey! You! Where are you going?” The driver turned around and shouted at me.
“The Friendship Hotel,” I said.
“There’s construction ahead, it’s hard to go through. You can get off here,” the driver said.
The ticket man was absorbed, counting money. I said nothing.
“Hey, did you hear me?” the driver called again, looking at me from the rear-view mirror.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, and I will not get off until I am there.”
“It’s not too far from here. You get off, make a right turn ahead, you walk a little bit, then you are there,” said the driver.
“No. Take me to the Friendship Hotel before I get off.”
“Why are you so stubborn? All I’m saying is that it’s hard to get through,” said the driver.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, I get off at Friendship Hotel.”
The driver stepped on the gas, mumbling something. The ticket man had stopping midway from counting money and stared at me without saying a word. I could see him, but he couldn’t see me behind the sunglasses.
I was triumphant when I got off at the hotel.
Then I felt an urge to go back to look for that woman. I wanted to find her. I wanted to ask her name, where she came from and what she was doing in Beijing. I wanted to sit down and have a chat with her. I wanted to apologize for not having helped her, and I was ashamed of myself. But as I looked at the piles of dirt on the road, the traffic jam and the crowded skywalk behind me, I knew I would never see her again.
On my way back from the Friendship Hotel, I saw Luxurious View Villas again off the Fourth Beltway—a cluster of cream-yellow, two-story single houses. They looked like they had just been finished, and there was no sign of life yet. But I could imagine the swift-footed few, who made their fortune before anyone else did or ever would, would soon begin their new life there, safeguarded by the solid black iron fence around.
Six-peace restaurant was again empty. On that particular day, I felt like have a bowl of noodles with pickle sauce, asking Mr. Shang if he had pickles. He said yes. I asked if I could go to the kitchen with him to see what kind of pickled vegetables he had. He said, “Come and see.”
I didn’t expect Mr. Shang to have the kind of pickle I used to eat in my childhood. I just wanted to make sure it was not the sweetened kind the southerners made. It was not. It was made of large bok choy that I had had before and was pretty good. Mr. Shang began to prepare the ingredients for my sauce, and I watched beside him.
“You have lived in America for so long and you still like to eat such things?” Mr. Shang said.
“You always like what you ate when you were little,” I said. “It’s like your second nature.”
“Did you eat Chinese food or Western food?”
“Both. But I prefer Chinese, if I have a choice.”
“What are Chinese restaurants like over there?”
“Terrible. Awful. The same everywhere.”
“So you cook for yourself? You don’t look like you can cook.”
“Well, you can never tell.”
“Did you drink coffee or tea?”
“I drink tea.”
“Coffee is a fad in Beijing right now.”
“I like tea better.”
“Are Americans very polite?”
“You can say so.”
Then I remembered my fright just moments ago when I had been crossing the street and a pick-up truck had sped toward me.
“In America,” I said, “especially in small towns where life is slow, if a driver sees you crossing the street, he would stop at a comfortable distance from you and let you cross.”
Mr. Shang looked at me in disbelief. I felt like I had just pulled a magic trick. After a while Mr. Shang said, “How do they do so well but not us?”
Before I said anything, he added, “The Chinese are wicked.”
I thought of the incident on the bus.
“You don’t know how bad the Chinese are these days,” he emphasized, as though trying to convince me.
“But you are not wicked,” I teased.
“China will never be as good as America,” he sighed.
By now, the meat shreds had been stir-fried, pickle was added in, and the water was boiling on another burner for noodles.
“I’m going to wait outside,” I said. As I was leaving, I saw, on the wall behind the kitchen door, a large poster of Marilyn Monroe, in which she smiled radiantly like a wide-open blossom and her breasts, barely contained in an embroidered bra, erect, full, and high. I would never have expected to see her in Mr. Shang’s dim kitchen, on a smoky wall and among the chaos of pans, bowls and dishes. It was a strange feeling.
Back at my seat, I wondered if I should tell Mr. Shang, when he asked me about America again, that I had once been robbed at gunpoint, that a debt collector had harassed me for over two years for money I had already paid. I would have been scared to death by his threats if I didn’t know I was innocent. Also, that professor and translator of Wang Wei, the Tang poet, who didn’t speak one word of Chinese. I worried that the America I had described (the grass and trees, the houses, the clean air and polite people), like the billboards on the streets of Beijing, had become a seducing mirage for Mr. Shang.
Take Monroe for instance. I didn’t know what goddess she was to Mr. Shang. For me, she was a girl named Norma Jeane and she would not be too different from any other girl on the street. In Hollywood, she became Marilyn Monroe, her red lips were forever open, and her eyes expectant, enticing and provocative. Her body was forever posing. She was desired by powerful men, including a President, but died lonely in her bed at the age of 36, holding the telephone receiver……Whatever she had been saying, it couldn’t have been pretty.
Mr. Shang brought my noodles, then sat down two tables across from mine, the same place he had sat down last time. One didn’t see many Chinese men as discreet as Mr. Shang.
“America has a good rule of law, doesn’t it?” He asked.
“Right. People are in general law-bidding.”
“How wonderful,” he said softly, as if to himself.
“What are their police like?”
“They are nice and friendly.”
All of a sudden, I was tired of talking about America with Mr. Shang. Even the few things I had wanted to say, I didn’t want to anymore. What does it matter? I thought. Would it make Mr. Shang’s understand America better?
“Why would you choose to open a restaurant here?” I changed the subject. What I didn’t say was, how could you make money if there were no customers?
Mr. Shang said he used to have a restaurant near The Gate of Broad Peace in the south side of the city, and moved here about a year ago. “Make a right turn at the end of the dirt road,” he said, “and walk for about five minutes, it would be around the Forth Beltway.” He had moved here for its proximity to the new beltway and the Compound. Besides, the rent was very cheap.
I didn’t know there was a shortcut to the Forth Beltway.
“I’ll hold on for another year and see,” he said.
“I like your plaque,” I said. It was a black, rectangular, wooden plague placed at a slight angle over the door, overlooking customers walking into the restaurant. The four characters of “Six Peace Restaurant” were of the gentle, smooth kai style.
“The name sounds like one of those old, traditional names from the southern side of the city,” I said. “What are the six peaces anyway?”
“The peace of the people, the peace of family, the peace of business….” Mr. Shang itemized. “Well, there is really no such thing as six peaces. I picked six simply for its euphonious sound.”
The girl from the hair salon came out with a chair, and sat down in a shady spot on the borderline between the restaurant and the salon.
“Xiao Qin is out again for fresh air,” Mr. Shang commented. “Looks like she’s idle now. She is very able, very tough, for a twenty-something. She is all by herself but does pretty good business.”
I was due for a haircut a long time ago, but every time I saw the name of the shop—Salon of Rome, I hesitated and never went in.
My brother was in Beijing for business, taking my nephew with him to meet me. He left the boy to me and went about his affairs. The last time I saw my nephew, he was a six-year-old and came with his father to see me out of the country. Now he was twelve, standing bashfully and quietly in front of me. I was just as clueless. “Have you been to the Palace of Restfulness?” I asked him and got no answer. “How about we go and row a boat there?” He smiled and nodded and off we went. On our way, I tried to start a conversation with him, but whatever I said, his replies always came shorter than I expected—a few words, at most one short sentence. I tried in vain to search for the little boy from six years ago who had enthusiastically shown me his model cars, but I knew that, with long absence, I had become irreversibly an outsider with whom he had nothing in common.
At the intersection near my old college, traffic came to a complete standstill where a sea of cars, buses and minibuses were jammed side by side. While our driver inched along gingerly and diligently with every opportunity, I looked in vain for traces of my recollections. The small department store, its exterior and interior, the two restaurants, the bicycle streams, or the look of the tiles on the sidewalks. Nothing remained. Then I had a glance of the dilapidated red-brick, residential buildings of the Academy of Sciences. They were still there, blocked by buildings with glass façades. An argument erupted outside the window. Three men, who had just jumped off the minibus next to ours, were shouting. They must be the driver, the ticket man and a friend of theirs.
“Get out! Get out!” They demanded of our driver.
“Don’t you know how to drive a fucking bus?”
“You bumped our side-view mirror, do you see?”
“Get out! There are police ahead. Let’s talk to the police!”
Our driver didn’t get out. Nor did I hear him saying a word—I happened to be sitting behind him.
Those three yelled in turn and together.
I couldn’t stand it anymore and, pulling the window open, started yelling at them.
“Look at yourselves, you three men! How petty you are! Is this all you can do? Stupid! Shameless! Despicable!”
Dumbfounded, the three men stopped. They froze for a few seconds, and then turned around and went back to their bus. I was dumbfounded too, not knowing what I had just done. The episode ended just like that.
I sat down. The compartment was dead quiet. A few moments later there came a buzz of indignation. Nasty people. Hooligans. Making trouble out of nothing. The passengers spoke under their breath, though there was no way those three, back in their bus, could hear them. I looked at my nephew. He was looking ahead expressionlessly.
The traffic started moving. Our bus turned at the intersection. As soon as it did, the driver pulled up to the curb. “No, no, no, I have to give them money,” I heard him saying to himself. “Why,” I said, “you did not damage their mirror, you barely touched it!” “You don’t know,” he said while jumping off, “I ran this route with them everyday, if I don’t give them some money, they are going to give me a hard time later.”
The driver disappeared for a while and then returned and started the bus without a word.
When I got off at the Palace of Restfulness, all of a sudden I was scared and kept thinking that the three men were going to follow me and teach me a lesson. My nephew and I entered the Palace grounds, rented a boat, and rowed off the shore quickly and onto the Lake of Great Brightness. Only then was I relieved and sure I hadn’t been tailed. My fear was gone all right, but the day had been ruined. There was no way I could enjoy the sun, the water, the white marble Bridge of Seventeen Arches, as well as the willow trees on the shore, with the twelve-year-old boy.
Until now, the boy had not said a single word. We sat face to face on each end of the little boat, and he seemed to be avoiding my eyes. Suddenly I was vexed.
Why isn’t he saying anything, or showing something? I thought. What does he think of the incident? Is he shy or he didn’t register it at all? Did I scare him? He probably didn’t expect his aunt to be such a shrew. Does he think I am dumb, and I did something unwise? After all, nobody else says anything, and why would you? Perhaps he resents the fact that my behavior could have brought him harm.
What exactly do I expect him to show? Praise? My train of thought continued. The idea had barely surfaced before I hurriedly cut myself off.
I only wanted to see something on his face, anything, so I would know how to speak to him next. But now I had to shut up.
Off our stern, a plastic soda bottle and a discolored food wrapper floated on the water. My nephew had been glancing at them for a while. “Let’s go over there and pick up the trash,” he said, “it’s not good to litter the lake.”
He rowed the boat over and collected the trash. “My teacher said we need to build environmental awareness and we have to develop social ethics,” he said.
I wanted to ask him whether his teacher said anything about people. But instead, I asked him, “What is social ethics?”
“It’s not to litter, not to spit everywhere,” he said.
I said nothing.
“My dad said you were very good at composition, but it’s my worst subject, so my dad told me to learn a few tricks from you.”
“Tricks? What tricks?” I scoffed.
“Oh! I know! I can write about collecting trash on the Lake of Great Brightness! From there, I can write about the importance of social ethics and the importance of protecting environment.”
What about the earlier incident? I insisted in my mind. But from his expression, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to have happened.
On our way back, we stopped at the new Double Peace Shopping Center. I insisted on buying a couple of things for my nephew. At the junior department, he picked a pair of pants and a jersey top. I was surprised to find that he had fine taste for clothes, both the style and the color were very up to date even by American standards.
Back around 4 o’clock, we met Mr. Shang’s wife and daughter outside the restaurant. Mr. Shang was standing while his daughter, about ten years old, hung on his back, and the father and daughter were laughing together. Mrs. Shang sat on a stool, speaking vividly. Both mother and daughter were very pretty. The mother, lively and trendy, had on light make-up; the daughter resembled her father with his eyes, his tall and straight posture. I had known that Mr. Shang was a married man, but this was the only time I had seen his family.
Next time I came to the restaurant, Mr. Shang was sending off the last batch of his lunch customers. The mother and daughter flashed like a sunbeam and then disappeared. I complimented Mr. Shang on his beautiful wife and daughter, and he was happy. “I don’t see them here often,” I said. Small restaurants like Mr. Shang’s were often family run where everybody worked, and Mr. Shang’s case was unusual.
He said his wife had her own job and his daughter went to school and studied piano and dance after school.
“Besides,” he said, “I don’t want them to hang around a greasy place like this”
That’s probably the real reason, I thought.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” I asked.
“Meng Na.” [“Dreamy and Lithe”]
“What do you think? Do you think it’s a good name?” Mr. Shang asked eagerly. He must be the one who named her.
“It’s pretty,” I said, except that it sounded illusory and vulnerable too.
“People talk about nomenology a lot these days. Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“To count the strokes of your name and to see whether the number is auspicious,” he said. “I’m going to find someone to check my daughter’s name.”
Mr. Shang became contemplative. I changed the subject. “Perhaps your wife and daughter could visit you more often to at least give you some company.”
Mr. Shang stood up from where he had been sitting. “Of course I would like to see them as much as possible,” he said. “But you have no idea what China is like.”
There was something else. I stopped eating and waited.
“They live in a secret place. I don’t let them come here often,” he said, leaning forward on his elbows. “The restaurant I had at The Gate of Broad Peace had been very prosperous. It was about the same size as this one, but full of customers all day long. My neighbor was an electronics store, selling smuggled goods. They wanted to expand and offered my landlord higher rent for my space. The landlord had been happy with me, didn’t want me to go, and besides, he raised my rent too. But those people were local thugs, and the landlord wouldn’t dare say no to them. He told them it was up to me. And I said no to them. After a while, just when I thought the whole thing was over, police raided my restaurant and detained me for ‘forging documents.’ They kept me for a month and then released me. By then my restaurant was part of the electronics shop. I didn’t want to give up. I sued them. One evening as I was walking down the street, four men jumped me and beat me. They threatened me. They threatened my wife and daughter. Then I withdrew the suit and moved here.”
Mr. Shang finished his story. I was speechless.
“Now it’s over,” he said, “I sleep here with a kitchen knife under my pillow.”
“They won’t bother you anymore, will they?” I mumbled. I didn’t know he spent the nights in the restaurant.
“As long as my daughter and wife are fine, I’m not afraid of them,” he said stiffly.
The day before I invited friends for dinner, I finally went to Salon of Rome to get a haircut. It was a small room, about thirty square meters, divided into two sections by a cotton curtain. The curtain was drawn, showing only a corner of what looked like a folding bed. It must be where Xiao Qin slept. The front was for business, with a barber’s chair, a sink, a mirror, a hood drier, and a sofa for customers to sit on as they waited. No one was waiting while I was there. Off the sofa, at the corner behind the door, was a little stand, and on its top, there were a few cosmetics bottles, an electric heater for boiling water and a bowl with a red plastic lid. I felt a little uncomfortable when I sat down in the barber’s chair, but I didn’t know whether it had to do with the place or the girl who worked there. Xiao Qing was skillful and seemed to understand my request perfectly. I relaxed to the crisp sound of scissors. Since I had known her name, I felt I knew her. I asked where her family lived. “Family?” She replied in a strong retort as though she was surprised by such a question. “You mean my parents?” She asked. “Yeah,” I answered, surprised by her tone, for I had assumed that, being so young, she was probably unmarried. “They live a little bit north of here,” she said coolly. “Do you go home often?” I asked. “No,” she said.
I thought I would have liked to chat a little more with her but in the end I sat through my session saying nothing more. I really didn’t know what to think about girls like her. I felt that any of my words would be like an arrow shot in the wrong direction, embarrassing and irrelevant.
While I was paying for the haircut, Xiao Qin cleaned the floor briskly. No one was waiting, and, as I walked out, Xiao Qin stepped outside too with a chair and sat down, legs crossed, browsing a fashion magazine. When I crossed the street, I could sense that she was watching me from behind, mockery in her eyes. I didn’t know why I thought so.
I decided to invite my college friends for dinner on a Saturday evening at the Six-Peace Restaurant. Mr. Shang was a pretty good chef, as a matter of fact, and I ordered a few special dishes not on his menu in advance. It was the first time I had dinner there. It was surprisingly busy, and for the first time I saw waitresses there. There were three or four of them, all girls. Mr. Shang, working in the kitchen, was nowhere to be seen. Nor were his wife or daughter. I knew I wouldn’t see them here, but I couldn’t help expecting to. Their absence was, to me, a wound on the little place.
Mr. Shang had set a large table for us at the corner where I always sat. My friends had all come. It had been ten years since we had seen one another. But, after a burst of screaming and laughing, we seemed to have immediately gone back to where we had left off. Li, my bunkmate, was still an army officer working in the same military academy, but she had gained quite a bit of weight, and her plump cheeks were flushed pink. My other roommate Deng now worked in a Hong Kong market research company. Lan from the next door room still worked in the same government agency and, according to Deng, had risen straight up to middle management. Hearing this, Lan gave Deng a good shove on the shoulder. I was not surprised at all by Lan’s success because I had always said she was the perfect material for Chinese officialdom, but I was surprised to find that she smoked non-stop and the earnestness of the Secretary of the Youth League was replaced by certain vagueness. The person who had changed the least was Yun, still as self-effacing as she had always been, listening more than speaking. She still worked in that municipal institute for adult education in an old-town alley, married a colleague, and had twin boys who were already going to elementary school.
About myself and my return I had said nothing. At first this verbal vacuum was as conspicuous as a black hole in our midst, and as embarrassing. But after a while it was engulfed by our merriment.
Li was just as talkative as in the old days. Words and laughter rolled off her tongue, round and fast, while her hands gestured rapidly and forcefully. I was surprised to find that Li, a avid fan of Agatha Christie, was now a converted Buddhist. When I asked her in disbelief, she stopped abruptly in the middle of a roar of laughter, and said solemnly, “Right. Right. That’s right. I belong to Buddha now.” Then, without transition, she went back to a tale of a love triangle and murder in the Academy that she had been recounting.
I recalled her affair with a married officer when she had first arrived there more than ten years ago. Because of it, she was sent away to a lower unit for a year “to reflect on it.” What happened next I didn’t know. She had married someone else since and had a daughter. She seemed very happy.
“Cheers for the mystery novel called Life,” I said to Lan next to me.
Lan and I were the only two at the table who drank, and we were sharing a bottle of Great Wall white wine. In the old days the group liked to gather, in the evenings or on weekends, in the big office where Yun lived temporarily, and without exception Lan and I drank a bottle of wine together. Our empty bottles lined up under Yun’s single bed hidden at one corner, causing her colleagues to think, for a while, she was an alcoholic, which amounted to being bad and corrupt for a woman. Yun used to say she very much liked to be perceived so, and it would be even better if she really could drink. Lan still had her previous, if not larger, capacity, but I started feeling dizzy after the first glass.
Deng complained about her job incessantly. “The capitalists exploit you mercilessly,” She said, “asking you to work overtime everyday as though they own you.”
“Stop grousing about it,” Lan interjected. “You never say you make more money than anyone else does and you take a taxi to work everyday.”
I had noticed the difference between Deng and the others. Her clothes and her demeanor reminded me of the American bank clerks.
I told her I had brought her a CD of Grieg’s serenades with the melody she used to hum on it. I said I had bought two wrong discs before I had found that melody.
“My goodness! Get out of here!” Deng cried, her eyes wide-open and sparkling. “How can you still remember?”
“Well, you hummed it all the time,” I said. “It’s hard not to remember.”
Li beckoned the waitress who had taken our order.
“Where is my tofu vegetable soup?” She asked.
The girl looked blank—she had forgotten the special vegetarian order. She apologized profusely and was about to go to mend her mistake when Li stopped her.
“Forget about it!” she huffed. “You don’t know how to serve, do you? Who wants the soup halfway through a meal? Forget about it!”
The girl apologized again.
Hastily, I told the girl to go about her business and not to worry about the soup anymore.
As the girl passed behind Yun, the latter pulled her arm and said softly, “Don’t mind it. It’s not a problem.” The girl relaxed somewhat.
When Yun turned around, our eyes met.
Yun and I had never been really close, either in college or after. We didn’t seem to have too much to say to one another, but then, there wasn’t much that needed to be said.
“You are back so suddenly,” Yun said quietly. “Homesick?”
I nodded vaguely.
“If you want to come back, then come back,” Yun said. “After all, it’s other people’s country there.”
I kept quiet.
“I saw that your boxes were still unopened. I can give you a hand,” she said. She had made the same offer already when she had visited earlier and met me in my apartment.
“Thanks,” I said. “But it won’t be necessary, really.”
“Well, you know where to find me when you need help,” she said. “Anyway, it’s so nice to have you back.”
“It’s nice to see all of you again,” I said. “So many years have passed and so fast.”
Except for necessities, I had not unpacked all my belongings from the two gigantic suitcases, neither had I open any of those ten some boxes of books that had arrived for a while.
It had been such a relief the day I had finished packing in the apartment in Bloomington and shipped those boxes to China. The wood floor at the graduate dorm room in that old, two-story limestone building was once again as empty as when I had first moved in, reflecting sharply the afternoon light from the window. I had moved too many times, and I didn’t want ever to move again. After this time, I would finally settle down in one place, a place I could say was mine, there I would build a home for myself, settle down the way dust settles on the ground, and begin the life that had never really begun.
But now I was at a loss. The will to take things out and display them in the new place had left me. I had dawdled many days away.
My friends and I bid each other good-bye outside the restaurant, and I turned around to go back to the Compound. Even at night, the two soldiers guarding the gate stood as erect as ever, except their faces, under the glaring lights from above, were shadowed under the brim of their caps. A black sedan glided out of the gate, and the soldiers stood to attention and saluted sharply. The Compound consisted of two four-story, soviet style office buildings and ten some residential buildings of the same era. I had moved in for three months but, apart from the guards and the old women coming back from the market with bundles of fresh vegetables, I had not the least idea who lived there and what they did. Entering the gate, I kept walking on the main, north-bound avenue. The building I lived in was at the end of it. The further I walked the darker it got. Nearing the end, there was only faint light from the windows of people’s homes.
Nothing seemed right. It had become clear to me tonight. I saw something I had not thought of before: I had become a stranger, an outsider. Life had moved on and things had been rearranged while I was gone, the way chairs around a table were, and mine had been taken away.
A truck hurled passed me from behind, barely a foot away from me.
I was enraged. “Fuck you! Son of bitch! You almost ran me over, you fucking savage!”
The truck raced toward the brick wall ahead and pulled up abruptly at the dead end of the road. I had turned left around the corner of my building, walking toward the third entrance.
“Who was it?” I heard a man’s gruff voice.
“Let’s get out and take a look,” a woman said toughly.
Then I heard two people jumping out of the driver’s cabin and running in my direction. I realized they were after me. I started running. They were only about ten yards behind me and running faster.
Turning into the dark stairwell, I rushed up the steps. Those two had arrived at the entrance just as I raced to the second floor. Their shouting pierced the night. Shaking, I opened my door on the second floor, darted in, and slammed the door. My heart raced.
They were still down there, swearing, cursing. I didn’t dare to turn on the light lest they find out where I lived. After a minute or two, I heard them walking away, still cursing.
My legs gave way, and I slid down to the floor. Anger and humiliation thumped in my chest, smashing and tearing it.