The foreman chatters in Meihua, the beautiful tongue, Singapore English. "Get he over here. All this trash here! Got little time." He is a stocky little Chinese man who has suffered disappointments. "Someone work that cutter, xing buxing?"
Someone is me, the tech on the job. "Xing," I say, "Okay." Good equipment can't be trusted to stupid New York natives. I heft the cutter, balance it against my thigh. My goggles darken, shutting out the buildings, even the lot we are clearing to build.
"Okay," he says, backing away, glad to have an ABC engineer. ABC--American Born Chinese, or like the waiguoren, the non-Chink say, Another Bastard Chink. With my goggles dark I can't see anything but the glow at the end of the cutter as it goes through rusted, twisted steel, girders in tangles and lying there like string dropped in a pile. Where the cutter touches it goes through like butter, and where the steel is cut it will shine clean and rust-free. Steel drops spatter like quicksilver, glowing metal white. The air smells like a thunderstorm coming.
I swear softly at the foreman in Spanish, but he is too far awayto hear anything, which is good. He does not know I speak Spanish. ABC; he knows I speak Mandarin--Poutonghua--and American Standard and the Singapore English Asians call Meihua and waiguoren call Chinglish. (Waiguoren don't get the joke. Meihua, beautiful language, because this is Meiguo--America. In Mandarin, Meiguo means "beautiful country" because "Meiguo" approximated the sound in A-mer-i-ca to Chinese ears.)
The foreman is all right, for someone born inside. He speaks English as if he learned it in school in Shanghai, which he did, but at least he speaks it unaugmented. He likes me; I work hard and I speak Mandarin better than most ABC. I am almost like a real Chinese person. My manners are good. An example of how breeding will out, even in a second rate country like this. He can talk to me, and there are probably very few people Foreman Qian sees each day who he can talk to. "You here what for?" he asks me. "You smart. You go Shanghai?" Everyone inside thinks that all the rest of us are dying to go to China.
If I went to China to study I'd be doing a great deal better than working as a tech engineer on a construction crew. Maybe the rest of us are dying to go to China, maybe even me. But maybe Spanish is the first language I ever learned because my mother's birth name was Teresa Luis and it's just because my parents paid to adjust the genetic make-up of their son that I look like a slope-head like my father. So Qian doesn't know; my last name is Zhang and I speak Mandarin and when he asks me why I don't go to Shanghai or Guangzhou to study I just shrug.
It infuriates him, that shrug. He thinks it is a native characteristic, that it indicates indifference and a kind of self-defeating fatalism. But just looking Chinese is not enough to get someone to China. My parents weren't rich and tinkering with genes is expensive. Maybe I would map close enough to Chinese standard to pass; then again, maybe something in them would prove me Hidalgo. I don't apply so I don't ever have to take the medical.
Pretty soon the steel is lying in pieces that can be carried away.I shut off the cutter, my goggles lighten and I'm back in the real world. "Give it fifteen minutes to cool," I say, "then get it out of here." The crew has been watching me cut, they'll stop to watch anything. The foreman stands there with his hands on his hips. Waiguoren think that Chinese never show any expression, so of course he's not showing any and neither am I. So the crew thinks we are angry because they're not doing anything and drifts back to work. They're a good crew except when Foreman Qian is here, then I can't get them to do a damn thing.
"Zhang," the foreman says and so I follow him into the office. Inside, over the door it says "The Revolution lives in the people's hearts" but the paint is wearing thin. It was probably painted during the Great Cleansing Winds campaign. I don't think Foreman Qian is very pure ideologically, he has too much interest in the bottom line. It is like the crucifix in the hall of the apartment where I grew up, something everyone passes every day. I have no religion, neither Christ nor Mao Zedong.
"I often ask you, what you do with your life, you pretty good boy," Foreman Qian says. "We each and each respect, dui budui?"
"Dui," I say. Right.
"Here, you tech engineer, job so-so."
"Bu-cuo," I answer, Not bad.
"I have daughter," Foreman Qian says. "Request you to my home come, meet her, hao buhao?"
I have the momentary sense that this conversation, which Foreman Qian and I have had before, has just gone way out of my depth. "Foreman Qian," I say, stuttering, "I--I cannot ... I am only tech engineer ... ."
"Not be fool," he says and drops into Mandarin. "How old are you, twenty-five?"
"My wife and I, together we have one daughter. There is no one here for her, I would like her to meet a nice young man."
"Foreman Qian." I do not know what to say.
"I have no son, and I will not get to go back to China--" He is a Chinese citizen and if the best he can do is a job as a construction foreman, he's in disgrace. I wonder what Foreman Qian did during the Great Cleansing Wind to get in trouble. "I have a cousin at Shanghai University. I would sponsor a son-in-law there."
This is unexpected. This is disaster. Whatever has old Qian thinking that I would make a good son-in-law? It looks great from the outside, offer a twenty-six-year-old a chance at Shanghai University and citizenship-by-marriage which is almost as good as born-inside-citizenship. Maybe I would get a chance to stay inside, then his daughter would have a home there. Foreman Qian and his wife would retire to China and live with their daughter and son-in-law.
"I understand that you have not even met my daughter," Foreman Qian says. "I mean nothing except that you should meet."
"I cannot, Elder Qian." I am quaintly formal in my attempt to say something, falling back on school book Mandarin, ludicrous phrases. "I am unworthy." Mea culpa. I am violently flushed, for the first time in years I am so embarrassed that I actually feel hot. "I, I am a foreigner."
He waves that away. "Accident of birth place."
I open my mouth to say no, but I cannot say it. Not only is it rude, but I can't say it. I am impure, a mongrel. I am an imposter. And there is more that he doesn't know. When I tell him what I am, he will look foolish because he has mistaken me for Chinese, he will lose face. We will pretend that nothing was ever said. Then when this job is finished he will inform me that the company can no longer use me. It is not easy to find jobs.
"You think about it, meet her. Maybe you will not get along, maybe you will. No harm in meeting."
I should finish this now, explain, but I flee.
I meet my mother for lunch every six months or so. Filial duty. Teresa Luis lives in Pennsylvania and commutes to work here in Manhattan. She has another family, a husband and two sons. She and my father were divorced during the Great Cleansing Winds. Elder Zhang lives out on the West Coast where he is an office manager for a company that builds robots to do precision robotics. I have not seen him for fifteen years.
I meet her in the market, getting off the subway at Times Square.
I don't know why she likes to eat in the market; I think it is a tacky place with all the close streets and the booths and sidewalk sellers. She says it has charm. My mother works at Citinet in International Banking. She is a clerk. She always wears those suits that are almost like uniforms--drab colors with tails to the backs of her knees. Never short tails, never the long ones. She is very religious and she believes in Marx and Mao Zedong. Do not make the mistake of thinking her stupid; she has to juggle a lot of Kierkegaard and Heiler to explain but she manages a full wipe.
"Hello," she says and takes my arm. I am never sure I am her son, although I don't rationally doubt it. It's just that the connection between us is very tenuous. Perhaps I have so few of her genes that we are more like cousins.
"Zhong Shan, what's wrong?" Zhong Shan is my Chinese name, Rafael is my Spanish name. There isn't any similarity. I am named for a Chinese revolutionary, and for her Spanish great-great-grandfather, who was a union organizer before the great collapse. He was a party member in the secret days of the Second Depression, and later, during the American Liberation War, a martyr.
"I am in trouble," I say, and tell her about Foreman Qian. While I am talking I watch the copper marks under the skin ofher wrist. Then I watch the copper marks on my wrist, almost like bruises. She ties into her terminal every day, I use my jacks only when I'm working with machinery. With those jacks, Foreman Qian can access my records. But only my surface records, not my deep records, he doesn't have clearance. There is nothing personal in my surface records, and my mother's name is listed as Li Taiming, her name from when she was active in the party.
When I am finished she says, "The Chinese are the worst racists in the world." This is not surprising, nor is it helpful. Nor is it a good political thing to say but everybody knows it. "What are you going to do?" she asks.
"Turn him down. I don't even know the girl. Even if it worked out, when I apply they'll do a medical. They'll do a background check. If I pass a medical I'll still fail the background check." Legally everyone is equal, but even here at the other end of the world in the Socialist Union of American States we all know better than that. Be it Rome or Beijing, we bring tribute but we are not admitted. Unfortunate day I was born.
"You can go to dinner," she says. "Maybe the daughter won't like you. Maybe you'll forget your upbringing and sneeze at the table."
"It's a lie," I say, "and you always told me that a lie always creates complications." But my face is a lie as well, and she condoned that. I am sure she hears the accusation, but we never talk about my mother's contradictions.
She does not touch me, although for a moment I think she is going to cover my hand with hers and I am afraid.
"It is not the revolution that is at fault," she says, "it is the people who are implementing it."
I don't believe in socialism but I don't believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.
There is a game I play when I am out by myself among people. I play it on my way home, descending into the bowels of the city, taking a three-hundred-year-old train to the bottom of the island and under the choked harbor to Brooklyn. The subway sways and like idiots we all nod together. My game is this: I become other people.
A man reading a cheatsheet flimsie, picking the horses. An office clerk in his boxy suit. This evening I am a power tech, a young woman sitting under a subway sign listing the number to call for info on resettlement on Mars. She's wearing Edison Fission Authority green, her sturdy calves outlined by the tight legs of her coveralls. All day she sells and channels power and I imagine the city's energy pouring through her hands, the hair on her head rising with the build-up of static charge. Of course that's not true, she sits at a terminal and feeds information, watches the lines, drains the power reservoirs when they're needed and fills them when demand falls.
The train stops at Lawrence and the doors open. My power tech gets off and I'm just Zhang: 1.80 meters (almost), sixty-four kilos, leaning against the door with my feet spread to brace myself, right under the sign that says in English, Spanish and Chinese, "Do not lean against doors." I could go cruising, stay on the train and head for Coney Island and see what I could pick up. But that's just to avoid thinking about Foreman Qian and anyway, I'm too tired from work.
Still, I don't get off at my stop, I ride the train all the way to the end. Coney Island used to be a nice neighborhood, condos on the water and all, until the smell in the water drove everybody away. The smell is better now, what with the project to filter all the water that comes into the bay, but Coney Island is still the end of the line. The young couples are starting to move in and brave the crime to get permits to cheap condos and establish communes where everybody knows everybody else in the building. Pretty soon everybody will be begging permits to move out here and thelittle free-market greengrocers will open up, but right now Coney Island is gray in the transition and the hawks like me ride the train there to spread our wings.
Gray is a good word; when I come up on the street it's twilight, the buildings are gray, the wind off the water smells gray and ashy. It's quiet. A quiet neighborhood is a bad sign out here. My jacket isn't very warm but I walk down to the water. I wonder if part of the harbor has been burning again, but the ash at the water's edge could be old.
I walk the cracked concrete walk beside the water, my shoes crunching in the sand blown across it. A young man leans against a bench and my heart quickens. He looks twenty, younger than me. He is wearing coveralls, utility blue, and they hug his legs and pelvis. He is dark though, and I have blond Peter on my mind. Our eyes meet and he is arrogant, dangerous-looking, but his gaze lingers with the possibility of invitation. I think about slowing down, asking him what he's doing, I just keep walking. I didn't really come out here for a coney. When I glance back he is prowling stiff-legged in the other direction.
So I find a public call box. The chain on the bracelet is short, to reduce the chances that someone will yank it out, so once I get the bracelet on I have to fumble one-handed for my number book. I read Peter's number, the call clicks through. Waiting for him to answer, the only part of me that's warm is my wrist where the contact's made, and that's just an illusion anyway, just excited nerves at the periphery of contact.
"It's Zhang," I say.
"Hey," Peter says, looking preoccupied, by which I mean he is looking at something on his lap rather than me.
"Hey. I'm out on the beach."
That perks him up, blue-gray eyes on me and he sounds interested. "Yeah? Come up."
Peter lives in a wretched commune, Lenin knows how they ever got a permit. Just goes to prove that five years ago anyone couldget permission to live in Coney Island. The slogan over the door says, "The force at the core of the people is the Revolution" from the Xiao Hongshu, the Little Red Book. I press my wrist against the contact and Peter has told the building to expect me because the street door opens.
I climb the stairs because I have a theory that Peter's building dislikes me and I won't get in the elevator. Peter only lives two flights up. I knock on the door and he opens it and kisses me there in the hall. He swears nobody cares but I still hate when he does it; if anyone suspected I'm bent it could cost me my job. Not that Lisa and Aruba, who live next door, are in any position to complain about our morals.
"China Mountain," he says, "where the hell have you been?" China Mountain is a possible translation of my name, Peter likes it.
"I work," I say. "Got any pijiu?"
He hands me a beer. Peter and I lived together for three months, we're still friends. Better friends than lovers. "Want to go to the kite races?" he asks. Peter works in an office but sleep deprivation has never seemed to bother him.
No, I don't want to go to the kite races. "Foreman Qian wants to sponsor me to Shanghai University." I sit in one of his big cushions, sink into it like it was a hug and it thrums gently and starts to warm me up.
"Isn't that kind of surprising?" Peter frowns. Three little lines appear in the middle of his forehead. His eyebrows arch like gull wings. They are lighter than his summer tan, just beginning to fade.
"He wants me to marry his daughter. Then I'll go to the university, get a job in China, and he can retire back inside."
For a moment Peter looks as if he is going to laugh but he takes a long pull on his beer instead. "He's kidding, isn't he? I mean, arranged marriages are pretty feudal, you know."
"He's a pretty feudal kind of guy."
He thinks a moment. "Can you tell him you already have a fiancé?"
"No, he's asked before."
Peter shakes his head. "You have such a complicated personal life."
"Hey, China Mountain, don't sit there all stony. You're all in your skull again. Come on, Rafael, don't go all Chink."
"Maybe I shouldn't have come," I say, sulking.
"Guilt, guilt, guilt, I feel horrible. Now get off your ass and let's go to the kite races. I'll introduce you to a flier and he's skinny and blond and you can polish your obsession for yellow hairs. He doesn't have a brain in his perfect little cranium but he's still hao kan."
"If I go I'll be up all night and I'll be a wreck at work tomorrow." But I go, and we watch the silk gliders race all night above Washington Square; red and yellow sails swooping and skimming in the searchlights. Peter never does find his flier.
Next day, Friday. I get back to my flat, shower, change and catch the train back to Manhattan. How does Peter do it? I am at work at six-forty-five, pouring coffee in the vain hope that if I drink enough I won't accidentally cut my foot off with the cutter. Foreman Qian is there at seven-thirty. I do not know what I will say to him. I will tell him that there is really a girl. I will tell him that I am involved in the sale and transfer of illegal goods and not a suitable choice. I will tell him I am against feudal arrangements like this. I will tell him I have an incurable disease and only have six months to live.
I follow him into his office and he sits down. I notice his jowls hang a little, like a tired bulldog's. Then I stare at the wall in back of him.
"Engineer Zhang," he says in Mandarin, "Please you come to dinner on Sunday."
The wall is white and needs painting. "Thank you, Foreman Qian," I say, "I would be honored." And then slink out onto the site.
Long terrible day, with Foreman Qian smiling at me as prospective son-in-law. The crew knows something is up, and with Foreman Qian lurking around the site, nothing gets done. I do not ever reprimand them directly, it is not the way to get them to work, instead I find small ways to express my displeasure. But my heart is not in it. At noon I lie in the sun on a sack of cement--it's not comfortable but I only mean to sit a minute. I put my forearm over my eyes and fall asleep, jerk awake and drink more coffee. We finally finish at four. As I pass out pay chits I look at each one, "Your hard-earned pay," I say.
I hear Kevin from Queens mutter, "Qian been bustin' the bastard's ass again."
Little do you know.
Friday evening I sleep for about five hours and then meet Peter at eleven to drop in on a friend's party. I fully intend to be home by two o'clock, three o'clock at the latest. When I get home it's eight in the morning and I sleep the day away. Saturday I promise myself I will stay home that evening, but I end up meeting a couple of guys for a vid. Sunday morning finds me, as always, tired, broke and with a flat that desperately needs cleaning. It's not a big flat, it doesn't take any time to straighten up, I just don't get around to it for weeks on end.
At six I present myself at apartment sixteen, in a complex on Bay Shore. I am carrying a carefully wrapped copy of Sun-zi's classic on strategy. Not that I think Foreman Qian is such a fan of military strategy but because I think he will be flattered by the insinuation he reads the classics.
Foreman Qian's daughter answers the door, "You are Engineer Zhang?" she says. "I am Qian San-xiang."
She is astonishingly ugly. More than ugly, there is something wrong with the bones of her face.
She is a flat-faced southern-looking Chinese girl of twenty or twenty-two. She has a little square face like a monkey and small eyes even by Chinese standards. Her little wizened face is so unexpected I blink. I think instantly of some sort of bone defect that would create that almost nonexistent chin. She looks at me expressionlessly and then drops her eyes and glances sideways at her mother. Her mother is a matronly-looking woman clasping her hands together and smiling at me; Foreman Qian comes into the doorway to the little foyer and says hello and there we all are, four of us crowded into this little space. San-xiang slides between her mother and father and disappears into the next room.
"Let me take your jacket," her mother says. "I am Liu Su-ping." Chinese women do not take their husband's names, and it is evident that I have left the West in the hall.
I shrug out of my jacket and casually leave my package on the little table by the door. As a polite person I do not call attention to the gift; as polite people the Qians pretend not to have noticed it. We go into the living room, full of heavy wooden furniture clearly brought over from China. The elaborately paned window faces the harbor. The apartment is pretty but extraordinarily cramped. I sit and am offered something to drink, which I decline.
"No, please have something," Liu Su-ping insists. She has small soft-looking hands which she keeps clasped tightly together. I decline respectfully. Am I certain I would not like some tea? "San-xiang," she calls, "bring Engineer Zhang some tea."
"No, do not bother yourself," I say. I am not an engineer, I'm an engineering tech. A technician. Two-year degree, not four. I hate when people call me an engineer.
"It is sent by my sister, Dragon Well tea, from Huangzhou," she says.
Having politely declined three times I can now say yes, I would be pleased to have some tea. It is always easier to let people giveyou something than to convince them that you are not being polite, that you really just don't want it.
Now, however, while San-xiang makes tea, silence falls.
"So," I say in Mandarin, "I have always meant to ask you, Foreman Qian, where is your family from?" There is a little burst of conversation. His family is from Chengde, in the west. Her family is from Wenzhou, in the south. They met when he was on a two-year assignment in her province. Where is my family from?
I can only say I don't know. Elder Zhang was born and raised in the States. I have a grandfather on the West Coast but I haven't seen him in twenty years. And there is no need to discuss my mother so I don't mention her.
"You speak Mandarin very well," Liu Su-ping says. "Where did you learn it?"
"I went to the Brooklyn Middle School of Theory and History and all of our classes were in Mandarin," I say, "but I am afraid I was not so quick as my classmates. My Mandarin is very poor."
Oh no, oh no, they say, it is very good, very smooth. Oh no, I say, they flatter me.
We lapse into silence. My only consolation is that I must not be making a good impression.
San-xiang brings in tea on a tray. The tea is served out of a pretty porcelain tea pot. It is nice tea, smoky and strong. I say so.
San-xiang serves tea and sits down, eyes on her lap. She is dressed nicely but more casually than I expected. Foreman Qian is in tailored coveralls, he is dressed exactly as he is every day at work. But San-xiang and her mother are dressed in tunics with mandarin collars over tights, very casual. The clothes might even be from China. I am overdressed and conservative, wearing a long black shirt to mid-thigh, but I thought this would be more formal. It is too late to worry. I wish I was brave enough to do something truly rude.
After a moment San-xiang gets up and goes back into the kitchen and returns with a plate full of peanuts, candied walnutsand ersatz quail eggs. I hate ersatz quail eggs, but I carefully taste everything.
I am relieved that I have to get up early tomorrow, it will provide me with an excuse to leave early.
Dinner progresses pretty much as the rest of the evening has, that is to say, laboriously. The food is good; pork stuffed with hard-cooked eggs, dumplings, a fresh salad, and lastly, soup. Foreman Qian and I talk business and in the course of the evening San-xiang says hardly anything to me. I keep waiting to hear her speak. Her voice, when she does speak, is high and soft, a little girl's voice. I know she is in her early twenties. A very sheltered girl, I think.
At nine I apologize and say I must be at work early the next day, I have a strict boss. Foreman Qian laughs. "It has been good to have you, we don't have guests often."
I am not surprised, considering that they seem to have little social grace. "I have had a wonderful evening," I lie.
"I realize that you two have not had much chance to get to know each other," Foreman Qian says. "Next you must spend some time together."
San-xiang glances sideways at her mother. I feel the color start to rise in my face. Why does his suggestion sound somehow illicit? Not sexual, but I feel compromised. "Yes," I agree. "Perhaps next time we will have more chance to talk."
"Perhaps on Saturday, you two might take the time to get to know each other."
Lenin and Mao Zedong. But I beam like an idiot. "That would be very nice," I say. "Saturday."
"Fine," Foreman Qian says, "you decide what you should do. And I will see you tomorrow."
The door closes and I am standing in the hall. I stare at the closed door.
"Perhaps," I suggest to Foreman Qian, "your daughter would like to go to a vid with me." This is a nasty comedy we play, one of Shakespeare's problem comedies, like Measure for Measure. A tragedy that has lost its nerve and is trying desperately to pair principals who have no business with each other.
He nods, he is doing accounts. After he has finished whatever he is writing he looks up at me. "I think you with her to kite race go. Often you tell me you to kite race go. Hao buhao?"
"I don't know. Maybe kite race have no interest," I say, falling into Chinglish.
"This time, first time my daughter to kite race go. She tell me it have interest."
"Ah, good," I say. "We to kite race will go."
I don't want to take her to the kite races, they don't start until nine-thirty and if I took her to a vid I could take her at seven-thirty and have her home by eleven-thirty, midnight at the latest. If she's as charming as she was at dinner it's going to be a night that will feel like six months anyway.
So Saturday I again present myself at flat sixteen at the building on Bay Shore. The door is opened by Liu Su-ping, San-xiang's mother, and I am forced to make small talk while San-xiang finishes getting ready. She finally appears in tights and a long red jacket. She has nice taste in clothes but the night already has the same out-of-synch quality as all those times in middle school when I took a girl out. At least now I am not hoping that something will arouse some sort of latent heterosexuality.
We are told to have a good time and then we leave. She watches the floor, and then the numbers in the elevator. I resist the impulse to say, "Nice weather."
We walk towards the subway and suddenly she says in English, "I want to tell you I'm very sorry about this."
"Nothing to be sorry about," I say brightly.
She glances up at me, that same sidelong glance she gives her mother. "I know you didn't plan to spend your Saturday night dragging me to the kite races. I know you are doing this because of my dad. You probably have a girlfriend." The last with such bitterness I am taken aback, even as I find myself thinking her English is good.
"No," I answer honestly, "I don't have a girlfriend."
"Look, we'll go to the kite races for awhile, then I'll take a cab home and you can do whatever you want to do."
The world is unnaturally cruel to ugly girls. "Why don't we just go to the kite races and not worry about it," I say. "Have you ever been?"
"No, I've only seen them on the vid."
"Well, they're better when you're there."
I pay her way into the subway and we head for Manhattan and get off at Union Square. We don't talk on the subway but then the subway is loud. At Union Square we head for the Huang Tunnel pedestrian walkway and come up in Washington Square Park, where the race begins and ends. Washington Square is packed on Saturday night. I buy us a ticket for the stands because I'd much prefer to jack in. "Would you like something to drink? A beer?" I ask.
She shakes her head.
"Don't be polite," I say, smiling, "I'm a New Yorker. I'm going to have a beer. Did you eat dinner?" She lets me buy her a beer and I get a bag of finger dumplings and find our seats. I even buy two programs, although usually I just use the board.
We sit down, she holding her beer carefully. I watch for awhile but she doesn't drink. Maybe she doesn't like beer.
"How old were you when you came to New York?" I ask.
"Nine," she says.
"Do you like it?"
"I hated it at first, but I guess it's all right." She shrugs. "Places are pretty much the same, underneath."
"Do you think?" I ask. "I've never been anywhere but New York, except once when I was six and we went to San Diego to see my grandparents. It seemed different."
"Things are different from place to place," she says. "New York is really very different from China, not as--" She pauses, diplomatically searching for the word.
"We're backward," I supply, grinning.
"Not backward," she says. "Things are less advanced, maybe. I used to think I was unhappy because my father was in trouble and we had to come here, but now I don't think it makes any difference. If you're a certain kind of person, you'll be unhappy wherever you are."
I have no doubt she considers herself that certain kind of person.
"Are you happy?" she asks.
"Do you mean at this moment, or with my life?"
"With your life. Answer the first thing you think."
"No," I say.
"Do you think you would be happy in China?"
"I don't know," I say, "I've never been to China."
"Do you want to go?"
I wonder if she is playing a game. Does she know that her father has dangled China in front of me as her dowry? "Sure," I make it sound as nonchalant as I can, "I wouldn't mind going to China. I'd like to see China."
"Would you like to live there?"
"Go to school there? Live there forever?" In China deviance is a capital offence, I don't know about living in a country where my natural tendencies could see me end up with the traditional remedy of a bullet in the back of the head.
"It doesn't make any difference if you did or you didn't," she says, "because you would still be you. And if you were unhappy here, you'd be unhappy there."
"But much of our unhappiness is caused by social conditions," I say.
"That's naive socialism," with some disgust.
Actually it's evasive on my part. What started us on this conversation? Perhaps my expression gives away my unease.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I was just trying to explain."
She is fascinating to look at. Her teeth are straight, her hair nice, her clothes lovely. But she has no delicacy of feature. Her nose is too broad, her lips are narrow, her forehead too low. And she has no chin. It is an amazingly simian face. I find myself drawn back again and again to studying her. Where did that face come from? Foreman Qian is not handsome, but his face is rounder. And her mother, Liu Su-ping, is no beauty, but she doesn't seem to possess any of the features I find in her daughter's face.
"Why do you keep looking at me?" San-xiang says suddenly.
Caught out, I look away. "I am out with you," I say. "If you don't like beer, I'll drink yours. Would you like a soda?"
"I like beer," she says, and sips hers.
She doesn't like beer. I make some sort of small talk about kite racers, and every time I glance at her she sips her beer. Lipstick bleeds at the lip of the cup. The fliers spiral lazily up, bright silks in red and blue. I show her how to place a bet, jack her into the system. "You have to bet on someone to be jacked in with them," I explain. "But once you've jacked in, you can bet any additional way you want. Even against your flier if you want. I usually jack into rookies because they're less accustomed to racing and it's more exciting."
She bites her lower lip in concentration. Above us the kites swing in a huge arc over the square and head into the darkness towards Union Square. The system cuts in and suddenly I'm in synch with a rookie flier named Iceberg. I can feel his/my muscles pumping, I can see the kites ahead of me when we come into the lights over Union Square. The kites swing over Union Square andcome back towards Washington Square, gearing up to begin the race when they cross Washington Square. My flier is tense with anticipation. It's not the same as really experiencing it yourself, everything is flattened, at a distance. I know he feels the cold, but I'm not cold. I open my eyes and see the silks above us.
I glance at San-xiang. She is gazing up into the darkness and when the kites flash brilliant into the lights above Washington Square she shivers and takes a drink of her beer.
I don't know why it is so much more exciting to see the race live. Everybody jacks in at home, too. And at home the race is clearer than it is out here. But it is wonderful to see them up there and at the same time be able to close your eyes and see some sense of what they see.
The race is quick--at two laps they always are--and Iceberg doesn't finish in the money. "Ready for another beer?" I ask San-xiang.
"Yes, please," she says. She has color in her cheeks, whether from the race, the chill, or the beer, I can't tell.
When I come back she smiles up at me. "Thank you," she accepts the beer. "This is fun. You do this a lot?"
"Pretty much," I say.
"Would you like to be a kite racer?"
"I'm too big," I say, laughing. Kite racers are small, usually around forty, forty-five kilos.
"Yes, but wouldn't you like to be? If you could?"
"If I won a lot," I say.
She laughs and sips her beer, watching me over the rim of the glass. Flirting. We pour over the program, I haven't heard of any of the fliers in this race but I recognize a lot of the racers in the last three races, the big ones. San-xiang decides not to bet on a rookie, she wants to win.
She doesn't win the second race, nor the third, but her flier comes in second for the fourth race and pays 3:1. The credit light flashes and I take her up to pick up her chit. When she standsup she is a little unsteady on her feet from the beer. She refuses my arm but she's delighted when they pay her off. She turns that monkey-face up at me and smiles.
"I'm having a wonderful time," she says, "one of the best times in my life!"
We walk a bit rather than go back to our seats and the chill clears her head.
"We won't miss the next race, will we?" she asks.
I shake my head. "There's a break between the first four races and the last four. The first four are the minor card and the last four are the major card. The best fliers race the major card."
Peter and a guy from Bed-Stuy are standing where we always stand by the Arch. I hadn't intended to walk that way, just habit. I think about pretending not to see them but decide what the hell and wave. Peter grins and waves back.
"Who's that?" San-xiang whispers.
"A good friend of mine," I say.
We stop for a moment and talk to Peter and Bed-Stuy, whose name I can't at this moment remember. "Peter, this is Qian San-xiang. My friend Peter and"--I make those motions one makes when one can't remember a name.
"Kai," Bed-Stuy says.
"Is that an American name?" San-xiang asks.
"Scandinavian," Bed-Stuy says, "but I'm American." Peter and Bed-Stuy are both fair, both anglo-handsome. Neither one of them is very attractive by Chinese standards--big-nosed for one thing and Kai in particular has the kind of angled face that Chinese don't like. Chinese always think westerners' eyes are set too deep in their heads, that they look a bit Neanderthal. This is not a prejudice I share. But Peter and Kai are dressed well, both in sweaters with leather ties and shimmering reflective strips dangling off the shoulders and shaded glasses sitting on top of their hair. Bed-Stuy has his hair in a tail, like me. They look so bent I wonder if she will guess.
We are carefully low key, talk a little about who is expected to win the seventh and eighth races, and then I say that San-xiang and I have to get back to our seats.
"We're going out to Commemorative afterwards," Peter says. "Drop by if it's not too late."
"Okay," I say and head us back to the stands.
"What is Commemorative?" San-xiang asks.
"It's a flier bar that Peter likes," I say. "Do you want another beer?"
I buy two more beers and we make our way back to our seats. We pour over the program and talk about who to bet on. I'm tired and want to go home, but San-xiang is clearly enjoying the evening so I feign interest. She sips her beer and looks coyly at me out of the corners of her eyes and not knowing how to respond I pretend not to notice. Clearly she does not think I am gay and that is a relief but the night is beginning to depress me.
"Your friends are handsome," she says.
"Do you think so?" I ask. "You da bizi," I say. They have big noses. The Chinese slang for westerner is "big nose."
She giggles and looks down at the program.
Finally the last four races start. It's a so-so card, the seventh race looks good. I pick a flier at random in the fifth race, San-xiang deliberates before picking the odds-on favorite. I find myself watching for Peter and Bed-Stuy between races. San-xiang is disappointed when her flier doesn't come in. She wins the sixth race and is so excited she spills her beer. With some trepidation I buy her another, she has had two and a half and it is obvious that she's not accustomed to them. But I am hoping that if she has another she will be drunk and sleepy enough to want to go home after the races.
I finally pick a flier who places in the eighth race. San-xiang is giggly and unsteady.
"Are you hungry?" I ask.
"What about that place your friends are going, Commemorative, do they have food?"
"Not this late," I say. "I know a little Thai place on West 4th Street, it's not far from here."
"I am having such a good time, I want to stay out all night!" she says. "Are you having a good time?"
"Of course," I say. "When you go with someone who's never seen the kite races it reminds you of your first time."
"It's so exciting. It's so much better than watching it on the vid."
This is a night she will remember all her life, the night when she went to the kite races. How many nights do I remember? How many special nights have I had in my life? Is it so much to give up a night?
"Let's get something to eat and then see how late it is, maybe stop in for a drink," I say. She smiles up at me. Oh, the dangers of pity.
The restaurant is crowded and we pick up our orders of curry and noodles and eat standing on the street. The streets are full of students in outrageous clothes. San-xiang watches a girl in a lavender tunic with no sides, belted in the middle. Underneath she wears a pale green transparent body suit. She is arguing with a boy, shaking her copper hair to make her points. The boy--as drab as she is vivid--is in one of those gray diaper things like they wear in India. He has long, impossibly skinny black-clad legs sticking out of his dhoti. I wonder what he would look like if he didn't rat his hair. "Leave her," I urge him silently. He is angry and sullen, regarding her out of hot bruised eyes. He crosses his arms and shifts his weight from one leg to the other. He is so thin that there is nothing under his skin but long, striated muscle, and the muscles are clear as diagrams over his face bones. Suddenly he turns and walks off.
The girl flips him the finger and stands, rigid with anger, before whirling and walking up the street.
"Dog," San-xiang whispers in Chinese. She looks up at me for collaboration and I nod, although I know she means the boy. San-xiang takes my arm and I tense, startled, but she doesn't notice.
Commemorative is crowded and loud. Hot and noisy. I try to see Peter and Bed-Stuy but can't, so I take her hand and force my way through the crowd. I finally find them near the back, at the end of the bar. They're talking with a flier, he only comes to Peter's shoulder, and he's dark and ugly. Not many fliers are pretty, like most of them he looks as if his head is too big for his body.
"Zhang!" Peter shouts, "This is--!"
I miss the name in the noise but nod and smile anyway. I don't share Peter's preoccupation with fliers. He says they're athletes, good in bed. I signal the bartender "two beers" and she puts them up on the bar. Peter hands them to me, we can't get close. Peter is happy and animated, trying to converse with his flier. Bed-Stuy has the patient look of a man who has stood at a lot of bars and is willing to wait to see if his luck changes. San-xiang seems a little overwhelmed.
I smile at her and shrug to show my apology. She smiles and drinks some of her beer.
I watch her drink her beer, and she watches me. Then she turns pink and looks down at her glass. How fascinating she is. I can't help looking at her, trying to define just what went wrong. What would she need to become beautiful? Larger eyes? More bone in the jawline? And why hasn't she done it?
We don't stay long, it's too loud. She is a bit unsteady when we leave.
"Are you all right?" I ask her.
She leans against me and whispers conspiratorially, "I'm a little drunk." Her body language, her gestures, are all the actions of a girl being cute, of a flirt, and yet looking up at me is that square monkey-face, those tiny porcine eyes. She wrinkles hernose and her eyes almost disappear, and I gaze, entranced by the grotesque.
It feels lewd. All my life I have been careful not to stare. I don't stare at war veterans, I don't stare at street people. I guess, unconsciously, I don't stare at people who are ugly, either. But I can stare at San-xiang. I have the sudden urge to kiss her on the forehead, I don't know why.
We take the subway to Brooklyn and walk to her parents' apartment. In the hall we stop and I think of being in middle school and bringing the girl to her door and trying to decide if I was supposed to kiss her or not. I kiss San-xiang, a nice brotherly kiss.
"I had a wonderful time," she says and gives me a trembling smile. "You are very nice."
"So are you," I say.
"Why don't you have a girlfriend? You're very handsome."
I like to be told I'm handsome as much as anyone does but coming from San-xiang it is a bit disconcerting. I make the Nalinali, the don't-talk-about-it motion with my hand, looking away embarrassed. "No reason," I say. "I just don't really want a girlfriend right now, I guess." The walls in the hallway are China red.
She rubs the back of her hand across her eyes and her voice is full of tears when she says, "I have to go, good-night."
She unlocks the door and closes it behind her and I am left standing in the hall, wondering, what did I do?
I do not expect her voice when I answer the call. It is Tuesday evening and I've only been home from work for a few minutes.
"Zhong Shan?" she says, "It's San-xiang." We make inconsequential small talk, how is work? I ask her how her work is and realize that I don't even know what she does.
"Some friends of mine and I," she says, "on Thursday nights,we have, well, it's kind of a political study meeting but it's really not, we sit around and talk, mostly. I was wondering if you would like to come? It won't be late, I mean, I know you work on Friday, we all do, so it ... it won't be late. But if you're busy, I'll understand. I mean, this is short notice and I know you probably have plans, or, really that you might have plans. That's what I meant, that you're probably a fairly busy person, and it might not be convenient."
She is so nervous, I want to save her. "No," I say, "I don't have plans. I'm not very political though. I'm pretty dumb about politics."
"But you went to the Middle School for Political Theory, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but that was ten years ago, and we didn't learn too much about politics. Mostly we studied Mandarin."
"Oh," she says in her high voice. "It doesn't really matter, we just mostly talk, anyway."
"Sure. What time?"
"About six-thirty," she says and tells me where to come. I usually start at seven A.M. and get off about four-thirty in the afternoon so that gives me time to get home and change. But Thursday comes and the project we are working on includes a side wall that will eventually have an artificial water-wall and a courtyard for the public. The wall is to be done in a continuous pour and for all the usual reasons we are late beginning the pour. Of course a special crew does the pour but I have to be there until it's finished to secure the site.
At six I head for Brooklyn, still in coveralls and workboots. The proletariat. Well, that ought to go over big in San-xiang's political study group.
I am late, it is quarter of seven when I get to the address San-xiang has given me. I need a shower and a beer, not necessarily in that order. The door opens and I say, "Excuse me, I am a friend of San-xiang?"
The face in the doorway is Chinese. A man, about my age. "Come in," he says, "we were afraid you got lost."
"I'm sorry," I say, "I had to work late."
There are five people in the little main room of this apartment, including San-xiang, whose eyes almost disappear in her delight.
"So you are the man with the incredible name," drawls a tall woman, not Chinese.
I smile and nod. "One cannot choose one's parents," I say. Oh my foolish mother. Zhong Shan is the name of a famous Chinese revolutionary, the first president of the Republic; it is the Mandarin version of the Cantonese name Sun Yat-sen. To be named Zhang Zhong Shan is like being named George Washington Jones. I sit down next to San-xiang and she introduces me around. I catch only two names, the woman is Ginny and the ABC who met me at the door is Gu Zhongyan. There is also a couple, clearly married, in their forties, I think.
I apologize again for coming late, and for coming straight from work without a chance to clean up.
"We hope to eventually establish a neighborhood association or a commune," Gu Zhongyan explains, "but we are none of us financially able yet. So for now we have a study group."
The male half of the couple passes out flimsies of an article out of a magazine. It's political theory. I read through the first couple of paragraphs and don't much understand, it's something about optimum community size. San-xiang studies hers carefully for a moment, then puts it in a folder and pulls out another stack of flimsies carefully underlined and highlighted. She has made notes to herself in Chinese along the margins. Her characters are tiny swift swirls of line.
They talk for awhile about the article. Ginny and Gu appear not to have read it as carefully. The male half of the couple is clearly the most committed. I gather in the course of the conversation that he and his wife lived in a commune before but there was some trouble and they left.
The only commune I am familiar with is Peter's, which has no ideology and exists merely as a tenants' association to keep his building running. And doesn't seem to do that too terribly well. I'm tired, it's been a long day, and they talk carefully about the relationship between competition and productivity.
I feel inadequate. I know that politics is important, I just don't like to think about it. I don't know what my opinions are, I just know that very little I hear ever seems to have much to do with me, or with my life.
This apartment is the apartment of a serious person. Disordered, but in a serious way--a large system on the wall, equipped for information and music, but no vid. There are flimsies in a stack on the floor, obviously down-loaded. The wall at the back has home-made bookshelves filled with books and stacks of flimsies in binders. The books look like non-fiction. I used to read a lot during my alienated adolescence. Fiction. There is a book lying on the floor near Gu's chair, The Social Matrix: Religious Communities in Capitalist America.
San-xiang talks. She is serious and involved. "A community doesn't have to be autonomous to be a community," she says. "People can work outside the community."
"Then what makes it a community?" Gu Zhongyan asks, sounding irritated.
"A community is a group of people united by shared interests," San-xiang says. "It can be work, or family, or even something like a theater. That's why a community should do something, have a product that everybody works with, because the profit and loss unites people."
"But there you have competition," says the husband, "and whenever you have competition you're going to have inequality. Some members are going to be less able to contribute."
"So the community adapts," San-xiang says. "It adjusts. We're adults, we can recognize that someone taking care of a new babyhas less time, or that someone else isn't going to be able to handle bookkeeping."
"But if you have competition," says the wife, "people's judgments become clouded. You get resentment. You can't expect people to recognize and adjust, somebody is going to feel put out." She sounds wistful, as if she speaks from experience.
"Sometimes a community doesn't adjust," San-xiang says, "and sometimes it doesn't work. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
After the discussion we have green tea and cookies and then San-xiang and I walk to the subway.
"What did you think?" San-xiang asks.
"I think you are very smart," I answer.
She frowns. "No, I mean are you interested?"
"In joining your commune? I don't know."
"We don't even have a commune yet," she says. "You didn't say very much, I guess it isn't as exciting as kite races."
"I'm not a very political person," I say by way of apology.
She looks at me sharply but doesn't say anything.
"It's true," I say, "I don't even like to watch the news. I'm not the kind of person who gets involved in political things."
"Everybody is involved in politics," she says.
"Not me," I say. "Not because I think they're bad, I think I should be involved, I'm just lazy."
"No, listen to me. Everyone is political. You can't help it. You make political decisions all the time, just as you make moral ones.
"Zhong Shan," she says gently, "get this through that handsome empty skull of yours, okay? No one can escape politics. You're ABC, are you a party member?"
"No," I say, expecting her to be disappointed. A lot of ABC are party members. "Like I told you, I'm not interested. I think the party is mostly a means of advancing one's career anyway."
"Exactly, and your decision not to join is a political decision."
"Well, then my political decision is to not be political."
"Exactly, that's a political statement. You are expressing your opinion about current politics. Except you are political, everything we do is political," she says, doggedly explaining to the unenlightened. "You do things. You rent a private apartment, right?"
"Because if I took housing I'd have to live in some complex in Virginia or northern Pennsylvania," I say, irritated.
"But by doing so you condone landlords."
"I don't condone or not condone landlords," I say. "It's a practical decision, not a political one. The Great Cleansing Winds campaign is over, San-xiang. We don't have to analyze everyone's lives for motives."
"I wasn't saying it's wrong," she says mildly, "I was just pointing out that your life says something about your politics whether you think about them or not. You can either just let that happen or you can think about the kind of choices you want to make."
"I'd like to continue to make my choices because they fit my life rather than out of some sense of ideology," I say. "In my experience ideology is a lot like religion; it's a belief system and most people cling to it long after it becomes clear that their ideology doesn't describe the real world."
She smiles up at me. "That's as pure a description of an applied political theory as any I've ever heard."
I look at that little monkey face and say coldly, "Pretty good for a dumb construction tech, right?"
"Bu cuo," she says airily. Not bad.
Ugly girls have to have something, I think. Sports or ideas.
Lenin and Mao Zedong. I am sitting in front of the vid, leaned over unlacing my work boots, when I get a call. I assume that it's Peter and I think to myself, this time I won't let him talk me intogoing anywhere. It's Tuesday night, I'm tired. I pick up my beer and wander into the kitchen to take the call, trailing boot-laces.
"Zhang here," I say, not bothering with the visual.
"Zhong Shan?" San-xiang says.
"Wei," I answer, surprised and a little disappointed.
"My parents threw me out," she says in her high, soft little-girl voice.
"What?" I say. "What for?"
"We had an argument."
"About what?" I say foolishly.
"Oh, everything. Can I come to your flat?"
"Oh, sure." I say. I give her directions and then lace my boots and run down to the little Thai place (The Ruby Kitchen) and get takeout noodles and fried chicken. I stop and pick up more beer, too. Then back to my flat, where I take the shirts I brought back from the cleaners off the chair and throw them in my room. The place looks okay. It needs to be cleaned but I'm not going to worry about that right now.
And then I wait, sitting on the edge of the chair, watching the vid. If I sit back in the chair, I'll probably fall asleep. I fall asleep a lot of evenings in this chair, sitting in front of the vid.
The building system says someone's at the outside door, I check the console and there she stands with a slouch bag over her shoulder. Until I see the bag it doesn't occur to me that she might want to stay here the night. Hell, doesn't she have friends? I let her in, tell the building to recognize her and let her in whenever she comes, and leave the door off the latch.
San-xiang stops at the door. I am in the kitchen, but I hear her heels and then I imagine her stopping, her chinless little face upturned. "I'm in the kitchen," I call.
When she comes in the kitchen she doesn't have her bag.
"Yao pijiu ma?" I ask and hand her a beer without waiting for her to answer.
"Hi," she says, looking at the beer as if she doesn't knowwhether she wants it or not. She takes a sip. She stands, uncertain of her reception.
"This is my decadent flat," I say, gesturing. It is two real rooms and a kitchen and bathroom roughly the size of closets. Compared to her parents' apartment it's little bigger than a drawer. And it's a rathole. The flooring is that synthetic stuff and doesn't go quite to the corners and the wall covering needs to be replaced. The apartment is brown except where the gray concrete shows in the corners. I could fix it up, I think about it once in awhile, but I never know how long I'm going to live here. And I'm rarely here except to eat and sleep.
She looks around, looks back at me. "I'm sorry to just show up this way."
"Sit down," I say, "have something to eat. Tell me what happened."
She sits down and I stick chopsticks in the noodles. I hand her a plate and a pair of chopsticks, sit down and pick up a piece of chicken.
She sits for a moment, looking at the noodles but clearly not seeing them. Her attitude reminds me of someone saying grace. I put a piece of chicken on her plate. "Thank you," she says.
I eat and watch her eat. Finally she says, "I had an argument with my parents."
"What about?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Nothing. Money. Everything."
"It was just a little argument, and things kept coming in. Like why I didn't study hard enough to go to the University and how my father spent the money that was supposed to be for me, for," her voice drops to a whisper, "my face."
For just a second I think she means "face" in the Chinese sense, as in "not lose face." Then I realize she means her physical face.
"My father thinks I should save my money for that, not for a commune."
I don't know what to say, everything I say may be wrong, so I say the innocuous. "What do you think?"
"I think I am an adult and it is my decision," she says. "He says that as long as I live in his house it is his decision. But I can't get assigned housing unless I get married and I want to save my money so I don't want to pay rent. But maybe it's an excuse to stay at home?"
"It sounds very sensible to me," I say.
"Do you think I am immature?" she asks.
Yes, but I cannot say that. "I think you are very sensible," I say.
"You don't live with your family," she says.
"I don't have a family," I say. Which is not true, strictly speaking, but my father has been gone for years, and my mother has a new family. I couldn't live with either of them. And wouldn't want to.
"This is a nice apartment," she says.
I laugh and she is startled. "It's a dump," I say. "But it is what I can afford."
So we eat.
"I have to get up early," I say, "let's get you settled."
She nods, all tension.
I go into my bedroom and dig a sheet out of my closet. I have two pillows on my bed, so I skin one out of the case and put a clean case on it. San-xiang stands in the doorway and watches me. I feel as if something is wrong, but I don't know what it is. My bedroom is a mess, I wonder if she is upset. Did she have some idea that I lived this elegant life? If so, the actual squalor of coffee cups in the bedroom could be a little distressing.
I have a quilt and use the pillow, sheet and quilt to create a makeshift bed on the couch. It's not going to adjust to body temperature but it should be comfortable enough. I probablyshould put her on my bed and sleep out here, but damn it, I didn't ask her to come over, and besides, all the rest of my sheets are dirty and I'm not going to bring dirty sheets out here to sleep and put her in my bed.
"I have to be at work at seven tomorrow," I explain, "so I'll be leaving a little after six. What time do you have to be at work?"
"Nine," she says.
"What time do you need to wake up?"
"About seven-thirty?" she says.
"Okay, I'll tell the system. There's coffee and tea in the kitchen. Feel free to watch the vid, make yourself at home."
She sits down on the couch, her hands folded in her lap. Again I have the feeling that she is upset. It is probably strange to her.
"Have you ever been away from home before?"
"Oh yeah," she says. "Every year I go somewhere for a couple of weeks and Cuo sent me to Arkansas for training two years ago. I was there for eighteen weeks." She looks up at me, straight at me instead of her usual sidelong glance. "Why are you always looking at me?"
Flustered I say, "What do you mean?"
"You are always studying me. Is it because I am ugly?"
"No," I say too quickly, "of course not."
"It's okay," she says, "I know I'm ugly. Someday, when I have enough money, I will have my face fixed. It's a bone problem, it only happens to one in twenty thousand children. It's not so expensive if they do something right at adolescence, but my father was in trouble, so we had to come here."
"What happened to your father?"
"He managed a branch of Huang-Kamakai in Guangzhou and his branch lost a lot of money, hundreds of thousands of yuan. So they transferred him to the United States and sent him to work at Hong Fangzhen Construction. They used to own it. Then during the Cleansing Winds it lost so much money they sold it to an ABC so now we can never be transferred back."
Well, I have to get up, so I go to bed. After a few minutes I hear the vid on very low. I go to sleep with my back to the crack of light showing under my door.
The system gets me up and I creep through the front room to the bathroom, clean up and dress. When I come out of the bathroom, the hills and valleys on the couch shift and San-xiang sits up.
"Go back to sleep," I whisper, "it's only quarter of six."
"I'm awake," she says and turns on the light. She blinks in the glare. "I can make you coffee," she says.
"I always get it at the site," I say, "go to sleep."
But she gets up, wearing a loose shift and barefoot, her hair tangled, and takes her bag into the bathroom. I'm ready early, I usually sit around, watch the vid a bit, sometimes make coffee. Or I sleep too late and rush out at six-thirty.
This morning I make coffee and sit down with a cup. I wonder how long she'll stay. I don't have the ambition to bring it up in the morning. She comes out dressed.
"Coffee?" I ask.
She pours a cup.
"Sugar is by the sink, I don't have milk," I say.
She gets sugar and brings it back to the couch but sits with the cup untasted.
"Did you sleep well?" I ask.
"Fine," she says brightly.
We make small talk. I ask her about her work, she works for Cuo, one of the big Chinese conglomerates, she's a clerk in the international transport department. She routes orders.
She doesn't like coffee, but I pretend not to notice. And in a few minutes, I leave for work.
When I get home that evening--we are on rush work which means we work long hours and I don't get home until nearly seven-thirty--she is already there. I hear her in the kitchen when I open the door. The living room is neat, the sheet and quilt neatlyfolded on the end of the couch. She is chopping in the kitchen, I wait until I hear the cleaver stop before calling hello.
"Zhong Shan?" she calls.
I am tired to the bone. Foreman Qian was not on the site today, a small blessing, but there were too many things to do. I worked for twelve hours, the hard physical work of pounding excess off forms and pulling the forms, polishing the face of the building. Painstaking hand work with a crew that wants to get it done and go home. I have shouted myself nearly hoarse. The crew is mutinous. But the job will be done by Friday if we don't get disastrous weather.
I don't really want company. If Peter called I would tell him to go pound sand. "San-xiang," I say. I smell rice cooking.
"Are you always so late?" she says. She is chopping scallions.
"No," I say, "usually I am home around five." I find a beer and collapse in a chair.
"Did you see my father?"
"He wasn't on site today. He might be tomorrow."
"Will you tell him where I am?"
"If he asks," I say.
She frowns at the wok, tosses chicken in sesame oil. It is a smell that reminds me of growing up. "Don't tell him, okay? Tell him you don't know where I am. I don't want him to know."
I don't like this. I shrug.
She stirs the chicken, tosses in green scallions and Chinese chilis and adds a glob of sesame paste. Then she spills it onto plates. "Are you hungry?"
"Yeah," I say. "This is very nice of you."
"It's nice of you to let me stay," she says.
I hadn't planned on her staying this long. "How long will you be here?" I ask.
"Whenever you want me to go," she says, "you tell me. I'll understand."
I don't exactly know what to say. Tonight. I want you to leavetonight. Go stay with one of your friends from the political study group. I don't say anything, just shovel food into my mouth while I think about this.
I decide that tomorrow I'll tell her to leave. "This is very good."
I should tell her to be out by the weekend. I should tell her right now. But it seems terrible to sit eating her food telling her not to stay. Tomorrow I'll eat before I get home. She doesn't think about the position she's put me in because she doesn't have any friends, she's not accustomed to being around people. I am furious. But as always, I hesitate to reject her. I look into that monkey face and think, she's been rejected and hurt enough, and I put it off. I am a coward.
We sit and watch the vid for awhile. "Do you want to see kite races?" she asks.
"I don't really care," I say. Actually I don't watch the kites on vid much, but since I took her she thinks it's the most important thing in my life. We watch a serial. We make small talk. I fall asleep in my chair and wake up with a jerk. Where can she go? She can't get housing, not unless her parents will file a separation. Surely she has friends. Surely it is not my problem.
I go to bed and sleep badly. I dream of middle school.
In the morning San-xiang doesn't get up when I do, so I leave early without coffee. I am on the site by six-forty-five and sit in the gray morning waiting for coffee and for the day to begin. The crew greets the sight of their tech engineer perched on the back of a concrete bench with dismay--"Jesus, Zhang, you goin' to be bustin' balls all day today?" And the tone of the day is set.
We are under deadline and I am mean, I do not want to be here Friday night under the lights, working. I want to be here Saturday even less. If we work on Saturday, the men will expect big bonus and I will get chewed out.
Foreman Qian shows up at a little before nine and disappears into the trailer. If he stays in the trailer, maybe I will get somework out of the crew. But he doesn't. He comes back out, coffee cup in hand, and surveys the crew work.
"Zhang!" he snaps.
"Foreman Qian," I say, trotting over, dutiful dog.
"You think Friday already you finish?"
I drop into Chinese. "If the weather is good, yes. If the weather is bad, or we have problems, no."
Foreman Qian nods. Sips his morning tea.
"Engineer Zhang," he says, "Have you talked to my daughter?"
"Lately?" I ask. "Not since Thursday."
He looks unhappy and tired. "She gives you a call, you call me, okay?"
"Something is wrong?" I ask.
"A misunderstanding," he says. "She is staying with one of her friends."
I nod, we stand looking at the crew for a moment in apparent camaraderie. Then I trot back and Foreman Qian goes into the trailer. I don't like being in the middle of this, tonight I'll tell her to call him. That will take care of my problems.
In the afternoon we have a box playing--we always have a box playing, sounds of Brooklyn--and I catch a weather report. Rain tomorrow. The crew watches me, obviously they already know. I rest a polisher on the edge of the granite planter I am working on.
"Okay," I say, "I hear it. Work starts at noon tomorrow. Tell your mothers to put your dinners on the counter, we'll be working under the lights."
"Shit," someone says. But I turn the polisher back on and go back to work. I pretend not to notice them bitching. They knew what I was going to say, but hell, bitching is one of the few satisfactions they have.
It is seven-thirty when I leave work. I get my dinner on the way home, stopping for a hamburger on the way to the subway. The subway isn't crowded. Above me a paper sign says "Una luz brillara en tu camina/Ven a la iglesia. Descubre lo que has perdido." I think whatever I have lost was gone before I was born. I fall asleep on the subway and nearly miss my stop.
The apartment is dark, for a moment I think she has left, but then the lights come up and I see her bag sitting by the door. I check through the whole apartment. No sign, no note.
Perhaps she, like me, is working late? Maybe she went to dinner with someone from work?
So I sit in my chair and go to sleep with the vid on.
The door wakes me and I sit up. The system has shut the vid off, which means I've been asleep for more than twenty minutes, I am confused and feel as if it is later than that.
"San-xiang?" I say.
"Hello," she sings out, "I thought you'd be asleep."
I was. "I was watching the vid. Did you work late?"
"Tonight is my political study meeting."
Oh yes, the optimum size of a community. Now what? Tell her she has to go. "Your father is very worried about you," I say.
"Did you talk to him today? What did he say?"
"He asked me to call him if I saw you. I think you should talk to him. And I think you should decide what you are going to do." Well put, I think to myself.
She sits down on the couch. "If I call him, he'll make me come home."
"But he threw you out," I say.
She makes a gesture with her hand, waving that away. "He didn't really mean it."
"What are you going to do?" I ask.
"I don't know." She looks down at her feet, "Call him, I guess. Do you mean tonight?"
Shit. Grow up. All right, if you want me to be the parent. "Yeah, tonight."
She sits there for a moment, then gets up and goes into the kitchen. There is a long silence, longer than it takes to jack in and connect. Finally I hear her say, "Baba? Shi wo." Papa, it's me.
A pause. "Zai Zhang gongchengshide jiali." At Engineer Zhang's place.
A long pause. Dui, she breathes. "Wo dengideng." I'll wait.
I hear the snap when she takes off the contact. "He's coming to get me," she says. She is about to cry and escapes into the bathroom. I think about getting a beer but decide I am too tired. At least I can sleep late tomorrow and there won't be anyone here.
I try not to listen to San-xiang crying in the bathroom.
She comes back out and sits down on the couch. It is not my fault she is ugly, I have no reason to feel guilty. I have always had tremendous trouble defining the limits of responsibility.
"My father is very upset," she says, and has to regain her self-control.
"I am in big trouble," she says.
"You're an adult," I point out.
"Sometimes my father makes that hard to remember. He is pretty good at making people do what he wants."
"You can just tell him 'no'."
"Like you did when he told you to take me out?" she asks.
"That's different," I say, "taking you out is enjoyable."
She nods and looks at the vid. She is crying again, without allowing any sound to escape. I feel trapped. A few minutes and her father will be here. She takes a shuddery breath. "It's okay," she says, "you don't have to ask me out anymore. I mean, you're very nice but I know you really don't want to."
"That's not true," I lie. "I enjoy our evenings together." It's not altogether a lie.
"I consider you a friend, San-xiang," I say as gently as I can.
"Well maybe I'm not looking for friendship," she snaps and then covers her face with her hands.
I don't know how to respond but she doesn't say anything else. After a moment she goes back into the bathroom. I hear water running. My water bill is going to be terrible this month, last month it was pretty good, but this month will be bad. If I took public housing I wouldn't have to pay anything for the first 800 liters of water I used.
She comes out with her make-up repaired and her eyes red and we watch the vid until my system tells me that her father is outside. I check, and sure enough, there he is in his coveralls. I let him in, and while I am at it I take San-xiang out of the system so she can't get in unless I let her.
I open the door and say, unnecessarily I'm sure, "Your father is here."
I hear the lift open and then Foreman Qian walking down the hallway. I open the door, and he glances at me once and brushes past me. "San-xiang," he says.
"Baba," she says poised on the couch, holding her back very straight but keeping her eyes down. Perfect posture for a Chinese girl.
In Chinese he demands, "How do you explain this?"
"I am not explaining," she says.
"This is terrible, what you have done to your mother! You could have at least called and told us where you were. Where have you been!"
"Here," she says so softly I can barely understand.
"Here? With Zhang Zhong Shan?"
He looks at me, his face very red. "You told me you hadn't seen her!"
"She asked me to."
He looks back at her. "You stayed here alone?" He is tremblingwith fury, I have never seen him like this. His face is so red I am afraid he will make himself ill.
"Foreman Qian," I say, "perhaps you would sit down. I have tea, beer."
"What have you been doing for two days! What is your mother going to do when she hears about this! And you," he turns to me, "how could you do this! I have had you to my home and now you are taking advantage of my daughter!"
"Foreman Qian," I say, the words sounding as ludicrous in Chinese as they do in English, "I have not taken advantage of your daughter, I did not even ask her to come here."
"I cannot believe this!" he says to her, ignoring me. "You want us to treat you as if you are an adult, but you do this?" I am embarrassed. Foreman Qian sounds like the cliché of the Chinese father, protecting his daughter from bad influence. Like a vid. People do not act like this in real life. But then, people don't try to marry their daughters to bent foremen they barely know, either. "What if they found out at your job! Do you think you would ever be transferred to China if they thought you were an immoral girl?"
"The Great Cleansing Winds campaign is over," San-xiang says, "No one talks that way anymore."
"Well why don't you just tell them at work that you are staying with an Engineering Technician without citizenship and see how they talk."
Foreman Qian rounds on me, "I would have been happy to treat you like a son, I had no idea you were so stupid."
"I have been entirely respectful with your daughter," I say.
"She called me Tuesday and asked if she could come here, she told me she had an argument with you and her mother."
"A man alone with a girl, you expect me to believe this?"
"It's true," San-xiang says coldly, "Engineer Zhang is not interested in me, baba, I am too ugly for a man."
He takes that like a body blow. For the first time I see his position, a father with an ugly daughter, trying to make up to her for spending her face money. But he rolls right on, not even acknowledging her comment. "I don't believe this foolishness. You have been here two nights. The neighbors know you are here."
If this were a Chinese building, the auntie watching the hall would report what we are doing to the building committee, but this is not a Chinese building, I'm the only ABC living here and there are no Chinese. "Here," I say, "no one cares."
"I can believe that," he says, looking at my apartment. "What about your mother?" he says to San-xiang.
"I will tell her I'm sorry," San-xiang says.
"Do you think that will erase what you've done?"
"What do you want me to do?" she cries.
"Do you expect to continue on after this?" Foreman Qian asks.
"No," she says, "we have already decided to stop."
I expect that to mollify him but instead he turns back to me. "So! You have had her here! Now you are finished with her? Is that it! She is trash and you discard her?"
"No--" I say, astonished and angry.
"You are a stupid bit of dogshit!" he says.
"Enough!" I shout back, this is a real Chinese argument now, conducted like any good Chinese argument, at full volume. "I didn't ask your daughter to come here! I treated her well! I told her to call you and now all you do is shout at me! Don't shout at me because you can't control your daughter!"
"What do you expect me to believe! I find my daughter in this dirty little apartment where there is barely room to turn around and you tell me you have been living like sisters? And then you say you do not want to see my daughter again? How can you tell me you are not interested in a Chinese girl! In citizenship! Maybe this was just to get my daughter in trouble so she would have to marry you!"
"You wanted your daughter to marry me!" I say. "You tried to bribe me with your talk of Guangzhou University!" My face is flushed, I feel it. "Well Foreman Qian, something you did not know, my mother is not Chinese. I am not really Chinese. My mother's name is Teresa Luis and she is Hispanic!" Wode mama jiao Teresa Luis ye ta shi Hai-si-ba-na!
Foreman Qian is shocked into silence. The Spanish name stands out from the Chinese.
After a moment Foreman Qian stutters, "Your mother; her surname is Li. I read your records."
"Li is her party name. Only my father is Chinese. Now, please leave," I say, "I have to work tomorrow."
I see a different anger building in his face, a colder anger. Finally Foreman Qian says, "Ah, now you remember that you work for me."
"I have told the crew to be on the site at noon, hopefully the rain will be over," I say. His face frightens me, the red is gone and now the anger is white.
"We will talk," Foreman Qian says and it is clearly a threat. "San-xiang, let's go."
She collects her bag silently. "I'm sorry," she says in English.
"San-xiang!" her father snaps.
And I close the door behind them. I stand there for a minute, and then I go to the kitchen and get a beer. There are only five beers, I suspect that isn't enough.
Before I go to the site the next day I go to the employment office and check the jobs on the board. I cannot look for a job until I no longer have one, so I don't stay long for fear someone will ask to look at my work card. I do not see any jobs.
I do not know what I will do when I am unemployed. I may have to give up my flat if I am unemployed for very long and accept approved housing. Living in Virginia or northern Pennsylvaniaand taking the train to the city. I will be able to take the train but only during non-peak hours. Maybe I can live with Peter for awhile.
I have a skill, so I will be able to wait until a job comes that matches my skill, rather than being assigned to menial labor.
If I had enough money and could keep paying my rent, I could keep my flat. I cannot ask my mother for money. There are jobs, free market jobs in Times Square. Maybe I can sell something. I get back on the train to go back downtown to the job site. In the subway there is a torn advertisement, the same I saw the night before, "Una luz brillara en tu camina/Ven a la iglesia. Descubre lo que te has perdido." Discover what I have lost? Not by going to church. Una luz brillara en tu camina. A brilliant light in your path. There is a brilliant light inside of me. It is not Christ, it is not Mao Zedong. I do not know what it is. I am Zhang, alone with my light, and in that light I think for a moment that I am free.
But I am only free in small places. Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks.
Copyright © 1992 by Maureen F. McHugh