Fall 1998, Volume 16.1
Henry J. Hughes
Henry J. Hughes (M A Purdue U) taught English at Beijing Foreign Studies University, China from 1994-96, and is currently a PhD student at Purdue University. His work has recently appeared in Harvard Review, Japan Quarterly and Southern Humanities Review.
From my office window, I watched the front gates hoping to catch Erica. The electricity was out and when the office grew dark, I
started back to my apartment. There was a taxi parked oddly below the campus’ spirit wall, a huge blue screen with words by Chairman Mao set in gold letters modeled after his own calligraphy. I had never seen a taxi park there before, but there was Erica pulling her pack from the back seat and gesturing to the driver.
"Erica. You made it!"
"Larry, how are you? Oh my God, you look great. I can’t believe I’m here." The driver deferred to our embrace, then said to me in Chinese, "Three hundred."
"What?" I looked at Erica. "Did you set a price with this guy?"
"How could I?"
I told the driver it was outrageous, and gave him a 100 yuan note, $12, fair payment for an hour’s ride. He pushed it back, blowing a kind of soft raspberries through his lips, looking away in postured disdain. His face was dark, and grease streaked his thin business suit like funky pinstriping.
"She is a foreigner," he said. "I charge three-hundred!"
The security guard at the gate came toward us and the driver rolled his head to one side, snatching up the hundred as if to say, Fuck you.
"Wow—they’re really out to get you here." Erica was excited.
"It’s not so bad once you get to know the place."
I really didn’t know Erica that well, but wanted to. We had spent a couple of weekends together when I lived in Minnesota. I grilled steaks for her one night and later she made me a delicious vegetarian pizza. We drank wine and listened to Peter Gabriel and George Winston, finally giving each other long backrubs. It generated some wonderful energy that made our subsequent correspondence—letter after letter—electric. But over a year had passed and in the last few months I had begun telling her about Bai Mei, the woman I lived with. It didn’t kill the electricity, but when Erica wrote that she was visiting, I knew we couldn’t be lovers. Then Bai Mei finished her TOEFL test and decided to go home for a month, back to Yunnan some 2,000 miles away on the southwest frontier. Remarkable timing. And here we were, Erica and I, walking back to my empty apartment in Beijing.
I opened the door to my flat and felt a little uneasy. To my right was the larger room with two wooden desks, a dresser, wardrobe and my big bed. To the left was a compact dining and living room with a small table and a couch. The light, a hanging fixture with a shade Bai Mei fashioned from white paper and bamboo, rocked soft shadows over us. "Well, I guess you can sleep here," I pointed to the couch. "Sorry."
Erica looked around the apartment. "It’s nice. I didn’t know quite what to expect."
"Well, it’s okay."
"I wonder what they think when they see—like—average digs back home. Look at those pipes." I nodded, smiling. Chinese plumbing expressed very postmodern exposure in its premodern design. I demonstrated pipe improvisations—pipe perches for plants, a mirror hung from a valve, pot lids and utensils tucked behind a horizontal branch in the kitchen. She laughed. But when I looked hard at my place it was rather sad. The paint in the kitchen and bathroom had bubbled and peeled, and a crude installment of my water heater—a special luxury for the foreign teacher—had destroyed part of the wall.
The cork popped from a bottle of local wine while Erica fossicked through her pack. I couldn’t help noticing the muscles in her neck and shoulders, and I looked down further at her round chest and hips. How differently Bai Mei was built—small breasts and slender thighs. Erica looked up, her eyes were light brown, large; her nose and chin explicit. "Well," she said. "Let’s celebrate," thumping a heavy brick of cheddar on the table.
We spent the next couple days touring the city, and by the middle of the week the weather turned very warm and I suggested we cycle from the university to the Summer Palace. She was keen. I gave her Bai Mei’s rickety one speed and we joined the dark river of bikes heading north. In the months cycling here, I had learned to move like a mackerel, protected and directed by the school, rather than darting out where some huge, blue truck might swallow me. Red lights were optional and pedestrians and cyclists were low on the road chain. Erica got into it, and we rolled along, talking, pointing, passing steamy restaurants, greasy shops and block after block of dull concrete apartments blistering along their grouted seams.
But there were also new lines of aluminum framed glass storefronts banded by corrugated trade signs with bold red characters inviting business. And the markets overflowed with bloody pork and lamb, plucked chickens and a brilliant array of vegetables. The fish monger cried from her peddle wagon pool, and we stopped to buy snappy apples from a child with shining teeth. The shops and markets leading to the bustling center of the Haidian District suggested an economic boom. There were crowded computer outlets and huge, modern department stores glazed in blue glass. "This is nothing like Russia," Erica said. "My brother just came back from Moscow. It’s bleak."
But beyond Haidian, through a crumbling maze of hutongs, we saw another Beijing. Two children in filthy clothes played with a dead turtle, dropping it like a stone when a thin woman shouted from the corner. The woman’s hair was matted and she shook her raw hands over a murky basin, staring at us with an expression one might show an animal. People here lived in ramshackle, brick one-stories without toilets or hot water. Grass grew from the cracked tile roof and coal dust lined a littered walkway to a stinking toilet. I didn’t know much about life in the hutongs, but could see it was lean.
We reached the gates of the Summer Palace and Erica asked me the admission price. "Thirty-five yuan," I said.
"Thirty-five! God. That’s how much our dinner cost last night."
"It’s four dollars," I shrugged.
"Still, my God. For China."
"Well. that’s foreigner’s price. It’s only two yuan for Chinese."
"Isn’t that outrageous? They shouldn’t do that. It’s a national monument."
I knew this monument well and as we passed under the east gate, I led Erica to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity where Cixi, the old empress dowager and great aunt of the last emperor Puyi, received envoys and conducted state affairs. Beyond the imperial red columns we peered into the dim hall where life-size bronze cranes held thick ornamental candles in their long bills. Once soft light from those candles illuminated the massive hardwood throne, but today it is dark. There were tarnished brass urns, immense feathered fans, ornate mirrors, and like all palace interiors, the walls and ceilings were intricately painted in florid green, blue and red patterns. As we walked past the lush garden of roses and more bronze animals, a cool wind swept off Kunming Lake. "My God," Erica froze in the shadow of a magnolia. "This place is incredible."
She knelt and took a photo of a bronze deer with a serpent in its mouth. "What does that mean?" she asked.
"I have no idea."
She smiled at me—a long, thoughtful smile—and pronounced, "He who eats the serpent may know his wisdom in death." She could have made it up, for all I know. But the timing and gesture charmed me. It had been a long time since I’d been with an American woman, someone who shared my language completely and used it with accuracy and verve. I enjoyed this. Bai Mei’s English was good, but we couldn’t dance like this.
We entered the Long Corridor, nearly half-a-mile of raised and roofed promenade decorated with thousands of small paintings that bathed us in color. Erica and I gazed into these painted gardens—birds, fish, flowers—brought to life in simple renderings by artisans of a lost world. A pleasant weariness came over me, and I asked if she wanted to rest. Sitting comfortably on the red lacquered banister, I looked at her. The feathered curls of her auburn hair turned softly in the breeze and her face grew more sanguine in the mandarin shadows. A wordless moment. I gently covered her hand with my own. She rolled her wrist and pressed her fingers into my palm. Her hand was smooth and I couldn’t help thinking how much smoother than Bai Mei’s. We looked at each other and I wanted to kiss her. I led her hand to my mouth and kissed her fingers. She smiled.
"It’s really nice being here with you," she said.
"I feel the same way." But there was something else. The flutter of wings, like an unseen bird flushed from the yellow grass. I felt the presence of Bai Mei. It didn’t trouble me, it was more of a surprise. The night before her train, Bai Mei said she was sorry she couldn’t meet Erica, and that I should "enjoy" myself. "You’re free," she told me.
I laughed, "Oh yeah? Free to do what?"
"What you want to do," she smiled and shrugged, pushing a thin sweater into her bag.
Thinking of this as I followed the curves of Erica’s sweater, I wondered what Bai Mei would really feel if she saw us. Perhaps laughter and teasing for holding hands, but what if there were more?
We left the Long Corridor and hiked up the steep side of Longevity Hill. Erica was breathing hard by the time we reached the peak, but the view from the crowning temple was splendid. October light on the glazed roof tiles created a multi-layered ocean of color. And the limpid fall horizon opened like a watercolor scroll from the rough lake to the rolling western hills.
I put my arm on Erica’s shoulder and she eased back. "I don’t feel that great," she said.
"No. I mean, about this place."
I lifted my arm from her shoulder and looked at her. "What do you mean?"
"It does something to me. I felt it a couple times this week. Something about old Beijing. There’s this trapped feeling."
"It’s strange, but I feel trapped." She put her hands together as if catching a ball. "These enclosures."
She pointed at a pavilion to the east. "Imagine a concubine sitting there all day, looking at the lake, month after month, year after year, never going anywhere. They were locked in, forced to wait for that occasional moment when the emperor wanted her. That’s what this is about."
"I know. It’s sad."
"But, you know it was Cixi, a woman, who rebuilt this whole thing after the British burned it."
"She didn’t rebuild it. They did."
I didn’t know what else to say as we walked down to the lake. I wanted Erica to be happy. That’s how I felt. I just wanted her to enjoy everything while she was with me.
Past the marble boat and sagging docks we entered a wooded green where a thick, old man in a threadbare blue suit lifted two, blue-draped bird cages off a rack on his bicycle. Rocking them gently as he walked, he sung to himself then stopped by a bench and unveiled the cages. We walked over and peered at the lovely birds. "Huamei," the man said. Golden brown thrushes with sharp white markings—like tears—around their eyes. It was a popular bird in China. Erica wanted to know how old they were and the man put up one finger, then two.
"They are beautiful," I said. "Where do they come from?"
The man had lively eyes and he seemed tickled by my questions. "From the south," he said. We looked at the older bird, pivoting sharply on its perch, turning its head sideways to inspect us.
"Do you ever let them out," I asked.
"Sometimes," he said. Erica looked sadly at the caged huamei, stroking the bars with her fingers. "Hello, little bird." I felt some urge to act in Erica’s behalf, to open the cage, but I just turned to the old man and asked. "Do you think this bird has a happy life?"
"What?" he said.
"This bird. Is it happy?" The man stooped to hear me better, then stared. "These birds?" he asked. I suddenly felt embarrassed. I looked at the little ceramic dish filled with seeds and the other dripping with clear water. The sun shone through the palace trees and old man bent to mouth something soft to the bird. I bowed and stepped back.
The birds sang in a lovely, high warble that followed us down the willowed banks. The path was deserted and only a rising wind joined us as the song fell away.
The following morning I watched Erica get ready. She emerged from the steaming shower wrapped in towels, her skin so flush and moist it made me shudder, and I turned away so she could dress. In a few minutes she was at the mirror blowdrying and teasing her soft hair into curls that had been permed back in Minneapolis. It took her a long time to get it right, and she exhaled with frustration as a wave flattened against her forehead. There were various creams, lotions, sprays, even perfumes spread out on the table, and I began reading the labels. Then she started her makeup—dotting a little flesh colored concealer under her eyes and rubbing it in. She powdered, blushed her cheekbones, then redrew her mouth with red lipstick. Eyes were last—penciled liner and the elegant tease of mascara on her lashes. It was very careful work, and I was fascinated by how her face changed, hiding the cool retreat of blood long after the shower.
Erica spent the morning touring the Temple of Heaven by herself, and met me at noon outside my classroom.
"Kind of a nice old building," she said.
"The temple or this?"
She laughed. "Well. This building is pretty nice, too."
"Yeah, it is. But watch your head." She looked up, puzzled for a moment, as I stepped over concrete debris workmen had blindly thrown from a third story window.
One of my students approached Erica and said, "Nice to meet you, Miss Erica. How do you do?"
"Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m sorry, your name is . . ."
"Xiao Mei. Welcome to Beijing."
"Thank you. Your English is great."
"Really? That’s very nice of you to say."
Erica looked at me inquiringly. "You know, I would like to see where the students live." She looked at Xiao Mei. "Maybe we could visit your room? I’d like to see your room. Is it close?" The girl blushed. "Oh. My roommates are studying and we have some problems today. Maybe tomorrow? Okay?"
As we walked away Erica looked contrite. "I’m sorry. Was that impolite?
"No. But I think they’re a little ashamed of their rooms. Bai Mei lived in the grad hall before she moved in. What a place."
We walked through the east campus and peeked into the dormitory windows. Cluttered like flagship lifeboats with drying clothes, tin thermoses, books, dishes, cups, empty beer bottles, porcelain wash basins and beat-up radios, these rooms held eight students afloat on twelve square meters. We passed another room and the students were gathered around a little black and white TV eating rice from tin bowls and watching Donahue in Chinese. "Wanna join ‘em?" I asked, and we laughed.
The massive poplars were losing their leaves—broad and leathery—and they dried into yellow shells that scraped along the sidewalk. Squat women in blue smocks and surgical head gear swept the leaves with crude brooms made from lashed branches. I was watching the sweepers when my friend Bill and his Chinese girlfriend came around the corner.
"So you survived Beijing?" Bill smiled at Erica. There were introductions and small talk. "You remember Laura?" Bill said, and I took her tiny hand for a moment. "Yes. How have you been?"
Erica asked Laura if she was a student and Bill laughed. "Come on. I’m not that bad."
"I’m a teacher," Laura said.
"I’m sorry," Erica leaned forward.
"No. It’s okay. I look very young, maybe."
I caught Bill glancing over Erica and he grinned like a cartoon cat. He was tall and he put his arm down around Laura and squeezed her. Laura offered to make dinner for us, but Erica said she wanted to cook. Something Western. I was a little surprised. "You are all working," Erica said. "And I’ve just been playing. Let me cook." She turned to Laura, "Have you ever had Mexican?"
Erica pushed up the sleeves of her grey sweatshirt and started frying beans. Skilled and exact. She operated like a surgeon compared to Bai Mei and her kitchen circus of flying noodles.
Erica was in control, neat. She fried beans and sliced chicken and peppers with deft execution, planning each step and flowing gracefully from the counter to the stove without dropping dangerous things. I asked her if she wanted a drink and she said "Sure." We had a glass of wine together and I left to teach my evening class.
When I got home Laura was in the kitchen talking to Erica. Erica had changed into a brown silk blouse and mustard blazer. Laura wore heels, tight jeans and a back sweater. They both looked good and turned with a warm "Hello."
"I’m sorry," Laura said. "Bill is working this evening. He couldn’t come."
"Oh come-on. He couldn’t take a night off? Let me give’m a call?"
"Let him work," Erica said. "It’s okay."
I looked at Erica, wondering whether she knew something. Was there a problem?
"Really. I’ve been looking forward to talking with both of you," Laura said. "Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with Bill."
I was surprised. I looked at Erica and she tilted her head in sympathetic entreaty. Were Laura and Bill having a fight? "Okay," I said. "Just the three of us. The food smells great."
I carried the dishes from the kitchen to the long, low coffee table in the large room. Creamy green guacamole, golden chicken and peppers, shiny sweating olives, the spackle of refried beans. "Fantastic!" I said, opening a bottle of wine.
We sat on cushions around the table, Japanese not Chinese style and I made a toast to Erica’s cooking and our new friend—Laura.
"Laura, what is your name?" I asked. "I mean, your Chinese name."
She giggled and said it was hard to remember.
"My name is Lou Ying."
"It’s pretty," Erica said.
Lou Ying and I deftly constructed our tacos using wooden chopsticks. She laughed when Erica dropped a blob of tomato on the table. I got up and put on some music—a beautiful violin concerto called "The Butterfly Lovers"—and Laura, now Lou Ying, started talking.
"I just don’t know about Bill. Sometimes I don’t know if he wants to become married or just play. When we talk it’s always such simple things. His computers and the news. We’ve never had a kind of deep conversation, so I don’t know what he wants."
Erica ate slowly, nodding and looking at Laura. "Well, what are your needs right now?" she said.
"My needs?" She looked at me for translation.
"What do you want?" I mumbled through a mouthful of beans.
"Well, that is the problem. Sometimes I really love to be with him. But I don’t know. A husband? I don’t know."
I swallowed, took a long draft of wine and asked, "If Bill asked you to marry him, what would you say?"
There was a pause as she looked past me into the other room. "You know right now he hasn’t a job in the U.S. He doesn’t know what his future is."
It felt a little odd that we were talking like this already, that Lou Ying was telling us all these things. We hardly knew each other.
"Sometimes he says he loves me and says maybe we could spend a life together. Then he says he has no money. And I know it’s true."
Lou Ying took a tiny bite out of her taco, put her hand in front of her mouth and said "Very good." She explained that there were other men who appreciated her. A Chinese fellow working for a joint venture company in Hong Kong, and another in Japan. "I think that guy in Japan really loves me. He calls me once a week and asks me if I need any money."
"Tell him yes, yes," I teased.
"No I don’t need money. You know, I’m independent. And I just got my new apartment here at the university. You know I waited eight years for that apartment."
"If you married Bill would you leave China?" Erica asked.
"Yes, of course," Lou Ying said. "I must wait five years or more just to go abroad for a trip. But it’s just that Bill doesn’t spend enough time with me. I don’t know what to do. Like this kind of conversation. Bill and I don’t have this."
There wasn’t much of a conversation. Lou Ying was talking and Erica and I listened. It was weird. Sometimes she sounded like a frustrated lover, and at other times like a calculating investor.
"I mean, if it were just for sex," she suddenly said. "That would be alright. On Donahue there are women who have extra men as lovers. America is strange, but maybe some women need that. Maybe if I had to live with Bill, I would ask for that. But I need a man who really loves me. Someone I can trust."
I remembered Bai Mei telling me I’m free. Was there something these Asian women understood about sex? Or was it cold practicality? I had always thought of it as tolerance for men’s play, but here was Lou Ying talking about extra lovers.
"You want a commitment," Erica said. "That’s the least you should expect."
"Bill’s my age and I can understand," I said quickly. "He’s not ready to settle down. I don’t know where he’s at emotionally with you, Lou Ying, but I know he cares for you. Hey, for different reasons, I’m not ready for marriage either."
"I don’t have to get married. I don’t know. I like you and Bai Mei— you have a life together."
I was surprised by my discomfort when Bai Mei’s name was mentioned. I was feeling good and thought maybe there was still a chance Erica and I would sleep together. Even after everything that had been said, I couldn’t escape the idea. The music was falling away from something I wanted to say. Then—God. What’s wrong with me? I closed my eyes for a second. I was in love with Bai Mei, yet I would make love to Erica. Did Bai Mei really want me to be free? Would it be alright if I told her everything. It was just sex, I could say. It didn’t mean anything.
What followed was drinking and eating. A second bottle of wine and loose talk on clothes and food. Some of my energy for Erica had subsided and when I got up to change the music I felt heavy and slow. At twelve, I helped Laura with her coat—long, red wool with a fur collar—and told her to call anytime. "I really enjoy this kind of talking. I never say these things in Chinese."
It was just the two of us again, but the hour and the dishes weighed heavily on me. I loaded the sink and Erica lifted her glass of wine, leaning against the refrigerator. "There are some real power games going on here."
"You mean with Bill and Laura?"
"Well, yeah. This woman is dying to go to America. She doesn’t love Bill. He’s a ticket."
"Well. It might be more than that."
"It’s like with Robert. You know Robert."
"He married a Japanese girl who hardly speaks English. He doesn’t speak Japanese. He was there for two months on business and now he’s got this pretty little doll that cooks and stays home while he’s selling knee braces."
"Bai Mei and I have something different," I had to say.
"I don’t know Bai Mei."
I handed a dish to Erica and she said, "I just don’t see a lot of equality when you guys marry Asians."
"I’m not married, but I’ll tell ‘ya. I used to think the same thing. These men who marry Philippine and Thai women. And, sure, it happens in Japan and China. But people do fall in love."
"What do you really like about Bai Mei?"
"She’s great. I mean she’s into anything we do."
"Anything you want to do?
"We like to do the same things—cook, read, whatever. But yeah, she’s keen to go fishing and she plays some decent basketball, which is nice." I smiled, trying to lighten things up.
"Does she have much choice?"
Erica moved to the counter, filled her glass with wine and looked back at me. Her smile had an edge. I answered slowly to dull her.
"Yes. Yes, Erica. She has a choice."
"Do you think she’d throw this away? Your apartment, your salary."
"I don’t think about it like that."
"Does she challenge you?"
"Oh yeah. She challenges me to be patient. Like right now."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Look Erica. I understand what you’re saying. It’s true. A lot of men look to Asia for a different kind of woman. But you don’t know the whole thing. They have power. You don’t see it. But let me tell you. God, I don’t even know why I’m saying this because you don’t know Bai Mei. And you’ve got a lot nerve. Look at—ah—Laura there—Miss Lou. She may be willing to compromise, but not without gain. She has her own power game going. Maybe she just needs some more practice."
"They said the same thing at the turn-of-the-century. Why do women need to vote? They have their own power."
"Well, nobody votes in this country."
Erica leaned toward me. She was hard. "You just won’t admit that men want it on top! The rest is sideshow."
"Enough of this shit!" A tin pot dropped from my hands into the sink and I left the kitchen to pour myself a whisky. I wished Bai Mei were in the room to hear this. Passive, I thought. Like a river or a stone? Like a willow that bends and doesn’t break in the wind. But these words were no good to me now.
Erica bent in the white light. A little bleached and drunk, she stretched Glad Wrap over the dish of beans. I wanted to go in and let her say more, but something else had taken over. I looked up at my cracked, piped walls. I never thought I was giving Bai Mei very much. Never enough to bend her will. It was a strange country, and everything I found was a surprise, a discovery before the capture of ideas. I thought of Bai Mei, her smooth body out of the shower, toweling off before bed. How she silently slipped under the sheets with me. But now there were words. Erica’s words, like the hot water running over the dishes. I knew I could never live with a woman like Erica. There was too much anger behind what she wanted. But I went back into the kitchen. "Sorry," she said, beginning again softly. I listened and washed. I listened and washed the dishes.