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Thursday, July 14, 2022

Thank You Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen Book

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Thank You Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: The acclaimed, award-winning author of The Resisters takes measure of the fifty years since the opening of China and its unexpected effects on the lives of ordinary people. It is a unique book that only Jen could write—a story collection accruing the power of a novel as it proceeds—a work that Cynthia Ozick has called “an art beyond art. It is life itself.”

Beginning with a cheery letter penned by a Chinese girl in heaven to “poor Mr. Nixon” in hell, Gish Jen embarks on a fictional journey through U.S.-China relations, capturing the excitement of a world on the brink of tectonic change.

Opal Chen reunites with her Chinese sisters after forty years; newly cosmopolitan Lulu Koo wonders why Americans “like to walk around in the woods with the mosquitoes”; Hong Kong parents go to extreme lengths to reestablish contact with their “number-one daughter” in New York; and Betty Koo, brought up on “no politics, just make money,” finds she must reassess her mother’s philosophy.

With their profound compassion and equally profound humor, these eleven linked stories trace the intimate ways in which humans make and are made by history, capturing an extraordinary era in an extraordinary way. Delightful, provocative, and powerful, Thank You, Mr. Nixon furnishes yet more proof of Gish Jen’s eminent place among American storytellers. 

Thank You Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen  Book Read Online And Epub File Download More Ebooks Every Category For Go Ebooks Libaray Online Website.

Thank You Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen Book Read Online Chapter One

It’s the Great Wall!

It was the trip of a lifetime.

“It’s like going to Narnia. Oz. The Shire. The moon,” mused Gideon.

“It is not the moon,” said Grace sternly. But she knew what he meant. China had been no-go for so long that it was difficult not to think of it as a movie backdrop for tragedy and perfidy but as a place about which enticing travel books were written. It gave you whiplash to go from famines and terror to The top of everyone’s must-see list is of course the Forbidden City! and Though the Great Wall can be seen from outer space, nothing compares to seeing it in person. But the bamboo curtain had parted. Not all that wide, really, but wide enough for tour buses to get through.

“I don’t do tours,” Gideon went on, trimming his black beard over the bathroom sink. “Nor do I do tour buses.” Gideon, in truth, barely did other tourists.

But China was China, meaning that you could go on a tour or you could stay home. And yes, this was how the government was going to keep an eye on you. As for whether the operative word was actually “spy”—yes again.

“You don’t have to go,” said Grace. “You can stay home and take care of Amaryllis.” Amaryllis was their four-year-old. And how much better his taking care of her would be, really, than leaving her with Gideon’s parents. For Amaryllis was independent; Amaryllis ate well; Amaryllis was exceptionally mature for a four-year-old. And if Gideon went with Grace, they would only be gone for twelve days. But Amaryllis had a notable interest in body paint, with a secondary interest in walls—in transformational use of color generally—and Gideon’s mother had just bought a white couch. As for what kind of grandmother bought a white couch, never mind. Gideon took the path of greatest complaint.

“I’m dying to go,” he insisted.

“Everyone is going to be speaking Chinese,” Grace warned; Gideon hated events where everyone was speaking Chinese. But Grace’s mother had picked out an Overseas Chinese tour. Everyone would be speaking Chinese.

“You don’t want me to come. You think I’ll be intrusive and opinionated and talk too much,” said Gideon.

“Don’t be silly.”

“What if we go on a regular tour? You know, not a bargain tour but a tour tour.”

“This is what my mom picked.”

Still Gideon pressed on. “Don’t you mind being classified as a kind of Chinese?” he asked. “As if you’re not a real American? Stand up for yourself! Have some self-respect! You’re not an Overseas Chinese! Plus everything will be better, you know it. The rooms, the food, everything. And we can afford it. We’ll treat your mom.”

As for the small fact of Gideon’s gallantry resting conveniently on the raise that she, Grace Chen de Castro, project manager of the month, had just earned, she decided not to mention it.

“This trip is about my mother,” she said. “It’s about her family, who I’ve never even met and who she hasn’t seen for almost forty years. There may be watershed.”

“Watershed” was what they called crying in front of Amaryllis sometimes, especially when it seemed to go on ad infinitum. As for the causes of the potential watershed in this case—well, might that be the Cultural Revolution and, before that, the 1949 Revolution? Might it be the scattering of the family for decades and the losing of everything they had, including, for some, limbs and minds and lives? Sometimes Grace thought her parents would not have divorced had her father’s family not decamped for Taiwan where, yes, life had been a struggle but a struggle of a different order. It gave him a relative sanguinity about life—whereas back on the Mainland, her mother’s father had not only been killed by Red Guards but thrown into a river and left to float out to sea.

“Exactly. It’s about her. It’s about her trauma,” said Gideon—cleaning up after himself, for once, without being prompted. “Why should she be treated like a second-class citizen on top of everything else?”

He made his case directly to Opal of the Perfect Posture, as he called her, for whom the words “second class” were predictably decisive. There was nothing she hated more than to be looked down on. They would go on the regular American tour.

As there was no direct flight to Beijing, they stopped first in Hong Kong, where they rode a big tramway and drank mango milkshakes and ate at a floating restaurant. Gideon and Grace knew they shouldn’t be shocked by the crowding and the stall shops, by the tiny fluorescent-lit apartments you could see into at night, by the laundry hanging everywhere. They knew what that said about how sheltered they were, how first world, how American. They knew that Hong Kong was a rich city by Asian standards. But still—even as they marveled at its steep mountains plunging, gorgelike, to its deep-dredged harbor, even as they gaped at the big ships plowing right through its heart, even as they smiled and nodded at the night ferry, with its worn reversible benches and spunky back and forth—they were shocked.

At the train station the next day, they saw people carrying everything—from pigs to TVs to pallets of bricks—on bamboo poles set across their shoulders. It was a hundred degrees out; there were no trees. There were no bushes. The sun bore down like a giant hot press in some infernal factory. Meanwhile their train compartment featured fans and lace curtains and soothing Chinese Muzak. A potted plant sat on a window tabletop; its polished leaves shone. There were shiny wooden armrests, too.

“The seats swivel,” marveled Gideon. Grace clasped his hand. At home they mostly forgot they were different races, but here it was hard to forget. Not that he was of the colonial class, quite the contrary—his family was Caribbean Sephardic Jewish with maybe some Moorish something, which was to say he was no Brit; his parents’ synagogue had had sand floors to muffle the sounds of their worship. But he was white, with a dark beard and wild-man hair if he missed his haircut by even a week, while Grace was, like most of the people around them, a smooth human with smooth hair. She could go an extra six months between haircuts, no problem.

“We are an interracial couple,” said Gideon wryly.

“We are,” agreed Grace.

“Did you see people looking at your wedding ring?”

She had. “Checking to see if we’re married.”

“As if you could be a concubine.”

“I think the present-day term is mistress.”

“Isn’t that a step down?”

“You’re right. A concubine was at least for keeps.”

They shook their heads even as they gazed at their hands in a way they never had before. How odd that that his forearm hair extended right over the top of his hands, in a kind of feral triangle. Her arms, in contrast, seemed at one with the armrests.

Once out of the city, though, they forgot about their differences all over again. The terraced mountains, after all, the rice paddies, the water buffaloes. The dirt roads and farmers and bicycles. Grace had never thought much about the word “timeless,” but there could be no other word for this—for the orange-brown soil, for the milk-gold water, for the lychee and banana trees, for the bamboo-walled huts—all of them part and parcel of something so large and deep and slow that Grace and Gideon and Opal found themselves moved to an unaccustomed peace. When they did talk, it was about things they had never talked about in America—things like how Opal’s father had often wished to be a boy with a flute. How he would have liked to play as he rode on a water buffalo’s back, herding it in for the night. Instead he’d been the sort of finance whiz the Red Guards had targeted first thing. Opal’s mother, too, had died without Opal ever seeing her again, but at least it had been of natural causes, and not until last year. And at least Opal’s sisters had been able to cremate her.

“You know why no one eats water buffalo?” Opal asked now. “It is because the water buffalo works so hard. When it dies, people feel they should not eat it anymore.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Grace.

“Hope we’ll be treated with as much respect,” said Gideon, adding, “I’ll have to tell Amaryllis when she’s older—to make sure no one eats us, that is. Maybe I’ll put it in our will.”

They were quiet again. It was only after a long while that Opal pointed out a metal something under a tree.

“The farmers like to make a big pot of tea, put there for anyone to drink,” she said.

She explained, too, after another silence, about rice—about how because rice grows in water but weeds don’t, the farmers can use paddy water to keep the weeds down, and about how here in the South, the farmers were able to grow two crops a year. This was the start of the summer crop. That’s why there were farmers hunched over the mud in some paddies, transplanting seedlings. Other paddies stood empty, already planted and flooded. Populated with fish, too, Opal said—carp that would eat the insects in the water, grow as the rice grew, and be harvested alongside the rice in the fall.

“Great system,” said Gideon.

“I didn’t know you knew that,” said Grace.

“A lot of things you don’t know,” said Opal.

Then everyone fell quiet again—fallen already, Grace thought, under the China spell.

The city broke it. At the Guangzhou train station, there were so many people pressing in to gawk at them, they had to walk single file, holding on to the backs of one another’s shirts like Amaryllis’s preschool on a field trip. The minivan toward which Grace, Gideon, and Opal were pointed was the first of the three white vans assigned to their group; they spotted it gratefully. Even in the van, though, they were thronged. Though minivans in general did not attract much attention, caravans of them apparently signaled foreigners; people hung from their balconies to get a glimpse of the Caucasians in their tour group—three of whom, their fellow tour members were all suddenly aware, had bright-colored hair. Tom and Tory were an enormous blond couple from Cincinnati, and their group also included a befreckled woman with a waist-long red braid. Attracting interest as well, although a bit less keen, was Gideon’s beard.

“What are they yelling?” he asked.

“ ‘Foreigners,’ ” said Opal, drawing her pink-lipsticked mouth tight.

Grace had never thought her mother diplomatic. But while many people were not shouting, some looked as though they might well be spewing something like foreign ghosts or capitalist running dogs.

“Am I the only one who always thought the Chinese were quiet?” Enormous Tom—apparently a former football player—looked genuinely puzzled.

Meanwhile, the people yelled so loudly, Grace could hardly hear him.

In the minibus, the windows had been opened because the air conditioning barely worked and because the temperature seemed to be, as it had been in Hong Kong, a hundred degrees. But now the tour group closed the windows. The redhead—her name was Charlotte—twisted her hair into a bun as she leaned away from the window glass.

“I see I will need a hat,” she said.

Her face was colorful, too—bright pink from the heat—and in her hair shone a forest-green barrette. She fanned herself with one of the paper fans they had been given and drank some of the soda. Though there had been enticing ices and hunks of watermelon for sale in the train station, they had each been presented with a bottle of Pearl River orange soda by the tour organizers. This was warm and sticky sweet, with some sort of brown-black sediment at the bottom.

“Probably the soda is expensive,” sighed Opal.

“More suitable for guests, you mean,” said Gideon.

“Yes.” Opal gazed out the window.

They drank.

There were bicycles and carts everywhere as well as buses, trams, trucks, and what appeared to be old Russian cars. All honked incessantly. On the smaller streets, people squatted outside their homes, chopping and smoking. They were surrounded by large shallow baskets of vegetables and what Opal said were pigeons drying; above them, faded laundry hung everywhere. At one corner, there was a crowd: a minivan like theirs had, it seemed, clipped a bicyclist. Happily, the man was okay, but—his bicycle having been one of the many they’d seen heaped surreally high with goods, like something in a circus act—there were now rattan chairs scattered everywhere. People sat on these as if at a show, watching the driver and bicyclist argue and shout. Of course, the tour group was itching to get out and watch, too; they were dying to walk the streets and witness everything close up. But when, at a rest stop, they were finally allowed to climb out, they were mobbed so aggressively that even Gideon got back into the van as soon as he could. The van driver slid the door shut with difficulty, elbowing the mob back.

“I wish they wouldn’t try and touch my beard,” Gideon said plaintively when the door was finally closed. “Because my beard is on my face.”

He made a funny look; Grace laughed.

“And goddamn, I’m hot.”

Grace wiped his face and neck with a Wet-Nap and promised that when they got to Beijing, he could spend as much time in the bath as he liked. (In Hong Kong they had identified cold baths as the way to deal with the heat.) She fanned him, too, as he leaned his head against the window; he had a monster headache.

“Send me home. I am going to die here. I am,” he moaned. “I am never going to see Amaryllis again.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course, you’re going to see her.” Grace hit him playfully with the fan.

“He is overheated,” observed Opal laconically.

“He is,” said Grace, opening the fan back up. She liked the subtle snap each fold made as it opened; what a clever invention, the accordion-folded fan.

The van turned at last onto what seemed to be a kind of highway. It was dusk.

The Beijing airstrip was made of squares of concrete, like an oversize sidewalk. Grace could feel the thump thump thump of its seams as they landed and taxied. The airport was underlit; the hotel was underlit. This might be the full-price tour, but even so the carpeting was thin. The furniture appeared to be not only from before the Second World War but quite possibly from before the First; there was no elevator. The beds were character building. The mosquito netting was crucial.

“Is that a mosquito coil I see before me?” said Gideon.

He had revived.

It seemed blessedly cooler here than in Guangzhou, both outside and in. Still, the woman stationed at the end of their hallway, dressed in loose gray trousers and an untucked white shirt—the apparent Mainland uniform—had trained an electric fan directly on herself. She pinned them with an unflinching look, as if practicing to be a security camera.

“What is the difference between a concierge and a hall monitor?” whispered Gideon.


“One tells you where you should go, and the other just thinks it.”

There were no locks on the doors.

Breakfast in the morning was rice gruel with pickled things and peanuts plus a Western option, meaning hard-boiled or scrambled eggs, and toast with jam. The foil-wrapped butter pats were fanned out on a platter as if to display them. Overhead there were chandeliers, but by their low-wattage light, the carefully set-out coffee cups seemed half full of something more like bouillon than coffee. Happily, Grace had packed some instant coffee powder. She was outdone, though, by Tom and Tory, the blond Cincinnatians, who—owners of a coffee shop back home—had brought some ground coffee beans and a French press.

“Please have some.” Tom generously offered “a cuppa” for anyone who’d like it, holding out what appeared to be a tiny cup in his enormous hand. When no one accepted, he looked a bit crestfallen until Gideon changed his mind.

“Thanks. I bet it’ll help with the jet lag,” he said.

Grace had some, too. “Better than the instant,” she conceded. “Thanks.” She offered Tom and Tory some Pepto Bismol tablets in exchange—which might not actually head off traveler’s stomach, she said, but which many people did say were worth a try, even if they sometimes turned your tongue black.

“No thanks,” said Tory.

With most of their fellow tourists in couples, Grace and Gideon were glad to see several other singles like Opal, although the women (they were all women) mostly seemed travel veterans of a certain type: pointedly participatory people who knew how to define themselves before they were defined.

“You brought your mother? That is so sweet.” Charlotte the redhead, for example, their favorite already, was a musician from Boston who had come as a birthday present to herself. She was less pink today and more freckled; her hair was again in a bun. She carried a cloth bag embroidered with instruments. “I wish I’d done more of that when I could,” she said.

Her roommate Diane, whom she’d only just met, was a retired jeweler. “No sooner did I decide to see the world when just like that! This whole part opened up,” she exulted. Her hair was platinum; she wore diamond earrings and an enormous sapphire ring. “You should see the Taj Mahal. And the Pyramids! But this—this is going to be fabulous. I cannot wait to see the Great Wall.”

Grace exchanged a quick glance with Gideon, who nodded his agreement. It was good they had paid extra for Opal to have a single.

Meanwhile Tory shared how she always had a thing for China.

“The emperors, the palaces, the eunuchs—I don’t know. I took a course in college, and I was what you call hooked,” she said. “It was the pictures. I’d never seen anything like them.” A striking woman in a peach polo shirt and bright blue mascara, she opened her eyes wide as if recalling her moment of revelation. “And then, I mean, that picture of the Nixons.”

“The one in Life magazine,” supplied Tom. “At the Great Wall.” He was wearing the same polo shirt as his wife, only in a much larger size and in dark brown; it was as if her shirt was from the spring line of some manufacturer, and his from the fall.

“We had to come after that. We were what you call compelled,” said Tory.

“And now it’s like her dream come true, only hotter,” said Tom. Having managed to snag two fans, he was fanning himself with both hands as he shook his head. His huge neck rose from his collar like a tree trunk from a ring of leaf mold.

Most people wore vacation shirts with some form of khaki—shorts, skirts, skorts. Having been advised by the pre-trip literature to dress conservatively, Opal wore a beige cotton piqué dress; Grace, a denim skirt and a short-sleeve, button-down blouse. She tried not to ask Gideon why he was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and cut-offs. The real question, after all, was, Should she have let him talk her mother out of the Overseas Chinese tour? For she couldn’t help but ask herself that as Opal gamely fielded question after question over breakfast. Yes, people might like the rice gruel if they tried it. No, they didn’t call it rice gruel in Chinese. Yes, different Chinese people spoke different dialects. Yes, she spoke Mandarin as well as Shanghainese. No, you couldn’t understand the other dialects necessarily. Yes, chopsticks took some getting used to. Though, yes, millions of children did use them, and yes, she could teach them to use chopsticks, too. No, she didn’t know why they were given Kleenex instead of napkins. But yes, she was born in China, where yes, she still had family, some of whom, yes, were “struggled against,” as they said, during the Cultural Revolution. She did not mention her father.

“What does that mean, ‘struggled against’?” Formidable man though he was, Tom tilted his face up like a kitten.

“It meant you were a class enemy,” supplied a man with tortoiseshell glasses—a professor, Grace guessed from his amiably authoritative air. Balding though he was, he ran his hand through what was left of his hair as if to reassure himself it was still there. “It meant you represented the Four Olds—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas—which Mao had licensed the Red Guards to eliminate. Just about anyone who was not a peasant or a factory worker could be tarred and dragged through the streets; you could have signs hung on you and things thrown at you. You could be frog-marched onto a stage so that everyone you knew could denounce you. You could be gagged, beaten, and tortured. Many people threw themselves off buildings to escape; others were pushed.” He paused.

“Interesting,” said Diane.

The professor fanned himself and went on. “It ended a few years ago, thankfully. But the goal of the Red Guards was, like the goal of Communism more generally, to destroy traditional culture, and sure enough traditional culture seems to have been by and large destroyed. What’s left of it is in Hong Kong and Taiwan, although it’s been Anglicized in the former and Nipponized in the latter.”

“True,” said Opal. Grace would have sworn Opal did not know what “Nipponized” meant. Still, she carried on—not wanting to be worked over by the table but not wanting to cede the role of China expert to a white man either, Grace guessed. “The Japanese ruled Taiwan for fifty years,” she said. “And the British have controlled Hong Kong over three times as long.”

“Your English is so good,” said someone.

“I’ve lived in America for almost forty years,” said Opal.

“So you’re fluent,” said someone else.

“I still make some mistakes.” Opal smiled graciously.

“And your daughter is fluent, too,” said yet another person.

“We practice every day,” Opal said evenly.

By this point Gideon was openly guffawing; the professor looked down into this food. Grace watched her mother, who showed nothing.

The tour director was a rosy-cheeked young woman with pigtails, black glasses, and the poignantly stoical look of a young person who had been ordered to stand still; she could have been a trombonist in a military youth band. Her name, she announced unsmilingly, was Comrade something. Sum, maybe? She told them again. Then she told them a third time.

“Ah! Comrade Sun,” said the professor.

“Comrade Sun!” repeated others. “Her name is Comrade Sun!”

“That’s what they call each other, ‘Comrade,’ ” supplied someone.

“Should we call each other ‘Comrade,’ too?” asked someone else.

It soon became clear that though Comrade Sun theoretically spoke English, she did not speak it clearly enough to be understood. Who first suggested that Opal translate in that case? It was hard to say. The idea, though, was quickly taken up.

“Her English is so good! You should hear her!”

“She’s fluent! Completely fluent!”

“She should translate! She should translate!”

Comrade Sun did not acknowledge these comments. However, she looked as if she’d just flunked an exam. The tour members listened extra carefully to her next few statements, as if wanting to give her a second chance. Had Comrade Sun perhaps just gotten off to a rough start?

She had not.

For a moment, the group was all as frozen as she. When finally the professor said, “This is ridiculous,” and even the sweetest of the women tour members began to frown, however, Opal stood, smoothed her dress, and, moving to the front of the room, began translating.

“Comrade Sun says we will have breakfast every day at seven and should be on the bus at the front of the hotel at eight sharp,” she said crisply.

The relief was palpable.

“Thank god, there’s at least one Chinese who speaks English!” said someone.

Comrade Sun adjusted her glasses. And later, as they filed out of the dining room, she touched Opal’s arm. Was that a form of thanks? Who knew? Opal gave a quick nod in response as if to say, I knew something had to happen but that you couldn’t ask for help. Would she have also added if she could have, And I knew I had no choice? It wasn’t clear. When they boarded the bus, though, Opal sat up front so everyone could see and hear her. Comrade Sun sat facing her on a jump seat, splaying her legs like a man.

People might be mostly interested in imperial China, but the first stop was a commune.

“Vegetables before dessert,” said Gideon.

“Why are we headed east? I thought we were going to the Evergreen People’s Commune,” said the professor. “The one Pat Nixon went to. That’s what’s on the schedule.”

But they were not going there. As for why, when Opal conveyed the professor’s question, Comrade Sun gazed out the windshield as if watching for approaching bugs. There was nothing to translate.

The commune tour guide, Comrade Tu—a no-nonsense man missing an index finger—kept Opal busier.

“He says there are approximately 170,000 households in communes nationwide, with 2,000 to 20,000 households in each commune, or 10,000 to 80,000 people.” Opal stood at the front of a conference room, beside Comrade Tu. A blackboard behind them read wellcome! in blue chalk.

“Does that mean there are a million people in communes?” asked the professor.

“I don’t know. You have to multiply yourself. Comrade Tu says each commune is organized into ten to thirty—”

“Bli-gaade,” said Comrade Tu.

And to help her out, Comrade Sun echoed, “Bli-gaade.”

“I think they are saying brigade,” said the professor.

“Brigade,” said Opal then. “Ten to thirty brigades.”

Was a brigade a military unit? Never mind. The two comrades and Opal labored on, informing them all that each brigade had 1,000 to 2,000 people, which was 200 to 400 households, and that each brigade was 10 to 20 teams, with each team made up of 100 to 200 people, or 20 to 40 households.

“Really they should just call it a village,” said the professor.

Comrade Tu replied, through Opal, that villages were feudal. As for whether Opal had gotten that word right—there were several back-and-forths about it—and what “feudal” meant exactly, who knew. Opal went on to struggle through terms like “bumper crop,” “intensive crop management,” “wheat scientists,” “two-wheel tractors,” and “intercropping.” People fanned themselves hard and looked distinctly relieved when, finally finished with the introduction, they were given wide-brimmed straw hats in preparation for touring the fields. As the pre-trip checklist had included a checkbox for headgear, the tour members had come equipped with tennis visors, baseball hats, bucket hats, and sun hats, all of which they now obligingly exchanged for the straw hats. And so Opal did as well, though she had never worn such a thing in her life.

“Straw hats are for peasants,” she said, sitting on the edge of her bed later that night. Her back ramrod straight as always, she spoke very quietly, in case the hall monitor was listening. “We go everywhere by car. No one have to wear anything.” Had someone given Opal such a hat in her youth, it seemed, the assistant chauffeur would have carried it for her. Or else perhaps her maid or assistant maid.

But now, at the commune, awkwardly gripping her folded fan in three fingers of her right hand, she used her other two fingers to tie the hat’s cotton cord under her chin.

The group admired the acres and acres of wheat and vegetables and ducks and pigs. They were impressed by the millions of bugs being raised to eat aphids, and thrilled to hear what an extensive and effective irrigation system the Chinese had in place. And the pig management! Raised on the by-products of a milk-drying plant and a grain-milling facility, the pigs supplied both meat to the farmers and manure fertilizer for the crops. Comrade Tu was at pains to explain how the commune used scientific farming methods to supplement traditional farming ways. But as he delved into the details, the tour group’s attention wandered away from the advances in hybridization and chemical fertilizers, over to the many Chinese students out in the field. Standing around adjusting their hats, too, they looked about as useful as the tour group.

“Are they like the intellectuals sent down to the countryside to learn how the proletariat lived?” asked the professor. “The ones forced to do manual labor, wasting their lives and education?”

Opal translated.

The answer came back: “Comrade Tu says yes and no.”

“Ah. So Americans are not the only people who prevaricate.”

Opal turned back toward the guides at that—refusing to translate this comment out of nicety, it seemed.

Or was it something else?

“The first question was bad enough,” Grace explained to Gideon later on, in their room. “My mom says Comrade Sun writes a report every night. And since my mom is doing the translating, she knows she’ll be in it.”

“And let me guess. She does not want a bad report.”


“Because she wants to see her family.”


“She doesn’t want anything to go wrong.”

Grace nodded.

The commune kindergarten visit, meanwhile, was charming. (“Don’t you just wish you could take one of them home,” said someone. “I mean, they are what you call adorable.”) And the peeks into the commune’s factories and repair shops, too, were impressive and fascinating. In a health clinic, they received an acupuncture demonstration just like the one that had famously made Pat Nixon cover her eyes. Then came a tour of a farmer’s house. Was this a typical house? They guessed not. Yet all agreed it was lovely—a simple, neat, freestanding hut. Though there was only one bedroom for a family of four, there seemed to be extra sleeping space in the living room—or so they gathered from a kind of bamboo stretcher they saw leaning against a wall. The hut’s owner confirmed through Opal that the stretcher could be easily suspended across two benches. She also explained that though she had relatives nearby, they did not eat together.

“So where do they eat?” asked Gideon.

Through Opal the woman said, “In a dining hall with other comrades.”

“Does that mean one hundred percent of Chinese families got split up? Even if you didn’t go to the U.S. and stayed in China, your family got split up anyway?” Gideon asked.

Opal ignored him.

“And was that a public bathroom we saw?” asked the professor.

It was. The woman, though, seemed more interested in talking about how her family had a small plot of land on which they could grow their own vegetables. She described the cabbage they grew, the green onions, the carrots and turnips. She hoped to have chickens or a pig someday.

“From this natural enthusiasm for ownership, you realize, grows capitalism,” remarked the professor.

Opal did not translate that, either.

It was all propaganda, but at least it was interesting propaganda, Gideon said later in their room. And weirdly private propaganda: at one point, when Gideon tried to take a picture, Comrade Sun put her hand over his lens.

“What kind of propaganda is kept secret?” he asked, sitting with Grace and Opal.

“Maybe she’s just been told not to let us take pictures of anything,” guessed Grace.

“Quite possibly,” said Opal.

But at the time, she said nothing as Gideon put his camera away. Here it was, halfway through the first day of the tour, and already, Grace could see, her mother was exhausted.

Comrade Sun ate lunch separately from them, behind a bamboo screen. Though the official tour lunch had five courses, she and another tour guide shared just one. Still, she looked happy. Gone was her military parade demeanor; she and the other guide giggled and whispered like schoolgirls. Meanwhile on the other side of the dining room, another tour group was also having lunch—an Overseas Chinese tour group, it seemed. There was a lot of Chinese being spoken, just as Grace had predicted, although enough English that she wondered not only if Opal would be having more fun with that group than theirs, but if she and Gideon would, too. Was there even a table full of people their age? One of them, spotting her, crossed the room.

“Grace? Is that you? Didn’t you go to Mamaroneck High?”

“David!” The last time she saw him he had just gotten a dog-walking job and was getting pulled every which way by a labradoodle. They had not really been friends. In fact, though he lived in the next town, they had studiously ignored each other, too embarrassed to acknowledge that being the only Asian American in their grade in their respective towns was any kind of link. But now she was delighted to exchange a few words with him. It was like finding a bit of sea glass in your pocket from a long-ago walk on a beach—an unexpected bit of another reality. They talked about stupid things—what they would do for a Coke float. How he’d brilliantly brought a Walkman. Whether anyone in China had heard of Star Trek, or even of movie theaters.

Back at their group, meanwhile, Tory was instructing Tom, “Don’t ask her anything else.” She stilled his fan with her hand to get his attention. “He got hit in the head a few too many times,” she told Gideon as she did this. “Now get him near a fact, and he’s like a dog after a bone. He can’t stop himself.”

Still Tom resumed both his fanning and questioning. “Why didn’t we see any rice paddies on the commune?”

Opal answered that rice was grown in the South, and that the North grew wheat.

“These are mantou,” she explained, holding up one of the wheat buns that had come with lunch. “Mantou is what the northerners eat. Also noodles.”

Tom frowned. “So am I the only one who thought the Chinese ate rice?”

“Tom. Honey,” said Tory.

But Gideon concurred. “I always thought the Chinese ate rice, too,” he said. Even as Grace elbowed him, he went on, “I mean, have you ever gone in a Chinese restaurant and been given a wheat bun?”

“The Chinese in the South eat rice,” said Opal firmly. “In the North, maybe they import rice from the South. But mostly they grow wheat. And because of that they give us mantou for lunch today.”

“Does they mean that they have a South like we have a South?” asked Tom.

“South means south of the Yangtze River,” supplied the professor. “The Yangtze is their Mason-Dixon line.”

“Ah,” said Tom. “I have another question.”

“Well, don’t ask,” said Tory.

Charlotte agreed gently. “I think we should let poor Opal have some lunch.”

Of course, Grace realized, her mother was not going to eat much anyway; the food was too greasy for all of them but especially for her. Even if she took Pepto Bismol as a prophylactic, it was bound to upset her stomach. She was sensitive that way.

Still, Opal gamely lifted some food to her lips now, and blew on it, and took a small bite.

Despite their collective jet lag, the group was impressed by their afternoon excursion to an ivory-carving factory. How could anyone carve ten concentric balls out of a single piece of ivory, one ball inside another and all of them free moving, much less forty-five balls? And yet, hunched over his tools in a concrete room with poor light, a worker had done just that. He reported, with Opal’s help, that it had taken him seven months—not smiling as he said this, though he did smile when she translated his words, as if pleased and astonished to hear them in English.

“There’s something so extreme about it,” said Charlotte as they left. “It’s like all that talk about killing aphids at the commune. And, I don’t know. I’ve heard Chinese musicians can be kind of extreme, too.”

The professor looked consternated as well. “I thought the Chinese believed in moderation. Isn’t that what Confucius taught?”

“He did,” said Opal. “But this is a poor country. People have to eke everything they can out of whatever they have.”

“You mean, whether it is a block of ivory or their capacity for practice?” said Charlotte.


“So they preach moderation when in fact they are completely and utterly immoderate?” asked the professor.

“The way that Americans preach justice?” said Opal lightly; she turned away.

“Touché,” said Gideon.

But Opal turned her back on him, too. She had had enough of everyone, it seemed.

It was a long afternoon.

Later, though, from the safety of their hotel balcony, Grace and Gideon and Opal were at least able to witness their first rush hour, with its broad river of bicyclists, without being mobbed.

“This has got to be the most physically fit population on earth,” Gideon said, and Grace agreed. The grace with which even the elderly swung up onto their seats, their legs clearing their back wheels with ease! And yet more impressive was a certain dancelike synchrony. There was no choreography, of course; nor was there a ballet master. Still, people biked as if there were—they flowed. It was a beautiful thing, Grace said, evocative of the peace of the countryside.

But Opal had a different reaction.

“When I grow up, China did not have so many bicycles,” she complained.

On the corner by their hotel there were three old men with birdcages. The bamboo cages hung up in a tree; the old men sat below them in undershirts, fanning themselves and chatting. Now, that she recognized, Opal said, pointing down at them with her own fan. That was China. This bicycling China was—what? A usurper. A fake. She had never been on a bike, she claimed. In fact, one of the reasons she and Grace’s father had gotten divorced was that he had fallen so hard for the American fitness craze. All he had wanted was to lift dumbbells, she said. Then, folding her fan, she stood and left. Not in a huff, exactly, but with her lips drawn in something very like disgust.

“The translating,” Grace said. “The translating is getting to her.”

“It would drive me crazy, too,” said Gideon.

“And the jet lag. I’m going to take a nap.”

“Me, too,” he said. But as Grace went after her mother, he stayed watching the bicyclists from the balcony. He leaned on his elbows; he got out his camera and took pictures.

“How do you think Amaryllis is doing?” wondered Grace.

This was the first time Gideon and Grace had been away from their child since she was born. She was old enough and hadn’t even cried when they said goodbye, but still they worried.

“Let’s call her tonight,” said Gideon.

“Great idea.”

They had told his parents that they probably couldn’t call, that they had heard it was expensive and complicated and often plain impossible. And that, it seemed, was right. Sometimes you could call from a hotel, but more often you had to go to a post office and wait on a line, and then you might or might not get through. Opal thought they were crazy to try, and sure enough, it was three hours before they heard a ringtone, even with her help. But finally, astonishingly, there was the click of the phone being picked up and the same hello Gideon’s mother would have given a pollster. Then she exclaimed, “Gideon? Grace? Is that you? Are you in China? Oh, Dad is going to be so upset he missed you!” She tried to get off the phone right away (“This must be so expensive!”) but quickly reported that all was well, though did Amaryllis really normally have chocolate syrup on her hot dogs, as she claimed?

“No!” they shouted. And then, “Amaryllis! It’s Mom and Dad!”

“Hi,” she said. The connection was terrible; they could barely hear her, especially as, both trying to listen at the same time, Grace and Gideon had to hold the handset midway between their ears.

“We miss you!” they said.

“Are you in China?”


Amaryllis didn’t say anything; they were afraid she had hung up.

“Do you know where China is?” asked Grace.

“You have to take an airplane.”

“Exactly!” said Gideon. “We’re on the other side of the world! Is it morning where you are?”


“Here it is night!”


“Are you eating your vegetables?” asked Grace.


“Are you listening to your grandma?”


“Did you tell her you’re allowed to put chocolate syrup on your hot dogs?”

Silence. Then, “No.”

“I think yes. And did you put an X on the calendar?” They had made a special calendar, so she could understand how long they’d be gone. When she had X’ed out all the squares, they told her, they would come home.

“Yes,” she said.


“I put an X on every square,” she said. “Now you can come home.” Then there was watershed. “I want you to come home!” she bawled. “I want you to come home! And I mean now! Now! I mean now!”

Grace and Gideon tried not to think how much it was costing to calm her down. But when finally they got off the phone, Grace cried, too—cried and cried, she wasn’t sure why. Back in their room, she took a cold bath, thinking that might help, and it did. But when she dried off, she was still not herself.

“Think how many times your mother must have wanted to go home,” said Gideon sympathetically. “Is that it?”


“It must have been hard,” he pressed.

And suddenly she remembered why she had married him—all that keeping at things, all that getting to the bottom of things. All that insistence on finding the words for things.

“I guess I am,” she said, after a moment. “I guess I am thinking about it.”

“Your mother’s mother must have really missed her.”

“It must have been terrible never to see her again as long as she lived. To wonder how she turned out but not to really know.”

“And to never get to meet her husband or children.”

“All of whom probably spoke English, she must have realized.”

“To miss all of it.”

“And not to have this daughter there for her old age, either.”

“And for her daughter, too—to have no mother.”

“To be missing a limb, in a way.”

“To be missing more than a limb.”

“It must have been hard.”

They watched the fan turn this way and then, after a pause, back. The mosquito coil flared, then died, then flared again as they sprinkled each other with talcum powder, which really did help with the stickiness even if it clumped up. Then they lay awake in the dark and listened to the Chinese street noise. Their bodies were still on American time—on Amaryllis time, as Grace thought of it. Amaryllis would just be waking up now—untwisting her pajama top and kicking her covers to the floor.

The next day was the Forbidden City. Those red walls! Those golden roofs! That white marble axis! The parade of gargantuan pavilions was staggering. And the layout—this had to be the largest rectangle on earth. One hundred eighty acres. Nine hundred eighty buildings. The scale of it was hard to comprehend. Of course, it took a million workers to build. And even so—how had the Chinese gotten it done in fourteen years?

Gideon winked. “They must have had a project manager like you.”

Grace laughed.

So overwhelming were the sights that the tour group had a day off from being gawked at. People did point and stare, but by and large they were distracted by the vast stone courtyards and commanding stone lions and enormous bronze cauldrons. And for Opal, too, it was a day off. As everyone could understand the local guide’s English, it was not Opal but the arithmeticians in the group who were kept busy. If the perimeter walls were 7.9 meters high, how high was that in feet? And if they were even wider at the base than they were at the top—8.62 meters—what was that? And if the moats were 52 meters wide—?

Where had their guide gotten her British accent? Never mind. She recited, “The Forbidden City was built in 1420, during the Ming Dynasty. It has been the home for twenty-four emperors. Because that was the feudal time, the common man was not allowed to come in. That is why it is called the Forbidden City. In feudal times, people say it has 9,999.5 rooms—just one-half room less than the Jade Emperor’s palace in heaven. But more recently modern science found out it actually has but 8,707 rooms.”

“Wow. How would they have ever figured out a thing like that without modern science?” said Gideon.

“It has four gates, the main entrance is called the Meridian Gate. The Meridian Gate has five holes.”

“ ‘Holes’?” said Gideon.

“I think she means openings,” said Grace.

“Behind the Meridian Gate lie five marble arch bridges which are leading to the Gate of Supreme Harmony. The Meridian Gate was the place for the emperor to issue the imperial edict. Here he granted spring pancake at the beginning of spring. He also granted bean paste cake on Dragon Boat Festival, and rice cake with bean paste on Double Ninth Day.”

“Food, food, food,” said Gideon.

“In Ming Dynasty, if the minister had violated the dignity of the imperial family, he would suffer the punishment of spanking buttocks in front of the Meridian Gate. Initially this punishment was quite symbolic. However, it was developed to beat someone to death or, as the saying said, ‘Push out to the Meridian Gate to be beheaded.’ Today, thanks to our late great leader, Chairman Mao, this backward practice has been discontinued.”

“Well, whew, though wasn’t your grandfather effectively killed by Mao?” said Gideon.

The group toured the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, the Hall of Preserved Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.

“Power, straight up,” said Gideon.

And indeed, the tour guide seemed at once proud of and disgusted by the sights. Feudal, backward, proletariat, she said. Landlords, oppression, revolution. And Liberation, Liberation, Liberation, especially after Liberation. But shouldn’t the phrase be “after the Liberation”? Grace thought.

Opal, meanwhile, listened intently to everything, her guidebook in her hand. Stopping here and there to examine something more closely, she seemed distinctly happy not to have to stick right by Comrade Sun’s side. Nor did she seem particularly close to Comrade Sun in the afternoon, when they toured the Summer Palace, with its glorious classical gardens and beautiful lake. Like everyone else, she enjoyed the two boats on the itinerary—one a dinghy in which they could row themselves around, and the other the palatial marble pleasure boat that the Empress Dowager built, people said, with funds earmarked for a navy—one of the disastrous decisions that led to China’s century of humiliation. But when Grace got out a notebook to take notes, and Comrade Sun started to stop her, Opal looked over.

“What are you writing?” said Comrade Sun.

“Nothing,” said Grace.

“Put it away.”

“Why should she?” said Gideon.

“She’ll put it away,” said Opal, patting Comrade Sun on the arm. “Don’t worry.” She smiled.

And at that, Comrade Sun hesitated but then turned away so calmly that Grace asked her mother about it that night.

“Are you friends with Comrade Sun?” she asked.

“Shh.” Opal nodded toward the hallway.

“I’m being quiet,” said Grace.

“Not quiet enough.”

Gideon opened the door, leaned out theatrically, and gave them a thumbs-up.

“Are you some kind of friends?” asked Grace again.

“We are not friends.”

“Then how come she just turned the other way when you said that about my notebook?”

“Because that is how Chinese people behave.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have some guanxi, that’s all,” said Opal. “Some relationship.”

“You mean you scratched her back, so she’ll scratch yours,” inserted Gideon.

“No,” said Opal. “It is more, I see she is having some trouble and try to help, and in her heart she appreciates that.” She paused. “This is Comrade Sun’s first tour. If people complain, she will have a lot of trouble. But actually, she did not even ask to give this tour. Actually, her big-shot father arranged it.”

“Even though her English isn’t great,” said Grace.

“Yes. As she knows. But she has no choice. As I understand.”

“Which no one else on the tour would probably get,” said Grace. “Which people on the tour would probably just complain about.”

“I understand them, too,” said Opal. “They paid a lot of money.”

“So I guess it’s pretty lucky she has a Chinese speaker on the tour,” said Grace. “Comrade Sun, I mean.”

“That is what she says,” said Opal thoughtfully. “She says she is just lucky I am not one hundred percent American.”

“But you are,” Grace objected. “You are one hundred percent American.”

Opal closed her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said.

Before Opal could see her family, there were the Ming Tombs. Or rather, the Ming Tomb, singular, as only one of the thirteen royal tombs scattered throughout the hills had been excavated. What’s more, there was almost nothing of that tomb’s contents to see because, as Comrade Sun quietly told Opal, during the Cultural Revolution Red Guards had not only ransacked the museum but exhumed the remains of the emperor and empress, that they might be posthumously denounced and burned. Still, the parade of stone animals along the Sacred Way was impressive. And that, of course, was just the precursor to the Great Wall.

The Great Wall, the Great Wall! For all the buildup to their big stop, no one was disappointed, not even Tory. The mountains from which the wall rose like the ridge of a lizard’s back were so dramatic to begin with, so intimidatingly steep and rugged that, though vegetation could grow on them—as evidenced by some sporadic green—not even the Chinese were trying to farm their slopes. And the scale of the thing! The local tour guide explained how the wall actually included many sections, with some connecting up to the main wall but some not. The sections varied widely in height and width, but the entire thing with all of its branches was believed, she said, to measure over twenty thousand kilometers.

“How many miles is that?” asked Tory.

“Twelve thousand,” answered Tom.

“Twelve thousand miles,” echoed Tory then, her eyes wide.

“It is simply mind-boggling,” said the professor. He adjusted his sunglasses as if to get a better look.

The wall went all the way from the Yellow Sea in the east to Xinjiang province in the west and, the guide explained, was more than just a wall, really. Really it was a series of connected watchtowers—as many as twenty-five thousand of them—with associated barracks, armories, and stables. And yes, it was very old. Though the part they were visiting dated, like the Forbidden City, from the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huang started the wall in 220 BC.

“What year was the Forbidden City built again?” said Tory.

“1406,” said Tom, “when that Ming emperor moved the capital to Beijing, remember?”

“And here we thought that was old,” said Charlotte.

“It’s practically new construction,” said Gideon.

Everyone laughed—including Opal, Grace noticed.

Of course, the guide told them, many of the older parts of the wall had disintegrated, as they were made from rammed earth.

“Meaning mud, basically, right?” said Diane.

Later sections, on the other hand, used stone or brick and included parapets on either side, with an enormous elevated roadway between them. The parapets provided protection for archers and other soldiers, and the roadway allowed troops to move back and forth, not only on horseback but in carts and chariots.

“In other words, they should really have called it the Great Highway,” said Gideon.

“And all this to keep the barbarians out,” said the professor.

As for just why the North was so full of uncivilized marauders, no one seemed to know. But the wall was meant to hold off the Xiongnu and the Jurchens and the Mongols, among other tribes, not that it always worked. The Mongols did get through, and so did the Manchus who, marching through a major pass with the help of a turncoat general, toppled the Ming Dynasty.

“I take it back. Forget the Great Highway, it should really be called the Great Try,” said Gideon.

By the end of the day, it wasn’t only Tom and Tory who dragged their feet, wanting to buy one more red bean ice; it wasn’t only they who begged for one more chance to sit on the warm stones, taking in this epic folly. Everyone begged—Opal and Gideon and Grace, too. When they got back to the hotel, though, Opal grew pensive. They were traveling the next day to Shanghai.

If for others the Great Wall had been Mecca, for Grace it was Shanghai. She knew that the Shanghai her mother had grown up in—the 1930s Shanghai of cars and dances and magnums of champagne—was gone. And so too, thankfully, was the Shanghai that came next, the Shanghai of the vicious Japanese occupiers ruling the streets with their bayonets. But she knew, too, that when Opal came to America for graduate school, she had never imagined she was saying goodbye to it all—that its time was up and that she would get stuck in the land of meatloaf and turkey. How strange to hear from a distance first about the 1949 Revolution, and then the Great Leap Forward, and then the Great Famine, and then the Cultural Revolution; it was like one earthquake followed by another and another and another. She had gleaned a little about the upheavals through a letter here and there—the precious few that reached her. But mostly she had learned about them through American reporters, some of whom reported things so preposterous she had thought that surely they or she—someone—had misunderstood something; there had to be a mistake. Sadly, the Communists themselves were conceivable: bands of Communists had been raiding the countryside for years before Opal left. But the Red Guards! No foreign barbarians could match these homegrown marauders. The stories were hard to believe—not only of people being humiliated and terrorized in every way but of people being turned in by their own children. Who were these animals that had broken into Opal’s father’s study and ripped up his priceless paintings? What were they, that they had thrown her father into the river and left him to drown, that they had bound the hands of her mother and sisters, and forced them to watch as his body floated out to sea? And could all this really have been happening while Opal was trying to figure out what a Jell-O salad was? Life wasn’t easy for her and her then-husband, Ronnie, all alone in the weird place that was America; they lived for a while near a football stadium, one of the weirdest places of all. Yet it was, in comparison, nothing.

Grace knew all this.

And now as Opal stood in the lobby of their Shanghai hotel—an improbably grand if half boarded-up art deco lobby with a gilt sunburst clock, and exuberant old grillwork—Grace tried to square the decades of trauma with the cluster of women huddled around her mother. Somehow, because their history was so epic, she had expected that her aunts would be larger. But though one stood a half head taller than the others, two were actually smaller than Opal, who even with her perfect posture was all of five feet tall. Sensible shoes, dark pants, white shirts, glasses, dyed black hair; Opal’s hair seemed, in contrast, gaily streaked with gray, as if to fit in with her striped theme. Indeed, in a pink-and-white-seersucker dress, she evoked nothing so much as a candy striper. But otherwise the aunties were variations on the theme that was Grace’s mother. Not only did they have Opal’s posture, they had Opal’s thin-lipped mouth and Opal’s wide-set eyes. And they were crying Opal’s cry—a hiccupy sob—in an oddly contrapuntal way. Theirs was, somehow, a quartet of happy lament, at once eerie, joyful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming. Then the crying turned to babble as Grace was grabbed roughly, and associated, she gathered, with Gideon.

“Daughter,” said one of the short aunts.

She spoke English!

“Yes,” said Opal. “This is my daughter, her name is Grace. And this is my son-in-law.”

“My name is Gideon,” said Gideon.

“Oh! So tall!” said the aunts—or so Grace gathered from the way they craned their necks.

Gideon, who was five foot seven, grinned. “And I have a beard,” he said, bunching it and pulling it forward as if offering to let them touch it. But they laughed and shrank back.

“Beard,” said the English-speaking auntie. She was auntie number two. Opal herself was number one, and the other two aunties were numbers three and four, with number four—the baby—being the tall one. Though Opal was the oldest, she looked younger than her sisters—plumper and healthier, with better teeth and brighter eyes. And her sisters’ hair was, it seemed, dulled by their hair dye; it looked to Grace like doll’s hair.

“You mother is very fat,” said second auntie.

“Ah,” said Grace.

“Because she lives in America, you see.”


“There is so much food there.”

“There is.” Grace wondered if she should explain that there was so much, some people had to go on diets.

But no. Now came so much more chatter she was not sure it would ever tail off—many presents, too. Her mother’s eyes brimmed with tears even when she was laughing. Then finally the sisters all relocated to Opal’s hotel room. It was not clear that outsiders were allowed upstairs. As the hall monitor seemed to be on a break, though, they were able to talk awhile before she returned. Was the hall monitor now deliberately pacing back and forth down at their end of the corridor, though? They listened, decided they were okay, and then—as Opal teared up again—changed their mind. Gideon scouted and when the hall monitor disappeared around the corner, gave a signal. The aunts then escaped with surprising stealth—a practiced stealth, it almost seemed, as if they had executed this maneuver before.

As for what they had been talking about, Opal, surrounded by presents, was too upset to explain.

“A lot of things,” she said. “Too many things.”

She closed her eyes; she needed a bath. Grace drew the water for her. The Victorian tub had a rolled edge and rubber stopper but sat on a wooden base—its claw feet having no doubt been melted down for some backyard steel furnace during the Great Leap Forward. She left Opal alone.

The tour group visited the Bund in the morning, strolling along the waterfront and marveling at the European buildings. Could this be China? They took pictures of the Shanghai Custom House Building, of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and of the copper-roofed Peace Hotel. The way the Huangpu River wound past the colonial buildings reminded them of the way Victoria Harbor wound past the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, except that Hong Kong had had skyscrapers on both sides of the waterway. Shanghai, its poor cousin, boasted big buildings on one side but only rice paddies on the other.

They all enjoyed the walk. But then right after lunch and before a shopping excursion—including a stop, if they liked, at a custom-order coat place—the aunties suddenly appeared. At that moment, too, to Grace’s surprise, a minivan pulled up outside the restaurant. Were she and Opal and Gideon really being allowed to break from the group? And to go on an independent excursion? How was that possible? Who had arranged it?

“Was it Comrade—?” Gideon started to ask, but Grace kicked him.

“Just get in,” Opal said.

Grace did not dare ask where they were going, but she noticed that even her aunties were quiet and attentive. They were not babbling or crying. They were sitting on the edges of their seats, monitoring every turn, as if afraid of being abducted.

Finally they were ushered into a nondescript institutional building. A few windows, then a huge hall with high ceilings, from which hung bare fluorescent tube lights and a smattering of fitfully turning fat-bladed ceiling fans. Under these towered row after row after row of what could almost have been the nightmare bookstacks of some student’s anxiety dream, except that their endless shelves were not lined with books. Rather they were lined, from floor to ceiling, with what looked like large rectangular metal mailboxes.

Grace looked inquiringly at Opal.

“My mother,” she explained.

They were not mailboxes. They were boxes of ashes.

Opal’s mother’s box was number 18,669. Grace’s aunties were at great pains to say how lucky they were that their mother’s receptacle was at eye level, rather than up near the ceiling or down by the floor, and that it included a pull-down brass ring into which flowers could be placed. They had brought a cone of white chrysanthemums for Opal to insert; Opal nodded, lifting her arm. She placed the flowers in the ring. She bent her head and closed her eyes. But then she melted into her sisters’ arms, weeping as Grace had never before seen her mother weep.


Grace would have glared at Gideon had he said anything and had she been able to take her eyes off her mother. But he did not and she could not. It was as if Opal’s very bones had turned into tears—as if she had turned into a river of grief such as might never return to human form. And she was wailing—or, no, not wailing. Keening? Making wave after wave of a sound Grace had not known her mother could make, if her mother was even making it; it was hard to tell if it was coming from Opal or her sisters. Grace did not know what to do until its pitch dropped, and it subsided to something more like sobbing.

“Mom?” she said then, helplessly. “Are you okay, Mom?”

Opal put a hand out to reassure her.

But her hand was wet and hot, and she did not look like herself. It wasn’t just that her face was pink and swollen, or that she could not stand up straight. She looked like a usurper, a person pretending to be Opal. The old Opal had of course known that her mother had died peacefully—thankfully—unlike her father. Of heart problems, in her sleep, the old Opal would have answered, if asked. The old Opal would have said that her mother was lucky. But this Opal understood what the old Opal had previously only known. This Opal understood that for years and years and years, she, her mother’s daughter, had been unable to go home. And standing here now, in this room, with her sisters, this Opal understood she never could.

When Grace and Gideon called home again that night, Gideon’s mother reported that Amaryllis had ruined the couch.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it,” said Gideon. “We’re coming home soon.”

And to Amaryllis, Grace said the same thing. “We’re coming home soon.”

“I want you to come home now!” Amaryllis was crying the way she had on the last call. “I mean now! Now! Now!”

“Now, now.” Gideon cracked his knuckles. “Be a big girl.”

But Grace said, “I want to come home, too. I want to come home, too.” And, “We’re coming as soon as we can. I promise. We’re coming home now.” She was shouting into the phone.

In the morning Gideon ribbed Grace for packing so quickly.

“Packing time is not flying time,” he said gently. “You’re not going to get us home any faster.”

Still she raced. She was glad that they made their flight without incident. She was glad that they took off on time. She was glad that they were projected to land early. In the meantime, she could not nap. She could not read. She could not watch a movie. She just wanted to be home.

It wasn’t until dinner was being served that she finally relaxed enough to ask her mother if she had done a favor for Comrade Sun knowing she might need a favor in return.

“Not so simple,” Opal answered, prying the tinfoil lid off her rectangular dinner container; like Grace, she had gotten the noodles. She left off her efforts for a moment so the lid could cool, then pried some more, though the gray-brown noodles, once revealed, looked more like plastic than like food. “In many ways, China is completely changed,” she went on. “But in one way, China is the same. I understood her heart. She understood mine.” She pulled her chopsticks from their paper sheath. “That’s what I told my mother in heaven.”

Grace stopped. “Your mother in heaven?” She had never before heard Opal say anything about talking to anyone in heaven. “And what did your mother say?” she asked, unsheathing her own chopsticks.

“She said, the people understand you, they are your home now.”

Grace nodded and picked up a droopy bit of carrot.

“That’s beautiful,” she said. “Although what about the people who don’t understand you? Did you ask your mother about them?”


“And what did she say?”

Opal stared at her dinner a moment. “She said, you will translate for them all the rest of your life.” Then she put down her chopsticks and closed her eyes. 

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