The World of Chinese - - Contents -

Born into the glitz of old Shang­hai, the Chi­nese so­cialite dis­ap­peared in the tu­mult of war and his­tory. But in this short story, as a fad­ing Chi­nese-amer­i­can aris­to­crat meets the main­land's nou­veau riche, they dis­cover that the more things change, the more they stay the same


Since she took the call for the in­ter­view, Zhenzhen had been imag­in­ing all kinds of crazy things about Mrs. Wong’s res­i­dence. It was in Man­hat­tan, after all—no mat­ter how lux­u­ri­ous it was, even if it was a pen­t­house on Cen­tral Park, she’d have seen some­thing like it on TV.

“It’s not like I haven’t seen the world! There’s noth­ing I can’t han­dle!” Zhenzhen was pump­ing her­self up.

She felt dis­cour­aged the next se­cond—this was the clos­est she’d ever come to a “so­cialite” like those in China’s Repub­lic era. Ever since she was lit­tle, be­com­ing a so­cialite had been her only dream.

These days, “so­cialite” was a com­mon term that had taken on rather un­sa­vory con­no­ta­tions, but Zhenzhen wanted to be the real thing, like Mrs. Wong. Mrs. Wong wasn’t like those nou­veau riche on the main­land, who got to boss their un­der­lings around, but bowed and scraped with­out dig­nity in front of Zhenzhen’s fa­ther and treated her like a princess. When those peo­ple tried to buy her a de­signer purse with­out know­ing her wishes, they would tell her: “If you don’t like this one, Zhenzhen, it’s fine, just take the re­ceipt and ex­change it for some­thing else.” Nor was Mrs. Wong like those kids she met in Hong Kong, the se­cond-gen­er­a­tion rich with­out tal­ent or skill, who stud­ied at English schools and put on Lon­don ac­cents that they could only keep up for three sen­tences at most.

Mrs. Wong was a true daugh­ter of an em­i­nent fam­ily, the last aris­to­crat, the de­scen­dant of peo­ple in the his­tory books, just like those ladies in The Last Nobles, Shang­hai Princess, Life and Death in Shang­hai, or even Taipei Peo­ple and The New Yorker, whose grand­fa­thers had been im­por­tant min­is­ters in the Qing dy­nasty; their fa­thers schol­ars, in­tel­lec­tu­als, mer­chants, or di­plo­mats; and them­selves stud­ied at Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, open­ing their eyes a cen­tury be­fore other Chi­nese.

At heart, Zhenzhen be­lieved she was good enough to be a belle. After all, there were not many ladies like Mrs. Wong left to­day. After the rough times of the Repub­lic, the so­cialite dis­ap­peared for a few gen­er­a­tions. It wasn’t un­til Zhenzhen’s time, on a wave of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, that her fam­ily was able to send her abroad, to give her the best of every­thing so that she could take her place among a new gen­er­a­tion of re­fined ladies.

A pre­co­cious child, Zhenzhen was born and raised in a sta­te­owned com­pound. Out­side of her sphere, she learned to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween Bei­jing and “else­where,” the com­pound and the “pub­lic.” The sights and peo­ple out­side never put her at ease. When she went out with her fa­ther as a child, as soon as they dis­em­barked at the train sta­tion or air­port, there were of­fi­cials or busi­ness­men there to wel­come them warmly. Bei­jing was the “cen­ter,” and when she went “else­where,” they stayed in the best places and ate the best food. Her stan­dards rose, so did the wings of her eye­liner.

Hong Kong was an­other level up. Her friends were ei­ther the heiresses of prop­erty mag­nates or daugh­ters of high-rank­ing of­fi­cials. Their flut­ter­ing dresses were om­nipresent in the lobby of the Penin­sula, as they sipped Earl Grey and nib­bled del­i­cately (as was only proper) on im­ported mac­arons from France. Nights were spent prowl­ing Cen­tral—but def­i­nitely not Lan Kwai Fong, which was too trashy. She’d go to these girls’ homes; they’d pur­chased res­i­dency through in­vest­ment schemes, and bought huge places at Re­pulse Bay. She’d take a taxi from Cen­tral to Stan­ley, leav­ing be­hind the is­land’s crowded streets. Far off, she could see the sea out of the car’s right win­dow, and to the left, the ver­dant slopes of the moun­tains. All the ty­coons had houses built on the moun­tains, one at ev­ery switch­back, with wide-open views of the sea.

Zhenzhen didn’t have a villa on a switch­back road, but she had a toy none of her friends had—a white boyfriend. Among her group, she’d al­ways been seen as low-key, plain, and in­con­spic­u­ous. How­ever, she would al­ways re­mem­ber the time she

showed up with her blond-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy to a party at her friend’s house; how they all fas­tened their eye­balls on this “artist,” and how this made him preen like a pea­cock.

The day she re­ceived her ad­mis­sion let­ter to the Amer­i­can grad­u­ate pro­gram, she dumped that pretty, cry­ing boyfriend with­out a se­cond thought, and saun­tered on­board the flight to New York.


Aun­tie Wu woke up at 5 ev­ery morn­ing and, after hav­ing break­fast at home, took the Line 7 train from Flush­ing to Mrs. Wong’s apart­ment on the Up­per East Side. She’d start mak­ing break­fast at 7. Un­like the bowl of con­gee and veg­eta­bles Aun­tie Wu ate at her own home, Mrs. Wong al­ways had a Western-style break­fast: egg whites, ham, and whole-wheat toast, or ce­real, al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by sea­sonal fruits, or­ange or grape­fruit juice, and a cup of black cof­fee.

Mrs. Wong break­fasted at 7:30 on the dot. By the time Aun­tie Wu fin­ished busy­ing her­self in the kitchen, Mrs. Wong was al­ready dressed neatly and sit­ting at the ta­ble. Al­though she ate alone, she never made Aun­tie Wu wait. Ev­ery day at 7:30, she would say “Good morn­ing, aun­tie,” and Aun­tie Wu would re­ply, “Why, good morn­ing, Mrs. Wong.” Mrs. Wong would eat for about half an hour, and then tell Aun­tie Wu “thank you” in Shang­hainese be­fore she went into her of­fice to be­gin the day’s work. After Aun­tie Wu fin­ished clean­ing the din­ing room and kitchen, she’d walk around the house, dust­ing, some­times help­ing Ju­lia, un­til lunch.

The past two days, though, had been much more hec­tic than usual. Ju­lia was leav­ing, and Mrs. Wong was in­ter­view­ing one or two young women each day. Aun­tie Wu found it fas­ci­nat­ing, and it made the time pass more quickly. Out of all the young women who had come, though, none were as bright and beau­ti­ful as the one to­day.

First, her skin was ex­tremely fair. Not just her face; her legs and arms were also quite pale. One could see faint out­lines of blue veins un­der her skin, which made her look even fairer, com­pletely dif­fer­ent from those girls that had grown up in Amer­ica. Those girls tanned their per­fectly good skin into coal. If any girls in her home­town in Jiangsu had looked like that, her par­ents would cry. This young woman also had beau­ti­ful phoenix eyes; when she looked at her, they shone like light rip­pling on the wa­ter of a lake, as if a small row­boat had stirred the lo­tuses.

The young woman came early for her in­ter­view; her pos­ture was very straight. Sit­ting alone on the liv­ing room sofa, she looked a lit­tle pitiable. How­ever, her slen­der form, flanked by two Chi­nese screens, looked very nice; much bet­ter than when Mrs. Wong and her fam­ily sat there—they were good look­ing, but old and over­weight; it looked com­i­cal. The grand­chil­dren were tall and thin but bois­ter­ous, all of them re­sem­bling Amer­i­cans, run­ning about and not know­ing how to sit prop­erly.

Aun­tie Wu couldn’t help but walk over and ask the young woman if she wanted some wa­ter to drink.

“Yes, thank you.” The woman spoke with the proper pro­nun­ci­a­tion. She was the gen­uine ar­ti­cle.

Aun­tie Wu poured a cup of wa­ter and brought it over, “It’s warm wa­ter, is that OK? Would you like some ice cubes?” The young woman shook her head, smil­ing. Aun­tie Wu added, “You know, all those kids who grew up in Amer­ica, they won’t drink it with­out ice.”

“Are you from Shang­hai?” the young woman asked.

Aun­tie Wu hes­i­tated for a se­cond. Did she count as Shang­hainese? Al­though she’d worked there for many years, “I’m from Jiangsu,” she said. “And you?”

“I’m from Bei­jing.” No won­der she spoke so for­mally.

“How long have you been in the States?”

“More than three years. And you, Aun­tie?” “Oh, me? More than a decade.” She was star­tled by her own re­sponse; had it re­ally been so long? It was a next-door neigh­bor who had en­cour­aged her to come, who told her that work­ing as a maid in Shang­hai wasn’t as good as com­ing to the States, where she could earn more, and be­come an Amer­i­can. It must be a good thing to be an Amer­i­can, she thought, or else why would so many peo­ple work so hard to im­mi­grate and get green cards? But did hav­ing a green card make you Amer­i­can? She didn’t un­der­stand; she was clearly Chi­nese.

Ten years ago, she hadn’t re­ally wanted to come; she sim­ply wanted to have a look and see what it was like to work for the Chi­nese in Amer­ica. They seemed to be more de­cent and of a higher class; at least, they didn’t treat their em­ploy­ees like dirt. What­ever she did, they’d al­ways say “thank you.” After a while, she gen­uinely didn’t want to re­turn. Her hus­band heard that the money was good, and came over too, work­ing as a la­borer in Flush­ing.

She was later rec­om­mended by her pre­vi­ous em­ployer to Mrs. Wong, be­cause she was a good cook.

Drunk chicken, smoked fish, steamed bran, won­tons, Shang­hai veg­etable was al­ways the same few dishes, but Aun­tie Wu cooked with pre­ci­sion. It wasn’t like the restau­rants; there was less oil and smoke, and more of a home-cooked fla­vor. Aun­tie Wu had thought that a lady who could taste such a dif­fer­ence must have just ar­rived from Shang­hai,

but after she started her job, she found out that Mrs. Wong had set­tled in the States be­fore she turned 20. She had at­tended the best women’s col­leges in Amer­ica and later be­came a high­erup at a large firm. Mrs. Wong wasn’t ac­cus­tomed to speak­ing Chi­nese, and when she oc­ca­sion­ally did, she al­most seemed em­bar­rassed.

Mrs. Wong al­ways had Shang­hai cui­sine for din­ner. She didn’t eat much, and after half an hour Aun­tie Wu could clean up. By the time she fin­ished clean­ing the kitchen, it would be about 7. Aun­tie Wu would dim all the lights in the house and leave. Ju­lia got off work at 6, so after Aun­tie Wu left, it was just Mrs. Wong alone in the apart­ment. Aun­tie Wu took the Line 7 train back to Flush­ing. As soon as she ex­ited the sub­way, she’d see a sea of bob­bing heads. At the New World Su­per­mar­ket there were bread, bar­be­cue, and veg­etable ven­dors; the fla­vors all min­gling to­gether. After she passed them, Aun­tie Wu would get home, where her hus­band al­ready had food on the ta­ble. It was also Shang­hai cui­sine. Aside from the fact that her son worked on the West Coast and she didn’t get to see him very of­ten, she was very sat­is­fied in life.


Who knew peo­ple would be lin­ing up for this job? “Ju­lia!” Jackie was call­ing her. “Yes?” She quickly walked from the read­ing room to the door of Mrs. Wong’s room.

“Send an email to Mr. Wein­berg and tell him I will go to Paris next month,” Jackie in­structed.

Paris again, Ju­lia mum­bled. Jackie Wong was al­most 80, and over the past two years, there had been fewer trips out­side of the States. She still flew to Paris and Shang­hai two or three times a year, though. When­ever this hap­pened, Jackie’s son, daugh­ter- in-law, daugh­ter, and son-in-law would call, ask­ing if Ju­lia could go with her. Paris was al­right, but just think­ing about Shang­hai made Ju­lia’s head ache. Last year, be­fore the plane had even landed, she saw the dark gray cloud of pol­lu­tion un­der the blue sky. She couldn’t de­scribe that color in words. It was a shade she’d never seen in the States.

Any­way, she was go­ing to quit. She didn’t want to do this triv­ial yet ex­act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive work any­more. Pan­ick­ing over ev­ery email and phone call broke a per­son down after awhile. She couldn’t even see her­self any­more, to say noth­ing of her fu­ture. When she first took the job, she was hes­i­tat­ing over whether or not to pur­sue a PHD. Now she’d fi­nally made up her mind—no more time to waste. It wasn’t un­til she sub­mit­ted the ad that she saw how pop­u­lar the po­si­tion was. Of the re­sumes she pulled out from the hun­dreds sub­mit­ted, all were beau­ti­ful, and in their cover let­ters, they all wrote that they’d be “honored.”

Which part of this was an honor? Ju­lia knew that Mrs. Wong came from a fam­ily that was once prom­i­nent back in China. Who cared?

To her, Chi­nese aris­to­crats only ex­isted in Zhang Yi­mou films, and were per­haps a few hun­dred years old; if still alive, they’d have to be zom­bies. Ju­lia was 5 when she came to the States with her par­ents. They moved to At­lanta and started a “Mon­go­lian BBQ” restau­rant. It was hard work, but she never had to worry about not be­ing clothed or fed, nor did it feel like her fam­ily was very dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. Racial dis­crim­i­na­tion was an is­sue, but her par­ents quickly moved to a mid­dle-class white neigh­bor­hood, where peo­ple were friendly, and ev­ery­one got along.

She knew, how­ever, that own­ing a restau­rant wasn’t her fa­ther’s dream. Her fa­ther was an in­tel­lec­tual, as was her mother. She vaguely re­mem­bered her mother had been a doc­tor in China, and her fa­ther a scholar, but he never told her what his field of re­search was. When she started col­lege, fin­ished her Mas­ters, or con­sid­ered doc­toral stud­ies, her fa­ther would al­ways wrin­kle his brow, wave his hand, and tell her, in English: “Not a good idea.” Why was it not a good idea? Her fa­ther had clearly been an aca­demic him­self.

“Daddy doesn’t know any­thing.” Ju­lia had liked to say this since she was young, based on the lim­ited time that her fa­ther spent with her at home. From Dis­ney to foot­ball, her fa­ther didn’t have a clue. He’d al­ways sit at the desk, zon­ing out over a book full of Chi­nese char­ac­ters. Some­times the whole af­ter­noon would go by with­out him turn­ing the page. She asked her fa­ther what it was, and why she couldn’t un­der­stand it. Her fa­ther would tell her, as long as she con­tin­ued to study, one day she would be able to un­der­stand it, and re­al­ize that Chi­nese sto­ries were a thou­sand times more ex­cit­ing than TV.

What kind of sto­ries? Ju­lia looked at this beau­ti­ful, well-dressed young can­di­date, and couldn’t help but fan­ta­size.

The China she un­der­stood from her col­lege ed­u­ca­tion was one in which girls were se­cond-class, sub­sist­ing un­der the dual pres­sures of cap­i­tal­ism and chau­vin­ism. While still in their moth­ers’ wombs, they were in dan­ger of be­ing de­stroyed. They faced all kinds of gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion dur­ing their stud­ies and at work. Even­tu­ally, they were forced to marry and have chil­dren early, and take on the tra­di­tional role of the fe­male. She heard even their sex ed­u­ca­tion was prac­ti­cally non-ex­is­tent. This girl named “Zhenzhen,” though, didn’t look like she’d ex­pe­ri­enced any of the op­pres­sion de­scribed in the books;

when she took her shoes off at the door, Ju­lia saw the Tod’s mark on the sole—more than 500 dol­lars a pair! Ju­lia couldn’t even imag­ine.


Mrs. Wong bought the Up­per East Side apart­ment 30 years ago, fixed it up, and never moved again.

En­ter­ing, the first thing one saw was a bronze Bud­dha from Nepal, a gift from her fa­ther to her Bud­dhist mother. Be­hind it was an ab­stract piece she bought in her 40s, its reds and pur­ples off­set­ting the soft bronze light of the Bud­dha. The sit­ting room had been de­signed by her older half-sis­ter. The high­lights were two North­ern Song dy­nasty screens, which her mother had orig­i­nally brought from Shang­hai. Painted with pines and red-crowned cranes, sym­bol­iz­ing longevity, they had sur­vived the caprices of his­tory. The main piece of fur­ni­ture was a wooden dresser from the late Ming carved with flow­ers, and a glass-topped cof­fee-ta­ble with stone legs. Pink crys­tal on the cof­fee ta­ble im­proved the feng shui. To the side of the cof­fee ta­ble were an early Qing-pe­riod wooden chair and bam­boo bas­ket col­lected by her brother-in-law. The pi­ano was one that she had played for decades; the sound was still pure. When her grand­daugh­ter was young, she’d al­ways sit at Mrs. Wong’s knee, ask­ing her to play Bach, but that had come to an end when the girl grew older.

The black-and-white pho­to­graph by the sofa showed her and her par­ents in front of their old house on Shang­hai’s Av­enue Pé­tain; she was a young girl then. The pic­ture next to it was from her son’s wed­ding in Cen­tral Park. Her daugh­ter-in­law, who was from a wealthy Jewish fam­ily, stood with her par­ents amid the Asian faces. The cou­ple looked nat­u­rally sweet to­gether, whereas the two fam­i­lies, try­ing too hard to ap­pear friendly, ended up look­ing like strangers. The pic­ture after this one was of Mrs. Wong’s mother’s 100th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion. All the women in the fam­ily dressed in qi­pao they’d brought from Shang­hai, in beau­ti­ful teal, emer­ald, crim­son, and ivory. The ban­quet was held at the Wal­dorf-as­to­ria. The old woman was very happy, and joked with all the guests. Later, she whis­pered to her youngest daugh­ter, Mrs. Wong, “My baby girl, you look the pret­ti­est, and the hap­pi­est.”

Mrs. Wong had greatly en­joyed help­ing her mother with the party. Time flowed back­wards as the wine was poured, and she felt like a young girl again: The wooden floor­boards at their house in Shang­hai had creaked; a sym­phony was made by the leather shoes of fe­male guests. She had been very small, and even if she made an ef­fort to look up, she could only just make out the corded but­tons on the qi­pao, and the em­broi­dered but­ter­flies, plum blos­soms and ruyi 1. After she ar­rived in the States, time passed ex­tremely quickly: English, books, high school, univer­sity, work, gen­eral man­ager, CEO. Her chil­dren of­ten said that she should write a mem­oir, and the Chi­nese me­dia ex­pressed in­ter­est, but it seemed to her that the days had slipped past like pages ripped from a cal­en­dar. At night, when she closed her eyes, what she’d see were those qi­pao, draped over pow­dered legs like lo­tus roots, flut­ter­ing as the ladies turned.

It has been four decades since China opened up. After Mrs. Wong re­tired from her cor­po­rate job, she came in con­tact with peo­ple in Chi­nese-lan­guage me­dia in New York. Their soft Tai­wanese ac­cents had grad­u­ally given way over the years into bold, pre­cise north­ern Man­darin, dif­fer­ently fla­vored from her Shang­hai-tinged ac­cent. Mrs. Wong loved mu­sic and art. At first, she helped a few promis­ing young stu­dents study­ing at Juil­liard. As the work in­creased, she set up a foun­da­tion for Sino-amer­i­can cul­tural ex­change. Some­how, she be­came busier than be­fore she re­tired. Now that Ju­lia was leav­ing to pur­sue a PHD, she’d in­ter­viewed al­most a dozen bright young women in or­der to find a new as­sis­tant. All of them had grown up in the USA, were con­fi­dent and ca­pa­ble, but al­most reck­lessly so. To be her left and right hands, to in­ter­act with phi­lan­thropists and world­class per­for­mance troupes ev­ery day, one had to have re­straint. She re­mem­bered a word her mother had taught her: “de­mure.”

This girl, Zhenzhen, was the first Chi­nese. Be­cause her English was good, she’d been rec­om­mended by Ju­lia. She was pretty, dig­ni­fied, and stud­ied only at pres­ti­gious schools. She asked the girl a few ques­tions, found her well-spo­ken, and—ex­cept for the fact that she didn’t have an Amer­i­can ac­cent—able to as­sist her. She was only a lit­tle wary of the fact that the girl was from the main­land— her eyes were too bright, and it was hard to tell if this was a good or bad thing.


Peo­ple’s spir­its are high when they are happy. Aun­tie Wu’s face was full of color. Her beloved son had fi­nally moved back from the West Coast to New York.

Her son was her great­est source of pride. David ex­celled from a young age, and was ac­cepted to an ac­cel­er­ated class, mean­ing he could have en­tered univer­sity at 16. She only kept him be­hind be­cause she

couldn’t bear to have him leave home at such a young age to be with much older kids. He went from Shang­hai’s best sec­ondary school to Shang­hai’s best univer­sity, got a schol­ar­ship to the best PHD pro­gram in the States, and be­came the envy of the neigh­bor­hood.

The only thing that wor­ried Aun­tie Wu is that David never had a girl­friend. Still, she wasn’t too wor­ried; with such an ex­cel­lent re­sume, he could get any girl he wanted. She thought it over, and fixed her sights on Zhenzhen, who seemed more suitable the more she thought about it. She could al­most pic­ture them toast­ing her with tea at their wed­ding; she could al­most see their beau­ti­ful sons and daugh­ters grow­ing up.

Back home, Aun­tie Wu had been renowned for her ef­fi­ciency. At this point, she up­graded her treat­ment of Zhenzhen, mak­ing her nicer lunches, even sneak­ing por­tions of af­ter­noon tea to save for her.

The Chi­nese girl was obe­di­ent and po­lite. After half a month of this game, she sug­gested a date to Zhenzhen, and re­al­ized that her wor­ries were un­founded. The young lady gen­er­ously agreed to go to a con­cert in the park with David— things were look­ing up.

Since then, Aun­tie Wu came to Mrs. Wong’s not just to work, but to see her daugh­ter-in-law. What other po­ten­tial mother-in-law was so lucky? She could ob­serve her fu­ture daugh­ter at close range, and the more she saw, the more she was pleased. Aside from her looks, Zhenzhen dressed ap­pro­pri­ately and could talk about com­plex top­ics and im­por­tant af­fairs. Aun­tie Wu couldn’t help but grin when­ever she thought about Zhenzhen. She fre­quently hinted to her hus­band that there was good news on the way.

After a few months, though, she hadn’t seen any progress. With David so busy with work, Aun­tie Wu didn’t want to bring it up, but fi­nally made a cryp­tic ref­er­ence one night at din­ner. Her son mum­bled some re­ply, but didn’t go into de­tail. Aun­tie Wu was un­happy. Her son was still young and wanted to play around. But if he let this one go, how would he find an­other? Think­ing about this, Aun­tie Wu, who had never been an­gry with her son, pounded the ta­ble and opened her mouth to scold. He looked up from his rice bowl mid­shovel.

“Mom, for­get it. Look at Zhenzhen’s fam­ily back­ground. You think she’d be in­ter­ested in us?”

Aun­tie Wu was at a loss for words.


Zhenzhen found the job in­creas­ingly bor­ing.

From child­hood to adult­hood, Zhenzhen had never had to put up with any hard­ship; when one has count­less ad­van­tages, one stops see­ing them as such. She wasn’t en­ter­pris­ing; she liked be­ing in­de­pen­dent sim­ply be­cause it was fun. Her first job had been in a gallery where she’d dealt with mod­ern art. Her se­cond was at lux­ury brand store deal­ing with bags and ap­parel that would drop in value the fol­low­ing sea­son. They in­volved serv­ing women from wealthy fam­i­lies, young and old. They were not very dif­fer­ent from women she’d met through friends of friends, over af­ter­noon tea maybe, so Zhenzhen never felt in­fe­rior. It felt more like cos­play; if she was the maid, it was just to pass the time.

This job was even more strange. Aside from ar­rang­ing a few large-scale events, Zhenzhen wasn’t very busy. Ev­ery day, she’d come from the Up­per West Side to the Up­per East Side; it was called a job, but to Zhenzhen it felt more like be­ing a com­pan­ion to a dis­tant rel­a­tive, a de­clin­ing aris­to­crat of the noble blood she’d al­ways craved. She didn’t know what was up with Aun­tie Wu, who’d be­come more and more at­ten­tive to her, as if she wasn’t a mere as­sis­tant, but a daugh­ter of the house.

In her free time, Zhenzhen usu­ally just stared at Mrs. Wong and zoned out, think­ing about how her life might have been dur­ing its 80-year course; did she have a care­free 20s like her­self ? Did she have a for­eign boyfriend? Was she pres­sured by her fam­ily to “choose” a Chi­nese man of sim­i­lar so­cial stand­ing to marry? Was her wed­ding a big noisy event, or a be­spo­ken and el­e­gant af­fair? How many of her own de­ci­sions had she made in her life? Now, in her old age, after her dash­ing hus­band had passed away, liv­ing alone in this ex­quis­ite apart­ment—was Mrs. Wong happy? Did she ever re­gret any­thing?

She couldn’t read Mrs. Wong’s thoughts, much less un­der­stand them. She was some­one from an­other era, Zhenzhen thought. Slowly, she lost in­ter­est in con­jec­tur­ing about Mrs. Wong’s life, and turned her at­ten­tion to the dé­cor of the apart­ment, how all the art from dif­fer­ent eras were co­or­di­nated; how the col­ors matched. She thought about her fu­ture wed­ding, her fu­ture fam­ily. Thus, mak­ing plans, the days slipped by.

She was amused when Aun­tie Wu timidly took out her son’s pic­ture. To give face to her el­der, she took the ini­tia­tive to call David and set up a date at Cen­tral Park.

David was tall and good-look­ing; more im­por­tantly, he’d been in the States for a long time and ac­quired a ca­sual air, yet main­tained some as­pects of a tra­di­tional Chi­nese man. The two of them looked great to­gether. Zhenzhen could tell only after a few in­ter­ac­tions that he was dif­fer­ent from the obe­di­ent son in Aun­tie Wu’s tales. While he didn’t have a girl­friend, she had no idea

how many bed­mates he’d had.

Once they saw through one an­other, things got more re­laxed. Dates at con­certs turned to bars and clubs, then—one thing lead­ing to an­other—each other’s beds. They also con­fided in one an­other, es­pe­cially when both were tipsy. David told Zhenzhen sto­ries. Once, he told her about the only girl he’d se­ri­ously dated, an Asian-amer­i­can heiress, who said to him ap­prov­ingly in English: “You’re my first main­lan­der.” Zhenzhen sensed that David had re­ceived a blow to his self­con­fi­dence, so she raised her glass, play­fully, “To my first main­lan­der.” He came over to kiss her. They had sex.

Things just stalled there. They were sat­is­fied with the way things were, and didn’t want to take it fur­ther. Aun­tie Wu started giv­ing her dirty looks, her lunches be­came mea­ger, and there was no more shar­ing of the af­ter­noon tea. Zhenzhen’s mind was nim­ble, and she im­me­di­ately un­der­stood. It was de­press­ing to face Aun­tie Wu, which made her even less mo­ti­vated to go to Mrs. Wong’s.

Her fa­ther was get­ting pushy too; there was no more wig­gle room. The day be­fore, she sud­denly re­ceived a mes­sage from him:

“Un­cle Wang’s son is back from Wall Street. He works at China In­ter­na­tional Cap­i­tal. I’ve given him your Wechat; please make con­tact.”

Zhenzhen didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Her fa­ther had been an of­fi­cial for so long, he talked to his own daugh­ter like he was as­sign­ing work. Not long after, a friend re­quest from “Un­cle” Wang’s son ar­rived on her phone.


Her fa­ther was right: China was so much fun! No won­der so many “for­eign­ers” like her­self elected to stay, even though the air was so pol­luted. After she’d quit her job, she had bought a one-way ticket to Bei­jing, orig­i­nally in­tend­ing to study Chi­nese. Be­fore she knew it, six months had passed.

Ju­lia stud­ied at Pek­ing Univer­sity ev­ery day, start­ing with pinyin. The last time she’d stud­ied Chi­nese so sys­tem­at­i­cally, her adult teeth were still com­ing in, and she only re­mem­bered her teacher telling her to put her hands be­hind her back and sit still. Be­cause of this, she hadn’t wanted to go to Chi­nese school any­more. But it was dif­fer­ent now. She’d never seen so many peo­ple of her race be­fore. Grow­ing up in a white so­ci­ety had given her “face blind­ness,” and she was fre­quently star­tled to see peo­ple that looked like her in all man­ner of oc­cu­pa­tions: a teacher who looked like her, a cook who looked like her, a waiter who looked like her, a driver who looked like her…

In the af­ter­noon, after fin­ish­ing her home­work, Ju­lia would go tu­tor the chil­dren of mid­dle-class fam­i­lies. This job took her all around the city, and she came to know the wealthy areas. These new com­pounds and houses formed a new world be­fore her eyes; her text­books had never cov­ered this pros­per­ous China. All she had to do was play with these chil­dren for an hour, and earned 60 USD for her time. She doubted she could earn such money in the States. The chil­dren were mostly po­lite, fond of study­ing, and full of cu­rios­ity and long­ing about her and the Amer­ica she rep­re­sented.

Week­ends, Ju­lia would go out with Amer­i­cans around Houhai, Gu­lou, Wu­daoy­ing, San­l­i­tun. Some were like her, fresh off the boat; oth­ers had been in China or Bei­jing for a decade or even two—pho­tog­ra­phers, mu­si­cians, film­mak­ers, DJS, bou­tique own­ers…it felt like an Ori­en­tal New York. Even a bar­tend­ing li­cense she’d ob­tained on a whim in col­lege proved use­ful. Not only did it bring her in­come beyond her wildest imag­i­na­tion, it also al­lowed her to find a boyfriend, a “for­eigner” who spoke flu­ent Chi­nese. After he grad­u­ated from Yale, he’d come to PKU to study Chi­nese, plan­ning to re­turn to the States after get­ting his Master’s, but he hadn’t counted on fall­ing in love with Bei­jing. Now he owned two bars, and en­joyed mi­nor fame in Bei­jing’s ex­pat cir­cles.

They lived to­gether in a hu­tong near Gu­lou. Al­though the area was packed day and night, if one took a turn off the most well-known al­leys, to­wards ones like hers, it was al­most as quiet as the Amer­i­can sub­urb where her par­ents lived. The bath­room in the an­cient house had been ren­o­vated by the pre­vi­ous Swedish oc­cu­pant, so she didn’t need to use the pub­lic toi­let down the lane, like the old men and women who were her neigh­bors. Through her boyfriend, she came to know the own­ers of al­most all the trendy stores nearby. Most of them didn’t come from Bei­jing, and some weren’t even from China, so they formed a friendly group of their own. Some­how, in this Chi­nese city where even her own par­ents had never lived, Ju­lia felt she had her own com­mu­nity for the first time in her life.

Of all the jobs that she’d had, the most prof­itable was temp­ing as a bar­tender at big ho­tels. For these Bei­jing fam­i­lies with tra­di­tional par­ents and West­ern­ized chil­dren, ev­ery hour of the day was filled with com­pro­mise. At the wed­ding ban­quets, the chil­dren in­sisted on an open bar, but some tat­ted-up white dude wasn’t go­ing to fly. At times like this, Ju­lia’s race and sex re­as­sured the par­ents.

This week­end, she was go­ing to a newly opened lux­ury ho­tel in the city cen­ter to tend at a wed­ding; she’d

heard it was an­other mar­riage of of­fi­cial­dom and com­merce.


Mrs. Wong re­al­ized that she was old, es­pe­cially after Zhenzhen left.

She al­most wasn’t sure if she had the en­ergy to in­ter­view girl after girl for the po­si­tion. When Zhenzhen was there, every­thing was han­dled very com­pe­tently. How­ever, after she left, Mrs. Wong re­al­ized she didn’t know Zhenzhen at all. She wasn’t like Ju­lia, frank and hon­est, shar­ing her youth­ful am­bi­tions and dreams with an 80-yearold woman. She would just qui­etly com­plete the tasks given to her, and say, “It’s all taken care of; please don’t worry.” Oc­ca­sion­ally, she would hear Zhenzhen and Aun­tie Wu chat­ting, in­ti­mate yet tact­ful. She hadn’t seen Aun­tie Wu be­come so en­am­ored with any of her pre­vi­ous as­sis­tants, but after Zhenzhen left, Aun­tie Wu never spoke of her again. Mrs. Wong knew there must have been some­thing left un­said.

To pro­mote her mother’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Mrs. Wong boarded yet an­other flight to Bei­jing. It felt odd not to have an as­sis­tant be­side her. The plans for­warded by the Bei­jing or­ga­niz­ers showed a full sched­ule each day. She didn’t want to par­tic­i­pate in some of the ac­tiv­i­ties, namely those “face-giv­ing” ban­quets. She was old, and had bowed to con­ven­tion and rules her whole life; maybe it was time to re­lax, to try to get out of what­ever events she could.

The or­ga­niz­ers re­spected her feel­ings, and re­moved some items from the itin­er­ary, but there was a wed­ding they left in. The fam­ily of the bride had helped tremen­dously with the pub­li­ca­tion of her mother’s book.

It was a very lux­u­ri­ous cer­e­mony, rep­re­sent­ing every­thing that China’s new aris­toc­racy could de­sire. As soon as Mrs. Wong ar­rived at the ban­quet hall, a girl in a Western-style suit greeted her, showed her to her seat, ex­changed pleas­antries, and in­tro­duced her to the other VIPS. The groom’s fa­ther was the head of a sta­te­owned en­ter­prise; the bride’s fa­ther was a bu­reau­crat in China’s min­istry of cul­ture. It was a match made in heaven.

The door opened, and six brides­maids en­tered in sin­gle file, fol­lowed by the hand­some young groom in a tuxedo. Tall and up­right, he made Mrs. Wong think of the frat boys she’d seen in Amer­ica. Last to en­ter was the cul­tural min­is­ter with his prog­eny. The bride’s head was cov­ered with a white veil; her train was three me­ters long. She walked with sway­ing steps up to a stage that had been built the night be­fore. Mrs. Wong thought her own mother’s wed­ding must have been like this, held at the swanki­est place in Shang­hai, crowded with guests in gor­geous clothes and per­fumed hair. By her gen­er­a­tion, every­thing had been sim­pli­fied, show­ing not much dif­fer­ence from the chil­dren of the or­di­nary mid­dle class. She tried to pick out some flaws in these nou­veau riche of low birth: The flow­ers were white pe­onies and but­ter­cups; the ban­quet started with cock­tails and tapas; there were three main cour­ses and a veg­e­tar­ian op­tion; and there was cake, as well as Can­tonese sweet wa­ter. The party fa­vors were Wing Wah wed­ding bis­cuits im­ported from Hong Kong; there was no melo­drama, no campy per­for­mances. It was an East-west fu­sion with­out pre­ten­sion, demon­strat­ing the thought­ful­ness of the bride.

As she was think­ing this, the groom lifted the veil, and the hall erupted in thun­der­ous cheer­ing and ap­plause. She couldn’t help but be cu­ri­ous, want­ing to see if this girl was as beau­ti­ful as she was taste­ful. She looked at the oval-shaped face, beau­ti­ful eyes, per­fect teeth…the makeup cov­ered up her youth to an ex­tent, but Mrs. Wong rec­og­nized her in­stantly: It was Zhenzhen.

The bride’s gaze floated down to the stage. As their eyes met, Mrs. Wong could see that, in her youth, she couldn’t hide that glint of tri­umph in her eyes. She was nod­ding faintly, no longer that obe­di­ent lit­tle as­sis­tant; she had sud­denly trans­formed into a no­ble­woman.

Per­haps, Mrs. Wong thought, I have come to China for the last time.

I “t was solemn, tran­scen­dent, and pow­er­ful, and it made me feel proud to be Chi­nese,” said Ji De­qiang, an at­tendee at the twice-an­nual Grand Wor­ship Cer­e­mony of the Xuanyuan Yel­low Em­peror in Xiandu, Zhe­jiang prov­ince—“es­pe­cially,” he added, “since the Em­peror’s sur­name was also Ji.”

Known as the fa­ther of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion, Xuanyuan, or the Yel­low Em­peror, is a myth­i­cal ruler said to have in­vented an­i­mal hus­bandry and united the war­ring tribes in what even­tu­ally be­came to­day’s China. Through­out his­tory, em­per­ors, nobles, and or­di­nary fam­i­lies alike vied to be ac­knowl­edged as di­rect de­scen­dents of the pre­his­toric pa­tri­arch, but his cult fell out of fa­vor after the PRC’S found­ing.

Since the 1980s, the Em­peror’s im­age has been grad­u­ally re­vived to cre­ate a sym­bol of com­mon her­itage among main­land, Tai­wanese, and over­seas Chi­nese through half a dozen folk cel­e­bra­tions staged across China. Usu­ally held around the Qing­ming “Tomb Sweep­ing” Fes­ti­val in spring, these fes­ti­vals com­mem­o­rate many achieve­ments of the sage ruler whose leg­end has been handed down over thou­sands of years.

Among his ac­com­plish­ments, the Yel­low Em­peror is said to have trav­eled to the Eastern Sea, where he dis­cov­ered the se­cret to im­mor­tal­ity and flew to heaven as a dragon from a moun­tain in Xiandu. Ev­ery spring and fall, lo­cals present the “five grains,” wine, and the Jinyun se­same seed cake—a lo­cal del­i­cacy—to speed their il­lus­tri­ous “an­ces­tor” on his fi­nal jour­ney, even re­leas­ing a bal­loon dragon into the air ev­ery three years. To add to the fes­tiv­ity, lo­cal vol­un­teers dress in sunny yel­low robes and tote cer­e­mo­nial flags bear­ing the names of all the tribes who owe their ex­is­tence to the na­tion’s first sov­er­eign.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.