The first thing I can distinctly remember was spending the day at the zoo with my parents. It’s such a clear memory, but maybe that’s because I’ve meditated on it so many times over the years. Every time I think about it, I realize something new, something that I wasn’t prepared to consider before.
It was a sunny day, warm but not too hot. I was riding around the zoo on dad’s shoulder. It was my first real experience with animals, with nature. Being a child, I couldn’t help but show off what I knew. Dad would walk past one of the habitats, and I would stop and point and yell out the name.
He took me to the lion’s den first. “What’s that one?”
I pointed into the den. “Shizi!”
“Very good.” We’d move to the next habitat – the elephants. “What’s that one?”
“Daddy, where are the dragons?”
“Dragons?” He laughed – father laughed a lot more back then. “There are no dragons, honey.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” We moved on to the next part of the zoo, and that was the end of the discussion.
What I didn’t realize – what I only concluded recently – was that this visit was more than a family expedition. It was training. It was always training.
* * * * * * *
Lidia groped around in the half-light, eventually seizing something that she sincerely hoped was the phone. “Lidia. Who is this?”
“Miss Zhang? This is Alice.”
“Alice?” Lidia rubbed her eyes. “This is my day off. Why are you calling?”
“You were asleep? I am sorry.”
“It’s all right. I’m up now.” Lidia sat on the edge of the bed. “Just tell me why you’re calling.”
“There is a problem at the office. Martin is…” There was yelling in the background – nothing Lidia could make out, but the sound was unmistakable. “…Please come here very fast.”
“All right. I can be there in…” Lidia squinted at the clock. “…Twenty minutes. Okay.”
“Okay. Please hurry.”
Lidia quickly dressed, ignoring breakfast and teeth-brushing to shave off a few minutes. Her curiosity had overwhelmed her exhaustion. In a matter of minutes, she was out the door, down the stairs, and onto the street. The elevator was unusually slow – too many people, too many stops.
When the door finally opened at the twelfth floor, it opened onto screaming.
“WHAT DID I DO WRONG? TELL ME WHAT I DID WRONG!”
Martin was at the reception desk, looking like a animal half-crazed with pain. Huang Yan was trying to keep the situation under control, but she was also on the verge of tears herself.
Lidia sprinted to the desk. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on?” Martin’s face was turning red. “Why did you fire me?”
“What are you talking about?” said Lidia. “I didn’t fire anyone.”
“Don’t lie to me! This was on my door when I woke up!” Martin slapped a document on the counter – a notice of termination. The notice was unfamiliar to Lidia – she hadn’t yet felt the need to use one, and had never seen one in person.
“I’ve never seen this,” said Lidia, examining the notice. “My signature’s not on it anywhere.”
“What did I do?” Martin was tearing up. “I did everything right. What did I do?”
Lidia turned to Huang Yan. “Where did this come from?”
“Uh…” Huang Yan was barely keeping it together. “I get a call from the company. The staff filed this.”
“That doesn’t make any…” Lidia looked back at Martin. “I’m looking into this. Sit down and wait for me.”
Lidia took the notice and headed back to her office. There were a few other teachers milling around, but she didn’t take the time to acknowledge any of them – there was too much to do. Shutting and locking the door, she took a seat and dug through the drawers on her desk until she found her contact form and hastily dialed up the head office.
“Qingxi Yanli Jiaoyu. Zao an.”
“Give me Caris Healey.”
“Who is calling?”
“Lidia Zhang, director of the Suzhou branch. It’s urgent.”
“One moment please.”
While she waited, Lidia took a closer look at the notice. Since the teachers were under contract, it was actually a dissolution agreement, to be signed by both the teacher and someone from the company. This particular document, however, claimed some breach of contract by the teacher – the signatures were strictly for the files. Lidia couldn’t find anything on the document that suggested a reason for termination, and she couldn’t think of anything Martin had done that would be in breach. More than that, she couldn’t figure out how they could have filed this document without her permission.
Click. “Caris Healey.”
“This is Lidia Zhang in Suzhou.”
“Good morning, Lidia! How’s the position going? I keep meaning to call…”
“One of my employees just received a notice of termination, and it wasn’t from me. I’d like an explanation.”
There was a pause at the other end. “I don’t understand. Could you give me the details?”
“What details?” Lidia stood up and began to pace, a vain effort to work off some nervous energy. “Martin Prosser had this notice sent to him this morning. I come in, he’s screaming about being fired. But I don’t see how that’s possible, because I didn’t file this, nor did I request it be filed. So please tell me how this could have happened.”
“I am in charge of personnel, am I not?”
“One second please.” There was a muffled conversation at the other end. Lidia couldn’t make out much – just a lot of frantic whispering. “Okay, sorry. Yes, you are in charge of personnel at your branch, but the central office can issue its own orders if we feel that it is necessary. In this case, we felt that it was inappropriate to keep this teacher on in light of the information we’ve received.”
“What information? There haven’t been any complaints from the schools.”
“This is based on what your branch sends to us. The information he’s filed is very incomplete, which is a red flag. Additionally, we have received comments that suggest that his demeanor is inappropriate for a teacher.”
“Demeanor? What does that even mean?”
“I can pull up the exact statement if you’d like, but it’ll take a few minutes.”
“Don’t bother.” Lidia paused, tapping her fist against her forehead. “Is there anything I can do to appeal this?”
“I’m sorry, no. Directives from the central branch are final. Look, it’s not like he was going to stay around very long. He told everyone that he was only going to be here for a year, so you’ve only lost one semester. Believe me, you can manage.”
Lidia sighed. “Thanks.” She slammed the receiver down. For a while, she just stared at the termination notice. She always knew that this would be one of her duties, but she’d never even fathomed how hard it would be, and this particular situation had certainly never come to mind. Taking a moment to compose herself and put on a neutral face, she walked out to the front office to carry out her grim duty.
* * * * * * *
Lidia took the stairs back to the main floor – a few brief moments of peace before she emerged into the crowded streets. At that time of the morning, the lobby was reasonably crowded, both with people headed to their jobs and customers flocking to the coffee shop that sat just off the main thoroughfare. She could pick up the odd fragment of conversation, but it all seemed like so much nonsense. Suddenly, she heard something odd – a snippet of a discussion in English. She could only assume it was her teachers, perhaps lounging in the coffee shop before their classes. Lidia wasn’t the most social person, but at that moment she decided that she could use the company.
As she entered the shop, the conversation became clear. “She fired him? Any idea why?”
“Dude, I have no idea.”
Lidia hesitated, standing just inside the entrance. R.R. and Doug were seated at a table, Doug with a paper coffee cup, R.R. with a small teapot and a small round cup.
“What could that kid have possibly done?” said R.R. “There was that stuff about flaws in the lesson plan, but I can’t imagine that she would fire someone over bullshit that small.”
“Well, we’ve gotta have standards,” said Doug, punctuating his statement with an eye roll.
“How long had he even been here?”
“I don’t know, two months? Couldn’t have been much more than that.”
R.R. blew the steam off his tea. “So who do you think will get stuck with his classes for the rest of the semester?”
“All I know is that if that bitch thinks she’s sticking me with that poor kid’s classes, she’s got another thing…” Doug turned his head, spotting Lidia by the entrance. “What do you want?”
Lidia approached the two of them. “For the record, I had nothing to do with Martin Prosser’s termination. The order came from the main office. By the time I heard about it, there wasn’t anything I could do.”
“Right.” Doug pushed back from the table, grabbing his cup and storming out the door. “I got classes.”
“I’ll see you at the Bottle when you’re done,” yelled R.R. as Doug left. He finished his tea and stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better get going, too.”
“It looks like you just got here,” said Lidia.
“I came here to talk to my friend. He’s gone, so I’m not sticking around.” R.R. adjusted his jacket. “You can have the rest of my tea. It’s a Yunnan blend, very good.”
“Damn it, I’m telling you I didn’t fire him.”
“Oh, I believe you,” said R.R., slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder.
“Then why are you treating me like this?” said Lidia. “You were friendly to me before.”
“Yes, I was,” said R.R. “I don’t have many friends here, and I thought it would be nice to have someone else to talk to. In response, you’ve insulted me to my face numerous times, you barged uninvited into my apartment and refused to leave when I asked you to. So if you think I’m going to be your friend now that you need a defender, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“That’s not how it is,” said Lidia.
“Goodbye, Miss Zhang.” R.R. walked out of the coffee shop.
Now alone, Lidia sat in R.R.’s seat and lifted the teapot, slowly pouring the tea into the cup. She stared into the red-tinged liquid, watching the steam dance and vanish into the air. All around her, groups of people chatted idly, laughing and swapping stories. Suddenly, she realized that she’d never done this. Back in Paradise Gardens, she arrived early and left late just so she wouldn’t run into anyone who knew her. Now, all she wanted was that personal contact.
I wasn’t always like this, she thought. What the hell happened?
Historically, the Mid-Autumn Festival was a harvest holiday, held beneath the full moon at the end of the growing season. It had both religious and historical connotations and, to this day, is considered one of the region’s major holidays. However, time changes all things, and Mid-Autumn Festival was not exempt. While most people held fast to the old ways, there were many who viewed the festivals as an opportunity to make money or an excuse to get drunk. Lidia suspected that much of her staff leaned toward the latter.
Truth be told, Lidia knew very little about the festival, save what she had read and what her parents had told her. She could remember it from when she was a child, when her parents still observed it. The one thing she remembered were the mooncakes – “special” mooncakes, her father told her, from some importer overseas. They had an odd taste, and she was never quite sure about the filling – likely some sort of bean paste, though at that age she hardly had the palate to determine that. It was more about the opportunity to share something personal and sacred with her daddy.
The cab pulled to a stop outside of a row of nondescript buildings. Lidia had finally decided that she would be sitting in the back of the vehicle, no matter what the cabbie thought. Staying in the back means that she was less likely to be forced to endure a conversation with someone who assumed that she was his countryman. Lidia slipped him a few bills and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Despite having the address, she was still only vaguely sure where she was – somewhere in the densely crowded town center, near another hangout popular with her employees. This building was a typical – if unusually large – family run restaurant during the daytime hours. For enough kuai, they were more than happy to put up with a crowd of laowai for a few hours.
Noah stepped out of the doors and waved Lidia in. “You’re late, boss.”
“Sorry, trouble finding a taxi.”
“I’m just messing with you.” Noah smiled and waved again. “Come on, they’re about to carve the lamb.”
The door led into a plain white room with two large tables, a serving tray, and very little else. It was larger than the family run establishments Lidia had seen, but the aesthetic was the same – simply decorated and laid out.
The room was filled with conversation that grew mute as Lidia entered the room. “Hey! The boss is here!” yelled Madison, hoisting a large bottle of beer.
“There’s a spot for you at the head table,” said Serena, pointing at an empty chair. “Join in.”
Lidia took a seat and took stock of the table. To her left was Alice, along with two other women from the staff with whom she was less familiar. To the right sat Serena, Louis, R.R. and Doug. The rest of the staff was at the other table. In the center was a large lazy Susan, stocked with beverages – soda and juice (which few at the table were drinking) as well as two bottles of a clear liquid that she couldn’t quite identify. Against the wall, she spotted a crate filled with bottles of beer, which – judging by the behavior of some of the teachers – they had been enjoying for a while before she arrived.
“I see that I arrived ahead of the food,” said Lidia.
“Just in time,” said Eric, leaning over the table. “The main course is roasted goat, Mongolian style.”
Doug laughed. “You know, I knew a guy who worked up north who said that they once brought out the goat before they carved it? Sitting on a little platform, head still attached, with a red ribbon around its neck.”
Gloria winced. “That’s disgusting!”
“Well, in this country they’re fine with people knowing that their food used to be alive,” said Doug. “But I checked, they won’t do anything like that.”
Noah took one of the bottles off the tray on his table. “They’re gonna be bringing out the dishes soon. Anyone want to get started?”
Lidia stared at the bottle. The characters on the label were unfamiliar to her. “What is this?”
“Baijiu.” Noah twisted off the cap. “For a good time.”
“Courtesy of the awesome bastard right here,” said Madison, pointing at Noah. She took the bottle and filled a small ceramic cup. “Who’s joining us?”
Doug grabbed one of the bottles and examined it. “Geez, this stuff is cheap. What’d you pay, six kuai a bottle?”
“Excuse me, ten a bottle.” Noah filled his own glass. “It’s not like it matters, it all tastes the same.”
“I’m not falling for this again.” Doug started to return the bottle to the center of the table. “Isn’t that right, R.R.?”
R.R. grabbed the bottle out of Doug’s hand, opened it, and poured himself a generous portion. “Actually, I could use some.”
“I’ll try it,” said Louis, reaching for the bottle. “What about you, hon?”
Serena shook her head. “One of us should remember what happened here.”
“Yeah, good point.” Louis handed the bottle to Lidia. “What about you?”
Lidia took the bottle, holding it at arm’s length. It seemed innocuous enough – a clear, colorless liquid in a colorless glass bottle. She drew it in closer for a cautious sniff. The odor was troubling – somewhere between extremely cheap vodka and diluted fuel oil, with faint notes of some sort of mint. The label suggested that it was more than half alcohol by volume.
She rolled her cup around in her hand. “What do you think?” she asked Alice.
Alice waved her off. “No for me. But you can try.”
“Fine.” Lidia carefully tipped the bottle into the glass, allowing a thin stream of alcohol to fill the bottom of the cup. “If this stuff kills me, I will haunt you.”
“I can’t believe that any of you would pollute yourselves like this,” said Gloria.
“I’m fine with it.” Madison raised her cup. “To the moon!”
Everyone at both tables raised their cups and drank deeply. Lidia merely stared at her own cup, pondering the wisdom of letting it pass into her body. She took a deep breath and swallowed the liquor in one shot. Immediately, the liquid burned her tongue as it slithered down her throat. Lidia couldn’t even detect a distinct flavor, just a horrible alcoholic taste that grew stronger by the second. This was followed by some manner of fumes, setting fire to her sinuses.
“Dear God,” she said between coughs. “How can you drink this?”
“You get used to it,” said Noah, sipping from his cup.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” said Louis.
“Wait twenty minutes.” Doug glanced over at the cart. “Hey, meal’s starting.”
The following hours were filled with feasting and drinking as their hosts put on their best effort for their foreign guests. It started with rice and baskets of vegetable jiaozi, but those weren’t on the table for too long before they were joined by dishes of ji-yu fish stew and braised eggplant. The dishes came steadily, one and two at a time – spare ribs, tofu marinated in chili oil, fried sweet and sour pork, vegetable stir-fry. By the time the lamb made its appearance, everyone was already full to bursting. After that came the drinking games – simple games of chance played in between shots of baijiu. By the time it was over, the room was an absolute mess, and the guests were in little better shape.
Noah and Madison lurched past Lidia, Martin close in tow. “Hey, we’re taking some folks to Chrissy – uh, the Chrysanthemum – for the after party,” said Madison. “Care to join in?”
“I’ll pass,” said Lidia, sipping on a cup of boiling water.
Doug had his head down on the table. As the group passed, he looked up. “Good decision, boss. Chrissy is nothing but bad music and whores. Never go there.”
“Thanks.” Lidia set her cup aside. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m drunk,” said Doug. “Happens ever year. I guess I never learned where the line was.” He looked at the empty chair next to him, a polar fleece jacket hanging from a back. “Hey, Rod forgot his coat.”
“I’m sure he’ll be back for it,” said Lidia.
Doug kneaded the fabric in between his fingers. “I didn’t see where he went. Is he…is he still here?”
Lidia looked around the room. “He’s not in here.”
“Well, he’s gonna want that coat.” Doug struggled to his feet. “He’s not so far from here. I’ll just take it by.”
“I think you should get home.” Lidia picked up the jacket, slinging it over one shoulder. “Where does he live exactly?”
“Up the block, three blocks, first on your right,” said Doug. “Building number one, apartment four-oh-one.”
“All right, I’ll drop this off.” Lidia held the door open for Doug. “You need help getting the cab?”
“I’m not that drunk.” Doug saluted as he walked out. “Great party.”
Lidia watched as Doug flagged down a cab, then turned right and headed up the block. She wasn’t terribly comfortable with walking down the streets at night, but at the very least she had a general idea of where she was going based on employee records and Doug’s mostly coherent instructions. After fifteen minutes, she arrived at what she suspected was his building – the first structure in a small, but very modern complex, not unlike her own. She hit the button for his apartment, but received no response.
Having no interest in standing outside on what was proving to be a surprisingly chilly night, Lidia let herself in through the unlocked door and climbed three flights to his apartment. She rapped on the door. “Mr. Butler? You left your jacket at the party.” There was no response. Noticing a thin beam of light filtering through the edge, Lidia pushed on the door and found that it was open. She pushed it open a crack. “R.R.? It’s Miss Zhang. Are you all right?” She nudged the door open another inch. “Mr. Butler? I’m coming in.”
Lidia pushed the door and walked into the apartment. Most of the lights were on, and there was music playing from somewhere inside, but she could see no other signs of life. Tossing the jacket onto a nearby chair, she took stock of the apartment. It was considerably larger than her own, with separate dining and living spaces and a small patio. There was a china cabinet which had been converted into a bookshelf of sorts, packed with well-used Chinese language textbooks, photographs, and assorted tchotchkes. His meter stick rested against the side of the cabinet. The walls were covered in posters, most of them featuring Daoist or Buddhist imagery. An open box of mooncakes lay on a coffee table, next to a bottle of bourbon and a drinking glass.
A photograph in the converted china cabinet caught Lidia’s eye. She took a few steps closer, kneeling to inspect the picture. There was a group of well-dressed young people – presumably teachers – in a park, gathered around an older man. It was her father – Zhang Yanli, in all his glory. On closer examination, one of the teachers looked like R.R., minus the colorful clothing. The caption on the photograph read “QYE Staff, 2012.”
“So you met him that long ago, huh?” said Lidia to herself.
“You’re trespassing.” Startled, Lidia spun around. R.R. stood in the door, a small plastic sack in his hand. “What are you doing in my apartment?”
Lidia pointed to the chair. “You left your jacket at the party.”
“And you just came in?”
“Your door was unlocked. I didn’t figure that you’d go out and leave it open.”
“Eugh…Fair enough.” R.R. lifted the plastic sack. “There’s a bodega downstairs. I darted down there for some cookies and biscuits. Is that okay?”
“Why did you leave early?” said Lidia.
“Because I don’t like most of those people.” R.R. sat down on the sofa. “You want a mooncake?”
“Okay.” R.R. popped open the bottle of bourbon and poured some into the glass. “Then you can leave.”
“Did you come back here to drink alone?” said Lidia.
R.R. swallowed the contents of the glass. “I suppose I did.”
“Figures.” Lidia shook her head. “I had a friend back home who pulled this nonsense. Wound up calling me in the middle of the night, rambling about nothing.”
“I don’t care.” R.R. poured himself a second shot. “Please leave.”
“Then she almost died.”
“Great story. Now leave.”
“Pathetic.” Lidia looked back at the cabinet. One of the photos was laying face down, barely visible except for its stand. She reached up to fix it.
“What the hell are you doing?” R.R. dropped his glass on the table and rushed to the cabinet, slapping Lidia’s hand away. “You think you have the right to go through my things?”
“I wasn’t going through your things,” said Lidia. “I thought I knocked it over, so I was fixing…”
“All right, get out of my apartment.” R.R. angrily jabbed his finger towards the door.
“You can’t boss me around.”
“Get. Out. Now.”
“I was just trying…”
“GET OUT OR I’M DRAGGING YOU OUT!” R.R. was screaming, his jaw locked into an awful grimace. “GO! GET OUT!”
Lidia raced out of the apartment, the door slamming shut right behind her. There was a flurry of activity as R.R. worked the locks on his door, and then the hall fell silent. She could never be sure, but Lidia could swear that as she turned to leave, she heard sobbing coming from behind the door.
Welcome to week three of the big series! If you’re just starting now, you can get caught up by clicking here. That goes to a new master post, which should make reading this a lot easier. If you don’t want to wait, or you’d like to toss me a tip, click here to get the whole book now for a buck. If you’d like to support me but don’t have the money for a donation, consider sharing this with your friends. Use the master post – easier to read the whole thing that way. I do want this thing to be read, so don’t be shy.
“How do you feel you’re doing?”
Lidia leaned back in her chair, staring across at Martin. He seemed nervous, though he was at least keeping his composure.
“I think I’m doing okay, ma’am,” said Martin, shifting in his seat. “Yeah, I had a rocky start, but I’ve figured out I have to do.”
“Yes.” Lidia shuffled through some papers on her desk. “You have had a few errors in your paperwork.”
“Yes, I know. One of the girls…ah…” Martin cleared his throat. “…Sorry, one of the women on staff set me straight on that. But I’ve been talking with Douglas and with, uh, with R.R. and they’ve helped me figure that out.”
“Okay.” Lidia pushed the papers aside. “Do you feel that your classes are in your control?”
“Yes…They’re going very smoothly.”
“And you are following the lessons as laid out?”
“Well, that’s tricky because the schools keep telling me that they don’t want me to, you know, hew too much to the textbook, but uh…” Martin scratched his head as he searched for his words. “…But I think I’ve been balancing the curriculum with their demands.”
“Hmm.” Lidia leaned forward. “That sounds satisfactory.”
“Really?” Martin perked right up.
“Yes. Reports back from the schools are generally favorable, it sounds like they like what you’re doing. I’m inclined to follow their advice.” Lidia stood up and walked to the door. “Get your paperwork under control and sand out some of the rough spots in your lesson plans, and you should be fine.”
“Thank you very much.” Martin sprang to his feet. “It’s just, when you called me in here, I thought…”
“It’s standard practice to conduct the first few performance analyses in private. It’s my standard practice, anyway.” Lidia opened the door. “Just watch the details, and you’ll do just fine.”
“Thanks a lot.” Martin ran out into the hall, where Doug was quietly waiting. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“It never is.” Doug looked over at Lidia. “I’m going to help him with those lesson plans. They’ll be better next month.”
“Fine.” Lidia stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her. “All right, into the meeting room. I’ll be right with you.”
The foreign teacher’s office was packed – all ten teachers were waiting patiently, or as patiently as they could on a Sunday afternoon. Lidia took her place at the back of the room.
“All right. I know that none of you want to spend too much time here on your day off, so I’ll keep this brief.” Lidia took a file folder off the table. “We’ve been at this a few weeks, and as far as I can tell, it’s been going great. I would like to thank Mr. Butler, Mr. Molina and Mr. Nichols, all of whom were gracious enough to let me sit in on their classes.”
“It was fine by me,” said Noah. “Keeps the kids quiet when there’s another local in the room.”
“Thanks,” said Lidia dryly. “I would like to eventually observe each of you in your classes. I find it gives me a better idea of the techniques employed by my teachers which, in turn, will give me a better idea of where to place you in the future should you continue to stay on.” She glanced at R.R. “I’d also like to thank Mr. Butler in particular for encouraging me to try giving a lesson myself.”
Doug gaped at R.R. “You let her do one of your classes?”
“What? Oh…” R.R. jerked back to reality. “…Yeah, that was my great idea.”
“Anyway…A little bit of quick business.” Lidia flipped open the file folder with one hand, picking up a pen in the other. “We did have a few issues at the schools, and I’d like to address them now. First, I would like to reiterate that while we do not have a dress code in this company, there are certain standards of attire that I expect you’ll meet.”
“Is this about me?” said Gloria. She stood up, hands outstretched as though she were prepared to launch into a speech. “I have been tucking my pendant into my blouse, as you requested. One day, I forget and left it out. I swear to God Almighty that it was an accident.”
“I can accept that,” said Lidia. “However, I wasn’t specifically addressing you. Mr. Hlavacek, apparently you wore a shirt with a slogan that someone at your school found offensive.”
“Offensive?” Louis pressed his hand to his temple as he searched his memories. “I wore a few shirts with writing on them, but there was nothing religious or political. No curse words or anything like that.”
“In the future, I’d suggest wearing plain clothing so as not to risk another complaint.” Lidia marked through an item on the page in front of her. “Second, a few of you have been turning up late. This is obviously a problem.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” said Madison. “I slipped in late a time or two. Sorry, I don’t have a real good excuse. Cross my heart, will not do it again.”
“I missed a little bit of my first class because I got lost,” said Eric. “But I’ve been there early every day since.”
“That’s two of three,” said Lidia, crossing off two entries. “That leaves Mr. Butler, who was considerably late one day approximately two weeks ago. Do you have a reason?”
R.R. was staring off blankly. “Hmm? Oh, yeah, that. I was up late the night before and slept right through my alarm.”
“Are you okay?” asked Lidia.
“Yeah, just a little distracted.” R.R. rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Hmm.” Lidia crossed through the last entry. “The good news is that none of the schools are seriously complaining, these were more like notices. I don’t see any reason to take disciplinary action against any of you.” She shut the folder and dropped it on the table. “It’s been a good month. Congratulate yourselves.”
“What about the party?” asked Noah.
“I was just getting to that,” said Lidia. “As some of you may know, the Mid-Autumn Festival in two weeks. I assume that most of you are familiar with this?”
Emily raised her hand. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know too much.”
“I’ve never even heard the name,” said Gloria. “Sounds like fun, though! I managed to miss the Chinese New Year celebration.”
“Well, Mid-Autumn is the next most important festival,” said Lidia. “I’ve been told that we normally have an office party to celebrate. Right now, the staff and I are renting the venue, and we already have the catering set up. It’ll be the Saturday two weeks from now, so it will be before the actual festival day. I’ll see that each of you gets the time and location sometime next week.”
Doug raised his hand. “You getting non-alcoholic beverages? We keep getting complaints from the teachers who don’t drink.”
“I’ve been informed of the complaints, and we’ve already planned…” Lidia was interrupted by a loud buzzing sound. “…Okay, which one of you left his phone on during the meeting?”
“That’s me.” R.R. fished out his phone and stared at the display. As it did, his jaw dropped. “…Uh, I think I’d better take this.”
Lidia glared at him. “Can’t it wait?”
R.R. glanced up. “No. Uhh…It’s your father.”
“I’m confused,” said Emily. “Why would her father have his phone number?”
“He has all our numbers,” said R.R., still staring at the phone.
“Holy shit!” Noah shot to his feet. “Don’t you guys get it? Our new boss is Zhang Yanli’s daughter.”
“No way,” said Madison. “You’re Zhang Lan?”
“How many of you have met him?” said Lidia.
“For the love of God, answer it!” shouted Doug, diving over the table.
“Okay! Knock it off!” R.R. lifted the phone to his head. “Wei, ni hao?…Good morning, Zhang Xiansheng…We were in a meeting, I’m sure most of them had their phones…uh, one second, sir.” He pressed the phone to his chest. “Miss Zhang? He wants to speak to you.”
Lidia pressed her face into her hands. “Not ready for this now. Tell him I’m busy.”
R.R. cautiously returned the phone to his head. “Uh, sir? She’s in her office, and the door’s closed. I assume that she’s…Sir, I wouldn’t…Okay.” He gripped the phone in both hands. “…He knows you’re lying. He says if you don’t talk to him now, he’s coming down here in person.”
“Pick it up, damn it!” Doug caught himself. “…Ma’am, you should really take it. It he comes down here, we’re all in trouble.”
“I’m confused,” said Serena. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s the big boss,” said Noah. “Owns a piece of the company. Plus, he’s got friends. Government friends.”
“Triad friends,” added Madison.
“He doesn’t know any Triads,” said Doug, pushing himself back into his chair.
“How do you know?” Madison spun towards Lidia. “Miss Zhang, does your dad know any gangsters?”
“Shut up.” Lidia turned toward R.R. “All right, I’ll take the call.”
R.R. put the phone to his head. “Okay, sir, she’s right here…Oh, okay.” He pushed a button and handed it to Lidia. “He wants it on speaker.”
Lidia reluctantly took the phone. “Hello?”
“Good day, Zhang Lan. I have tried very hard to find you.”
“I’ve been busy,” said Lidia.
“Ah. This is good, but it is not good to be too busy for family. Still, I can understand your…predicament.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Lidia bit her lip before continuing. “Alice will send you my number and address and whatever else you need.”
“Thank you, I already have them. I thought it would be rude to call you with no warning.”
“Okay.” Lidia took a deep breath. “You mentioned something about coming down?”
“Yes. Sadly, I have no time for a visit. Perhaps I will come to you in winter. And you, of course, will come here in the spring.”
“That sounds good,” said Lidia. “Is there anything else?”
“There was one other thing, for all of you. I would very much like to thank all of you for making my daughter feel at home. This is a big move for everyone, and I thank you for your assistance.”
“I’m sure they’re glad to hear that,” said Lidia.
“Oh, and Zhang Lan, one more thing: Ni bude liu lian wang fan.”
The line suddenly went quiet.
Doug clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s wasn’t so bad.”
Lidia stared down at the floor for several seconds, then dropped the phone on the table. “Meeting adjourned.”
“Wait, we’re not finished already, are we?” said Noah.
“I am.” Lidia stormed off, pausing briefly at the door. “If you have any problems, send me an email. I’ll get back when I have time.”
Lidia sped through the empty lobby to the bank of elevators, mashing the down button repeatedly. Seconds later, she could hear footsteps in the hall behind her. She shut her eyes, hoping that it was someone from another office.
“Excuse me, Miss Zhang?” It was Emily Hallowell, an expression of concern on her face. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn or overstep my boundaries, but I sensed something personal going on back there.”
“Did you?” Lidia watched the numbers over the elevator change, trying not to look back at Emily.
“It was never my specialty, but I have done some work with families before.” Emily took a few small steps closer. “If you want to discuss it, I might be able to help.”
“Help me with what, exactly?”
“Well, with whatever might have happened…”
Lidia spun around. “Are you expecting to hear some sordid story of child abuse? Because if that’s the case, you’re going to be disappointed.”
“I didn’t mean to imply anything,” said Emily.
“This is nothing you can help with,” said Lidia. “In the span of twenty-six years, my father went from a close friend to a taskmaster to a complete stranger. Suddenly, he contacts me out of nowhere and I don’t know what he’s expecting. It’s nothing you can explain, because I can’t explain it.”
Emily nodded. “Sorry. I’ll leave it alone.”
“You do that.” There was a ding as the doors slid open, and Lidia backed into the elevator. “My mother was born in a Chinese-American community, and I used to ask her to explain why he acted so strangely when I was around. All she ever told was ‘If you knew where he came from, you’d understand.’ Well, here I am, and I still don’t get it. I don’t know why I came here. I’m never going to understand him.”
“Not if you don’t talk to him,” said Emily.
“Talking your problems out is what Westerners do.” Lidia hit the button for the ground floor.
“One more thing,” said Emily. “What was that he said to you before he hung up?”
“He told me that I shouldn’t be late coming home,” said Lidia. “Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
The doors clicked shut, and Lidia was alone, however briefly. She leaned against the wall of the car and closed her eyes.
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Lidia stared out the window of the bus as it ambled through the morning traffic. The city was far more industrial than she had anticipated – the quaint stalls and markets were outnumbered by pharmaceutical plants and automotive factories. Most of the others on the bus were clearly headed to work, casually chatting or reading to break up the routine of their daily transit. Meanwhile, Lidia – still very much a stranger in the city – was on alert, worried that she might miss her stop if her eyes drifted from the sidewalk for even a moment.
The bus pulled to a halt, and Lidia hopped off at what she dearly hoped was her stop. She had opted to leave the suit in her closet, wearing a more practical outfit similar to that worn by her teachers. As she walked down the sidewalk, it became obvious why they all dressed like that. Even this, the closest stop, was blocks away from the school – walking this path on a regular basis in dress shoes would quickly become painful.
On the bright side, any fear she may have had about missing the school evaporated as the building came into sight. Xingwan was hard to miss – a five-story structure of brick and glass, accentuated with colorful sculpture and ringed by a security fence with a controlled-access gate. If anything, it looked nicer than some of the schools back home – less austere, more modern. Lidia felt some trepidation as she approached the gate, but the guard merely waved her in.
The inside of the school was even more impressive than the outside. It was not a single building, but rather several structures linked by passages and catwalks. Water gardens marked the spots where the buildings met, with large open courtyards in the center of each complex. It looked more like a high-class apartment building than a school, and far from what Lidia had anticipated when she set off that morning.
After taking a moment to absorb the sight, Lidia set off in search of the school’s foreign teacher. At that time of morning, the passages were mostly empty, so there was no one to harass Lidia as she explored the building. There were several rooms that looked like teacher’s offices – Lidia looked in each one, but saw no sign of her teacher. Finally, as she walked the catwalks on the fourth floor, she spotted a man looking out over the city, a meter stick resting against the railing next to him.
“Mr. Butler?” she said as she neared him.
R.R. turned around. True to his word, he’d shunned the colorful clothes in favor of a simple Polo shirt and jeans. “Miss Zhang? Is something wrong? You could have called, you didn’t have to come down in person.”
“I’m here to observe your class,” said Lidia. “You hadn’t forgotten?”
“No, but I thought you had,” said R.R. “You could have told me in advance.”
“Is there some problem?”
“Not at all.” R.R. leaned back against the railing, resting his hand on the meter stick. “Just took me off guard.”
“Well, I didn’t want to…” A tinny song, vaguely reminiscent of the theme to a children’s television program, interrupted Lidia. “What’s that?”
“The bell,” said R.R. “They like to get cute in these schools.”
A group of children ran past the two of them. Several of them turned to R.R. as they passed. “Good morning, teacher.”
“Good morning,” answered R.R.
The children looked over at Lidia. “Ni shi shei? Laoshi de taitai?” They giggled.
“Laoshi de gongtou,” said Lidia.
R.R. grinned. “You’ll have to excuse them, they’re not used to having unmarried teachers. They see me talking to a woman my age, they make assumptions.”
“Hmph.” Lidia scowled. “You couldn’t bring in your girlfriend to show them? Assuming you have one.”
“I don’t know that you’re supposed to ask me those kinds of questions.” R.R. grabbed the yardstick. “Come on, let’s get ready. Class’ll start in a few minutes.”
The classroom looked like any contemporary classroom in the United States, save the hanzi covering the walls. R.R. walked up to a woman at the teacher’s desk. “Excuse me, Ms. Han? This is Miss Zhang. She’s going to be observing our class.”
“Ni hao.” Ms. Han looked back at R.R. “She is…”
“…His boss,” said Lidia. “I won’t interrupt, I’m just here to watch.”
“Excellent.” R.R. set the meter stick on the table, then dug through his bag for his materials. “You can sit at the back. That’s where the people observing normally watch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get ready.”
Lidia watched as the students filed into the room. There were a lot more of them than she had expected – thirty-five or forty, at least. She had seen plenty of pictures of would-be white saviors posing with their classes, but sitting there and watching one live seemed altogether different.
The students were chatting as R.R. stepped to the front of the room. “Good morning.” The class ignored him. He walked in front of the desk and repeated himself a bit louder: “Good morning.” Again, there was no response.
What happened next caught Lidia off guard. R.R. stepped back behind the teacher’s desk and took the meter stick. He stepped backwards until his back was almost touching the blackboard. Grasping the meter stick firmly in both hands, he raised it over his head and brought it down on the desk. A loud thwack resonated through the room as the wood met the metal edge. Instantly, the class fell silent, staring up at R.R. with no small amount of awe.
R.R. stepped back in front of the desk. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” answered the class in unison.
“Better.” R.R. reached back over the desk for his copy of the textbook, keeping the meter stick in his other hand. He snapped his fingers and pointed into the class. “You…and you.” The two students he indicated stood up. He knelt down next to one of them and gestured towards the other. “How was your day?” The little boy hesitated, so he repeated the question, this time much more gently. “How was your day?”
“How was…your day?”
“My day was fine,” responded the little girl. “How was your day?”
Some of the other students had started talking again. R.R. tapped his meter stick on the ground. “Hey, hey! Ni men qi sheng! All together! How was your day?”
Every student paused and looked up at him. “How was your day?”
“My day was fine.” R.R. tapped the ground in time with each syllable.
“My day was fine.”
“How was your day?”
“How was your day?”
“My day was not good.”
“My day was not good.”
“Hen hao.” R.R. stepped to the other side of the class. “Now, who will go next?” Several hands went up. “All right, you, and…you.”
R.R. proceeded with his routine, picking out students for questions and organizing simple discussions. Whenever the class started to drift, a swift rap on the side of the desk restored their attention. He ended the class with a game of Hangman and left with the bell, waving as he exited the room. The students waved back.
Lidia slipped out of the room ahead of the students, catching up to R.R. in the hallway. “What the hell was that?”
“Well, it wasn’t my best class, but I’d say it went well.” R.R. stared back at Lidia. “…I’m not sure what you want me to say.”
“What was with the stick?” said Lidia. “You were swinging that thing around like a maniac. What’s wrong with you?”
“I was controlling my class,” said R.R. “In this country, you occasionally need a good, loud noise to catch their attention.”
“There isn’t a more dignified way to handle it?” said Lidia.
R.R. sighed. “There are a lot of things you don’t understand about this culture.”
“Excuse me?” Lidia restrained herself from screaming, but there was little to hide the indignation behind her eyes. “I grew up in this culture. You only adopted it. You’ve lived with it a few years, I’ve lived with it a quarter of a century. You have the nerve to think…”
“Okay!” R.R. put up his hands. “I’m sorry, you’re right. In fact…” He glanced over at his next classroom. “…How would you like to handle the next class?”
“Excuse me?” said Lidia.
“Well, there’s only so much you can learn from watching. You want to know everything, you have to field a class yourself. Let me check…” R.R. waved over Ms. Han, who came over to the door. The two spoke for a moment, after which Ms. Han nodded and stepped back into the classroom. “…Yeah, the local teacher’s okay with it. What do you say?”
“I’m not a teacher,” said Lidia.
“If things go wrong, you can put the blame on me. Plus, I can always jump in if you need help, and Ms. Han will be there, too.” R.R. glanced up at a barely visible clock. “No rush, you have a few minutes. We have to wait until they finish with the exercises.”
Suddenly, the PA system began belting out an odd tune, accompanied by a staccato voice: “Yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba.” The students lay their heads down on the table, performing a perplexing series of manual exercises to the rhythm of the voice.
R.R. handed his textbook to Lidia. “The students are the same age and level as the ones in the class you just saw. All you have to do is follow my lesson plan.”
Lidia gingerly took the book in her hands. “I don’t know if this is a good idea…”
“San, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba.”
“You were a student teacher, right?” said R.R. “I know you don’t have a problem with public speaking, and you’re not teaching college level material this time. All you have to do is talk them through a few simple exercises.”
“Is this some kind of trick?” said Lidia.
“What, you think I somehow set this up in advance?” said R.R.
“Wu, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba.”
“There’s no trick,” said R.R. “It’s a perfectly normal class. I have three more like them today.”
Lidia stared at the textbook. “All right. I’ll do it.”
“Qi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba.”
“Do you want this?” said R.R., handing Lidia his meter stick.
“I’m not going to need that,” said Lidia.
“I don’t doubt that for a second,” said R.R. “Ms. Han will introduce you first, so they won’t be taken by surprise. Good luck.”
The two of them entered the classroom, this time switching places – R.R. in the back, Lidia up front in front of the class. This time, the class was deadly silent, each child focused on the front of the room. Lidia swallowed hard as she fumbled with the textbook. “…Good morning, class.”
“Zao an, laoshi,” replied the class.
Lidia cleared her throat. “Shuo yingyu.” She flipped through the textbook to the passage R.R. had marked. “Okay…Who will go first?” The class stared back in stony silence. She pointed at a random student. “All right…We’ll start with you.” The girl stood up slowly, an odd expression on her face. “How was your day?”
“My day…” The little girl struggled for the words. She seemed worried, as though she feared what would happen if she got it wrong. “…My day was fine.”
“Good.” Lidia breathed a sigh of relief. “…Who’s next?” Again, the class remained silent. “Would you like to play a game?” No response.
Lidia looked back at R.R., hoping to receive some guidance, but he merely shrugged. Without any better ideas, she held fast to his lesson plan, keeping one eye on the clock as it mercifully ticked towards the end of the class. Finally, after what felt like hours, the bell rang and the class departed.
R.R. met Lidia out in the corridor. “Not bad, for your first time out.”
“That was strange,” said Lidia, brushing away a stray bead of perspiration. “I never had that trouble with my students back home.”
“Because you could be rough with them, right?”
“It helped,” said Lidia.
“Working with kids is a whole different ballpark than working with adults,” said R.R. “If you think this is bad, try handling kindergarteners.”
“Fine. You know what you’re doing and I don’t.” Lidia rubbed her shoulder. “But that doesn’t explain why the kids in your class acted so differently than the ones in mine. You acted like a crazy person and barely kept yours under control. I froze up, and mine fell in line.”
“Of course they did,” said R.R. “You’re long de chuanren.”
“You’re really resisting this.” R.R. leaned against the wall. “You know, none of us have any authority in this building – not you, not me, no one from our company. I can’t fail these kids because I don’t grade them on anything. Hell, they don’t even test the kids for language skills at this age. They have no practical reason to listen to us.”
“…Which is why you bang a meter stick against the desk,” said Lidia.
“Exactly,” said R.R. “But here’s the thing. The kids see someone who looks like me – someone with my features, my skin color – they figure this is not someone they have to take seriously. They know I can’t do anything to them. They see someone with your features and skin color, they make a very different assumption. They assume that this is someone who has the power to hurt them.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Lidia. “They had to know that I’d only be here the one time.”
“Well, that’s an assumption they make in this culture,” said R.R. “What, you didn’t pick that up in the quarter century you spent living with it?”
“Fine, you made your point,” said Lidia, keeping a neutral expression to hide her shame. “I don’t understand everything that goes on here.”
“That’s the start of understanding, right there. You want to be a good fit in a place like this, the first step is to acknowledge that you really don’t know anything. Then, you just watch.” R.R. slung his meter stick over his shoulder. “Care to join us for lunch? It’s not that good, but it is free.”
Lidia shook her head. “I should get back to the office.”
“That’s fine.” R.R. paused. “Oh, and I apologize if I was at all disrespectful or insubordinate. I can get a little wrapped up when I’m teaching a lesson.”
Lidia allowed the faintest trace of a smile to cross her lips. “If I felt you were insubordinate, I’d have broken that stick over your head already.”
“I believe you,” said R.R. “Have a good afternoon.”
A reminder: If you’d like to read the entire The Dragon’s Heir now (rather than waiting until mid-December), you can download a copy here any time. And if you don’t have money to spend but want to help out, you can always share this with your acquaintances. Thank you in advance for your support.
The public schools in Suzhou chose an especially unpleasant day to open their doors to their pupils. It had been hot over the past week, punctuated with steady rainfall lasting several days. As a result, the air was oppressively humid and cloying, sticking to everything and everyone. Most people scurried from house to car to building, striving to spend as little time away from air conditioning as possible.
But there was one exception, a woman who seemed determined to ignore the weather. She walked down the street at a steady and deliberate pace, staring straight ahead, not even acknowledging any of the street scenes around her. She wore a smartly-pressed black business suit with matching flats, her jet black hair meticulously arranged over her shoulders. Her steely gaze didn’t betray a single hint of discomfort or uncertainty.
When she stepped through the elevator doors on the twelfth floor, there were few who recognized her as the weary woman who had crossed their threshold two weeks earlier.
At the reception desk, Huang Yan stared incredulously. “Miss Zhang?”
“Zao an, Huang Xiaojie.” Lidia pushed open the glass doors. “If anyone calls, give them my cell number. You have it, right?”
“Oh…No, we do not.”
“Okay. I’ll write it down for the records, but I have something else to take care of first.” Lidia marched down the hall and into the staff office. “Alice, are you here?”
Alice rose from her workstation. “Yes, Miss Zhang.”
“Bring the files into the teacher’s office.”
“Yes, Miss Zhang.”
While Alice hurriedly completed Lidia’s order, Lidia entered the teacher’s office. At such an early hour, there were only a few people present – R.R., Gloria, Eric, and a young man unfamiliar to her. All eyes fell on her as she entered. Gloria was the first to speak. “Miss Zhang! You are looking very striking this morning.”
“Thank you.” Lidia walked to the head of the table. “When will the rest of the teachers arrive?”
“They’re generally not in a hurry on assignment day,” said R.R. “You know, it’s not necessary for you to dress like that.”
“I believe that’s up to me.” Lidia looked up at the door as Alice entered the room, carrying a stack of file folders. “Excellent. Leave them here with me, Alice.”
Alice dropped the folders on the table. “Will you need anything else?”
“Stick around for a minute, Alice. I might need you for something else.” Lidia picked up some of the folders and began sorting them. “I had hoped to explain this all at once, but I suppose I can get the point across to the other teachers as they arrive. I’ve been studying your histories, your individual skills, and analyzing that in light of what I’ve learned from speaking with you. Based on that, I’ve developed an assignment that should suit each of you.”
“We’ve never done anything this elaborate,” said Eric.
“I’m trying a new approach.” Lidia pulled out a file folder. “We’ll start with you, Mr. Molina. I understand that you’ve displayed a particular skill and interest in working with children?”
“People say I’m good with kids,” answered Eric.
Lidia handed Eric a file. “Good. We’ve picked up some contracts with primary and kindergarten students. Usually we’d give these to someone new to the company, but given that we don’t traditionally work with children of this age, I feel we should make a good first impression.”
Eric flipped through the folder. “I can certainly handle this. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Just do a good job and don’t embarrass us. That’s all I ask of any of you.” Lidia pulled out another folder. “Gloria, I understand that this is your first long-term position, correct?”
“That’s right,” said Gloria. “I’ve done some private classes, but this is my first position in a government school.”
“Okay.” Lidia slid the folder over to Gloria. “I am going to ask you to either remove your pendant or conceal it in your clothes when you conduct classes in this school.”
Gloria clutched at the cross around her neck. “You want me to conceal…to deny my faith? This cross is a symbol of the truth. To hide it is to turn my back on it.”
“That might fly back home, but in this country they take a dim view on proselytism. I don’t care if you display it here or anywhere else, but in the classroom, it stays out of sight.” She pulled out a third folder. “Mr. Butler.”
R.R. stood up. “Yes?”
“This is another new contract. I’m trusting it to you.”
R.R. flipped through the folder. “Xingwan…yeah, I’ve been here. No problem.”
“One more thing.” Lidia took the remaining folders under her arm and walked to the other side of the table. “I’d like to observe some classes. Since you are the senior teacher, I’d prefer to sit in on yours.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” said R.R.
“I know, but I’ve never taught this kind of class, and I feel it is important that I have a feel for what goes on in the classroom.”
“Fair enough.” R.R. shoved the folder into his messenger bag. “We’re not going to have any real classes today, it’ll be mostly meeting the staff, setting up my space in the office, some paperwork, that sort of thing. But you certainly have the authority to drop in anytime. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been watched while I work.”
“Thank you for being so understanding,” said Lidia.
“No problem.” R.R. looked around the room. “Now, where did I leave my meter stick?”
“You have a yardstick?” said Lidia.
“Well, it’s metric so it’s technically a meter stick, but yeah.”
“Why do you need that? It’s not like you’re teaching math.”
“It’s a general teaching aid.”
“What do you do with a meter stick?”
R.R. chuckled. “What don’t you do with a meter stick?”
“This is precisely why I want to observe a class.” Lidia spread out the rest of the folders on the table, then turned to the unidentified young man. “Thank you for your patience.”
“No problem,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“Martin Prosser, ma’am.”
“Welcome to the company,” said Lidia. “You just got here, so I’m not going to give you your assignment just yet. First things first, Alice here is going to help you get acclimated. Once we’re done with that, you’ll come back and I’ll have your preliminary assignment ready.”
“Pardon, Zhang Xiaojie,” said Alice. “We did that yesterday. Today, I will take him for his physical.”
“Can’t that wait?” said Lidia. “I haven’t had one yet. It’s not really a big deal, is it?”
“Wait…” R.R. stopped looking for his meter stick and spun around. “You haven’t had a physical yet?”
“…No?” said Lidia, her stern facade fading just a little.
“Are you crazy?” said R.R. “This isn’t some company physical that you can put off for a while. This is for your residency permit. You don’t file that in time, they can kick you out of the country. This country’s been eyeballing foreigners very, very closely the last few years, you know.”
“It is my fault,” said Alice. “I did not schedule for Miss Zhang.”
“Well, I am in charge. The obligation is on me.” Lidia turned to Alice. “When can you fit me in? Today?”
“Yes,” said Alice. “Come this way.”
“Fine.” As she left the room, Lidia glanced over her shoulder. “Make sure the others get their assignments. No excuses!”
* * * * * * *
Minutes later, Lidia, Alice, and Martin were packed into the company car and headed into the city. The drive was curiously long – Lidia found herself routinely underestimating the size of the city, not to mention the impact of urban sprawl.
“How much longer until we get to this place?” said Lidia.
Alice leaned back over the seat. “Just a few minutes. I am sorry, I know it is very long.”
“It’s not too bad. I just hate to spend so much time away from the office on my first day of business.” Lidia looked over at Martin. He seemed extremely boyish, as though he’d slipped away from a guided tour hosted by some upper-crust high school. “You’re Martin, right?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Martin nodded sheepishly. “Are you really new here, too?”
“That’s right. Been in country less than a month.” Lidia looked him over. “You look a little young for this.”
“Oh no, I’m twenty-five, I swear,” said Martin. “I graduated a few years ago, and I’m thinking of going back for a more advanced degree, but I wanted to try this first.”
“Hmm.” Lidia turned back to Alice, leaning partway over the central console. “Why is it that we have to go to this particular facility? There’s a hospital not far from the office.”
“Oh no,” said Alice. “Has to be at this clinic.”
“You need a special clinic to draw some blood and do a chest x-ray?”
“It is more…hmm…thorough than that.”
“More thorough?” Lidia fell back into her seat. “What does that mean?”
“We are here,” said Alice.
The foreign examination clinic was a nondescript building tucked away amid similarly nondescript buildings. The inside resembled a cross between a hospital and a file processing center – sterile and empty. Alice gestured for Lidia and Martin to sit down while she dealt with the officials at the front desk. A few moments later, she returned with a pair of documents, each one containing a list of diagnostic tests coupled with small boxes.
Lidia studied the document. “She wasn’t kidding when she said that they were thorough.” She glanced over at Martin, who was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “What’s the matter?”
“You’re either going to want to start telling the truth or get a lot better at lying.”
Martin looked at the floor. “It’s just that I’m not so comfortable with blood.”
“You’d better get used to it. They love to poke and prod…” Lidia’s words stuck in her throat as she studied the document. “One moment.” She walked over to Alice, who was waiting on one of the officials. “Alice, I’m willing to put up with a lot, but there is no way in hell I’m letting anyone here give me a pelvic exam.”
Alice stared back at Lidia. “Ting bu dong?”
Lidia pointed at one of the blanks. “Fuke jiancha.”
“Oh!” Alice shook her head. “We will not need that one.”
“You’re positive?” Lidia stared Alice down. “You wouldn’t lie to me?”
“No. We do not need that one.”
“Fine.” Lidia relaxed immediately. “When do we begin?”
“Very soon.” Alice drew Lidia’s attention to a clipboard on the counter. “You sign your name, and give them 130 kuai for the fee.”
“So I have to pay for the privilege, huh?” Lidia dug into her handbag and retrieved a few bills, slapping them down on the counter. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
The guts of the clinic were a confusing mess of corridors leading to various rooms, each with a specific purpose. At each stop, Lidia was hastily examined by a technician, who stamped the appropriate spot on the card and then shuffled her into the next room. Occasionally, one of the techs – unused to working with what she assumed to be a Chinese person – would try to engage her in some small talk, but otherwise it was constant forward motion. Lidia felt like she was on an assembly line, her parts being stamped into place by machines.
The odd collection of tests didn’t help that feeling. It started off simply, with height and weight measurements and blood pressure, but the examinations grew more involved from there. Eye exams, electrocardiogram, abdominal ultrasound – by the time they were seating her in a dentist’s chair for a brief oral exam, she wondered if it wasn’t all some elaborate joke. She began to regret her decision to dress for the office, as her tight skirt interfered with her movement and her blazer got in the way of various instruments.
It was a blessing when Lidia finally exited into the main lobby. She took a seat and waited for someone she recognized to make an appearance. Several minutes passed before Alice and Martin – his face the color of dairy cream – emerged from the last room.
“Did something hold you up?” asked Lidia.
“I didn’t feel so well, but I’m fine now,” said Martin, collapsing into a chair. “Just let me sit here for a minute, I’ll be okay.”
“See? It was not so bad, right? This is for you.” Alice pressed something into Lidia’s hand – a small box marked with medical symbols, the words “Traveler’s Medical Kit” written on the lid in English and hanzi. “We will go soon.”
“Back to the office?” said Lidia.
“If you want,” said Alice. “But, we can also take you home.”
“I’d rather go to the office,” said Lidia.
“Such a hard worker! Okay, we will go back.”
* * * * * * *
The QYE offices were quiet when the driver dropped Lidia off. The teachers had all picked up their assignments and headed to their schools; most of the local staff was out at lunch. One or two people were still in the staff office, but other than that Lidia was alone. She took a deep breath and soaked it in, knowing full well that this might be one of the last moments of peace she’d experience.
Lidia unlocked the door to her office. As promised, the company had touched it up a bit, bringing in a bookshelf, extra chairs, and a small area rug. They’d even brought in a small plant – a silver queen, an offering of luck. The other present was a new nameplate, with Lidia’s Chinese name listed above the name she actually used. There weren’t many personal touches just yet, but there would be time for that later.
As she closed the door, Lidia noticed something else that had eluded her before – a small box attached to the inside of the door. Examining it further, she saw that it was connected to a slot cut into the door – a way for the staff to leave messages without disturbing a privacy-conscious director. Lidia pulled up the lid, revealing a single slip of red paper. It read:
Your father called. Please leave mobile phone number, he wants to reach you.
For a moment, Lidia stared at the paper, pondering her next move. Finally, she shoved it into her handbag, locked the office, and left. There were some things she wasn’t quite ready to deal with.
A reminder: If you’d like to read the entire The Dragon’s Heir now (rather than waiting until mid-December), you can download a copy here any time. And if you don’t have money to spend but want to help out, you can always share this with your acquaintances. Thank you in advance for your support.
Friends, I gather you here for my time grows short. Do not mourn for me – I have led a fine and rich life, and I pass from this world a happy man. No, I have summoned you here to relate a specific tale, one which I have never related to anyone. You can assume that this is a product of my softened brain if you wish – my only defense is that I am no fabulist, and never have I had the ingenuity or madness to dream of such a thing.
In my younger days, not long before the end of Prohibition, I worked at an illicit seafront tavern known as the Bell and Lyre. Set aside your romantic images of the speakeasy – this was a dingy little hole, peopled by degenerates eager to spend every dime they made on whiskey or gin distilled in the owner’s basement. The bar had the distinct odor of mildew, and the tables and chairs threatened to splinter from rot. The clientele consisted, without exception, of criminals and swine, classless and conniving devils who tried to steal everything that passed within arm’s reach.
I despised the Bell and Lyre, and yet even in such an awful place I found something that gave me joy. There was a table in the corner that the owner kept aside, running off any filth that tried to sit there. In time, I learned that this table was set aside for a group that the regulars jokingly called “The Lyre’s Club.” There were four of them, men who had explored the dark corners of the world and yet found themselves drifting back to this place. There was Peter, a rough and rugged sort – he had been an honorable soldier once, until he left his post to become a blood-money mercenary, wielding his rifle for any petty warlord with the gold to hire him. Next was the sailor Chance, a man probably born with the salt spray in his face. Though he spoke of his love for the sea, his true passions were for cards and cheap liquor. Then there was the smuggler Oliver, who trafficked in everything from black market morphine to human lives – a true villain who turned into a hero when we were in need. Finally there was Abe, the most unlikely of the group. An outdoorsman of a world long since past, he would ride the rails in search of a new frontier beyond the machines of the modern world, returning after every failure to drown his regrets in rye.
These men were seldom in the area in the same time, but there was a special game they played when all four were gathered at that table. One of them would call for me and place an order for a full bottle of whiskey or gin. He would then regale the table with a story, something he had seen on his most recent excursion. These were always the most preposterous of lies, but this didn’t matter. If the storyteller could convince the others, even for a moment, that his story was the undiluted truth, they would pay for his bottle.
On this particular night, it was Chance’s turn. Everyone was expecting a great lie – he had recently returned from Europe, where the specter of war hung over every street. None of them expected what would issue from his mouth.
Chance poured himself a shot and leaned in over the table. “All right, so you know it’s a mess over there in Europe, right? Everything’s falling apart, everyone’s scared to death. ‘Course, we’re all used to that.”
“Of course.” Peter had this wry little expression on his face, like he was already formulating his own story. “Sorry to interrupt you, friend.”
“No sweat at all. Believe me, you’ll all be breaking in ‘fore I’m done.” Chance tossed back his first shot and prepared the second. “Now, point is, a lot of the boys are too scared to go out on the town. But not me. You all know how I love a game, and I was saving nickels and dimes out of my pay for weeks hoping I’d find a good gambling joint. Finally, the last night I’m in France, I find one. A secret little place, but real, real nice – lot more than you’d think. Now, I don’t belong there, not one bit, but I got my bankroll, and I’m bound to spend it. Well, I hit a real bad streak, and next thing you know, I’m down to my last five bucks.”
“Which you spent on a bottle, no doubt,” said Oliver.
Abe laughed – a rough, guttural chuckle. “No way this boy gonna spend five on booze.”
“Can I tell the story?” Chance was growing animated, frustrated with his friends. “Now, I know I gotta get out of there – that five dollars has to go a long ways before I get home. But just as I’m leaving, everyone gets really tense – you know, there’s all this movement in there, all this activity. So I turn around, and standing in the doorway is none other than Count Dracula.”
There was silence at the table as three sets of stunned eyes fell on Chance. Oliver was the first to speak. “…From the movie, you mean?”
“Yeah, just like the movie! He was real tall, with a face like an animal’s and really pale skin – you could almost see his bones! And he had the accoutrements, too – those little medallion things, and that long cape and everything.”
Peter suppressed a groan. “Chance, do you really…”
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking!” Chance was waving his arms now, flinging big drops of whiskey all over the table and himself. “You’re thinking that could be anyone. I mean, there’s all these nobles over there, even after all this, they still have more money than God, right? And they’re all inbred to hell, so they’re all crazy, right? So you’re thinking this must be some loopy nobleman, likes to dress like Dracula. Then I see that the staff, they’re covering all the mirrors, but not fast enough. This guy didn’t have a reflection! Not at all! This was the real, honest-to-goodness Lord of the Night!”
“This is why you never win,” said Oliver, shaking his head. “You couldn’t have just met Bela Lugosi in that parlor. No, it had to be Dracula.”
Abe, on the other hand, was terribly amused. “So Chance, why didn’t you run? I’d have run like my feet were on fire.”
“Well, I was frozen!” said Chance. “I don’t know if it was his powers, or if I was just in awe, but I tell you – I could not move. Then he looks right at me, and I’m terrified – I mean, I’m dinner to this guy, right? He could rip my throat out right there, and I bet the staff would just clean up and go about their business. But all he does is extend his hand and say, ‘I would like to borrow five dollars.'”
Peter broke out laughing. “Dracula borrowed five dollars from you? That’s the story?”
“Well, yeah,” said Chance. “See, it turns out that the count is real superstitious. Swears that he always wins bigger when he plays on someone’s behalf, you see. So the first bet he places, he borrows five bucks from someone there and puts it in the pot. Tells me that win or lose, he’ll give me ten as soon as he’s done.”
Again, there was silence at the table. This time, it was Peter who spoke. “So did he win?”
“Yeah, he won the first bet! On roulette, too – and no one wins that, so maybe there’s something to it. But he stiffed me! Didn’t give me the ten or even my original five back. He said one of his ‘agents’ would find me and give me the money. Some people, right?” Chance emptied his glass. “So?”
“So I hope you ain’t broke, because that bottle’s on you,” said Abe.
Oliver nodded. “Yeah, I’m not pitching in a penny for that.”
“Nice try,” said Peter, still chuckling quietly under his breath. “But that makes three. Better luck next time.”
Suddenly, a shadowy figure burst through the main door of the Bell and Lyre. It moved with an unnatural speed, but I could swear that I caught the outline of a wolf, snarling with hunger. Some of the other patrons must have seen it too, for they dove for cover – dangerous criminals reduced at once to scared children. And then the figure was gone, replaced by a more familiar terror. He was a man, or at least he held the visage of one. He stood close to seven feet in height, with great sinewy arms like those of a gorilla and a face like an untamed beast. Everyone at the table froze, staring at this mysterious intruder, this creature that looked as much animal as man.
It felt like an hour passed before the beast-man spoke – or, more precisely, growled. “Chance.”
The other three men backed away from the table, leaving Chance alone before the beast-man. “That, uh…That’s me.”
The beast-man stared chance down. “The master has sent me on an errand.”
“Yes.” The beast-man extended his hand to Chance, palm held open. “The Count wants the five dollars you borrowed from him.”
Written in response to a WordPress Writing Challenge.
Hello, everyone. We’re now into the second week of this series, and I see that I’ve picked up a few new readers, so here are a few links: Click here to learn what this is all about. Click here if you’d like to get the entire book now. And if you’re only hitting the “like” or “follow” buttons in the hope that I will reciprocate, click here for an explanation as to why I won’t do that. Thank you.
As far as Lidia was concerned, it didn’t feel real until she reached the terminal. Every moment before – the purchase of the tickets, the endless packing, the confirmations, the long drive to the airport, even the trip through security – felt like a moment she could cancel, a turning point where she could still opt out. But with all that behind her, it was no longer idle dreaming. The only thing ahead of her was the airplane.
Lidia looked around the cavernous space. There were thousands of people here, all of them headed to different locations around the world. For a moment, she pondered where they were going, Some were taking their families on exotic vacations, while others anticipated only tedious business conferences followed by nights of drunken revelry. Some had the look of students, on their way to new opportunities in the world at large. Others had far less savory intentions than that.
A few of them were returning home. It was something she’d never even considered.
“Now boarding rows twenty to twenty-nine.”
Lidia stood up, swallowing back her nervousness.
* * * * * * *
Lidia stared out the cab as it wove its way through the shadowy streets. Since getting lost on the way to the market, she had grown cautious, electing to stick with places close to her apartment and office. Watching the car move farther and farther from familiar territory, into streets she’d never seen, she rolled back and forth between tense and excited.
Alice was in the passenger seat, giving orders to the cabbie – something Lidia had already learned was accepted practice. She leaned over the back of the seat. “We are almost there. A few minutes.”
“I told you I didn’t want a party,” said Lidia. “You really didn’t have to do this.”
“Not a party,” said Alice. “This is a foreigner’s place. All the teachers go here.”
The cab pulled to a stop next to a cluster of restaurants. One of the buildings stood out – a bar and patio that was designed to resemble an American dive. A large stuffed sailfish hung over the main entrance, just underneath a neon sign reading “The Swordfish.”
“Here we are,” said Alice. “You get out, I pay the driver.”
Lidia slid out of the cab and onto the sidewalk. With the sun down, it was at least cooler than it had been, though the air remained as humid and stifling as ever. Shrugging it off, Lidia stepped towards the building. As she had suspected, the run-down appearance was by design – the recently varnished hardwood on the patio suggested that the bar was built a few years ago at most. The deck had been swept, the cigarette butts and packets cleaned up and disposed of properly. All things considered, the Swordfish was much nicer than most of the restaurants she’d seen.
The cab drove away, and Alice walked over to Lidia. “What do you think?”
“I suppose I could think of worse places,” said Lidia.
“Okay,” said Alice. “Let’s go in.”
The inside of the Swordfish matched the outside, and then some – whoever designed it had either spent an extended period of time in the United States or else had one hell of a photo reference. The room was ringed with round tables, each tucked away in its own smoky little booth. In the center was a pair of pool tables, both reasonably well-maintained – though not too well, to maintain the feel of the place. The corners of the room were outfitted with other classic bar accoutrements – dart boards, old pinball machines, a jukebox. The one thing that stood out was the clientele – despite its location, every person at every table was a Westerner.
Alice pointed to a table in the far corner. “There. That is the QYE table.”
The group at the table waved at Lidia, who waved back out of obligation. She spotted a few familiar faces, but most of them were new. She had always been uncomfortable being the center of attention, but she also felt obligated to meet some of these people.
“All right, settle down, maniacs.” R.R. stood up. “This is our new director, Lidia Zhang. A few of you have already met her…Doug, you have, right?” Doug nodded. “Who else hasn’t shown up?”
Doug put down his pint glass. “Uh, Gloria doesn’t drink, so she’s almost never here. I think Emily was also at the office, she’s sleeping in tonight. The Hlavaceks must be running late.”
“Fair enough,” said R.R. “Who wants to go first?”
“Oh, I’ll start.” A young man of no more that twenty-eight stood up. He was rail-thin, with short greasy hair and a long face. “Noah Nichols. I’ve been two years.” He looked Lidia up and down, grinning. “You know, you’re a lot better looking than the last director we had.”
“Never mind him, he’s drunk.” A woman hopped up and pushed Noah back. She was short, with piercing blue eyes peeking out from long, untamed brown hair. “Madison Myers. Been about two years for me, too.”
“I am not drunk,” said Noah, playfully jostling Madison. “It’s just a wonderful night.”
“For a snake, maybe,” said Madison, smirking back at him.
“Is it my turn?” A man somewhere in the back raised his hand. He was in his early thirties, his kindly, smiling face crowned by a head of short-cropped and thinning hair. “My name is Eric Molina. I don’t come here as often as I’d like, but I had to show up and meet the new boss. We’re going to have so much to talk about.”
“All right, that’s everyone but Serena and Louis.” R.R. nudged Lidia. “Any words for the group?”
“I wasn’t anticipating a speech,” said Lidia.
“Speech!” shouted Madison.
Alice leaned over Lidia’s shoulder. “Just tell them about you, and what you will do.”
“Guess I can manage that.” Lidia took a seat at the table. “My name is Lidia Zhang if you didn’t know. I understand this is the first time you’ve been under foreign management. I really don’t know how your former bosses did things, but I plan on running the branch as I see fit. My one hope is that you’ll work with me during this process.”
Noah raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that!”
“A little formal, but you said what you had to say.” R.R. backed away from the table, glancing down at his phone. “Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta get going.”
“There goes Roderick, always too good to eat or drink with us,” said Madison with a laugh.
“Well, yeah, but that has nothing to do with it,” replied R.R. “I have a crisis to deal with. Good luck, Lidia. You’ll need it.”
Doug clapped his hands together. “Let’s get this started. What do you want, boss? We’re paying tonight.”
“I don’t really drink,” said Lidia.
“Get a hamburger or something,” said Eric. “It’s on me.”
“Seriously, I’m fine,” said Lidia.
“You are going to be very popular around here,” said Noah. “Someone who doesn’t get drunk or take advantage of people’s good nature? You’ll have friends.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Madison rattled her glass. “Huh, mine’s empty. Fuwuyuan! Over here!”
Doug looked over at the door. “Well, look who decided to show up!”
Lidia turned around, spotting a couple entering the building. They looked like the quintessential small town couple – matching, sensible outfits, with expressions that were cheerful without being excessively cheerful.
“Sorry, we didn’t mean to be so late,” said the woman. “We were taking care of some errands, they ran a little long, and then we couldn’t find a cab.”
“Excuses, excuses,” said Noah.
“You must be Ms. Zhang,” said the man. “I’m Louis, and this is Serena. Sorry we missed you at the office, we were off and didn’t hear about it.”
“It’s not important,” said Lidia. “Nice to meet you.”
Louis pulled out a chair next to Lidia. “I’ll go get the drinks. You get acquainted.”
“Acquainted?” said Lidia.
“Sorry, am I intruding?” said Serena, taking a seat. “We’re still a little new, but we’ve had friends who’ve done this and none of them ever had an American boss.”
“I’ve never had one,” said Eric. “And this is my fourth company.”
“Yeah, neither have I,” said Madison.
“It’s really that rare?” said Lidia.
“I wouldn’t say rare, but it’s uncommon,” said Eric. “Most of the foreign teachers leave after a year or two. Not many of us have the experience to take over.”
Serena scooted a little closer to Lidia. “How long do you plan on staying?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Lidia rested her chin in her hand. “What about R.R.? Hasn’t he been here for years?”
“He didn’t want the job,” said Eric.
“Some people don’t have the balls for it,” said Noah. “It ain’t easy.”
“Is there more to this position than I know?” said Lidia.
Louis returned to the table, setting a glass in front of Serena. “Did I miss anything?”
“We were just discussing the obligations of this position,” said Serena. “You know, what you have to do to run a place like this.”
Louis exhaled sharply. “I wouldn’t want it, that’s for sure.”
“In my experience, they always do fine until the first crisis,” said Eric.
“Exactly,” said Doug. “Anyone can do the regular daily stuff. It’s the little disasters that scare people off.”
“Crisis…” Lidia spaced out for a moment. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”
“What’s wrong?” said Louis. “Are you tired?”
“I’m extremely tired,” said Lidia. “Plus, I have a lot to process. Thanks, anyway, but I have to get home.”
“No problem,” said Noah. “We’re always here, if you want to drop by.”
“Maybe I will.” Lidia pushed back her chair and stood up. “Alice, could you give me a hand?”
“Oh, yes.” Alice stepped away from the wall towards the door. “Thank you, everyone.”
Alice walked Lidia out to the street, flagging down a cab and instructing the driver where to go. Lidia climbed into the passenger seat, feeling out of place but trying to accept it.
“You’re not going with me?” asked Lidia.
Alice shook her head. “I go the other way.”
Lidia nodded. “Alice…What were they hinting at? I mean, is there more to this job than I think?”
Alice only smiled. “You will do fine. Rest well.”
The car door slammed shut, and the taxi flew into the night. Lidia shut her eyes and tried to relax, but it all felt wrong. Nothing was making much sense – not the big things and not the details. The fact that she was riding shotgun with a stranger didn’t make sense, but she was getting used to the small differences. It was the big picture that troubled her.
Eventually, the cab stopped outside of the apartment complex. Lidia pulled out a wad of yuan and shoved it at the driver, not bothering to wait for change. She hadn’t yet adjusted to the exchange rate, and she could only assume that she overpaid. At that moment, it didn’t seem so important.
Lidia scurried up the steps to her door, fumbled with the lock for a minute, and slipped into the apartment. She walked through the darkened rooms, not bothering to turn the lights on – she was too weary for that, or for much of anything else. Finding the bedroom, she fell into the bed, drawing the sheets in a crumpled mess around herself. For a few minutes, she stared at the ceiling, dimly visible by the city lights.
In less than a week, her job would start for real.
The Zhang home was a typical-looking house in a typical middle-class suburb outside of Paradise Gardens – from the outside, that is.. The inside of the house was another story entirely. Each room held a part of Zhang Yanli’s collection, the things he’d accumulated over a lifetime spent making deals on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. There were mementos from his childhood; precious objects given to him by American professors and Chinese officials; photographs of him and his family with important people. Lidia had spent a lifetime studying this collection, watching it grow a little bit every year. Every year, it seemed a bit more intimidating.
Lidia rarely felt the need to return home, but today was an exception. With her expedition all but finalized, all that was left was to discuss this with her loved ones.
“So you’ve thought this all the way through?”
People liked to tell Maggie Qin that she looked too young to have an adult daughter – their idea of a sly compliment, and one that Maggie didn’t always appreciate. If nothing else, it was better than the strangers who attempted to guess her ethnicity. Her appearance belied her background – half-Chinese, half-everything else.
Lidia stared up at a photograph of her father and the governor, taken at some Sino-American relations conference. “I’m all but fluent in the language. I already have everything I’ll need to take over, and both the position and my accommodations are taken care of. Plus, once I get a proper academic position I’ll be making trips like this regularly. I don’t see a problem.”
“That being the case, why did you want to discuss this with me?” said Maggie.
Lidia hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
“Yes, you are. You just don’t want to tell me.”
“There isn’t anything…”
“Lidia.” Maggie leaned in closer. “Do you really think you can fool me?”
“All right.” Lidia took a deep breath. “I ran into one of my old students. She said she thought I was too ‘innocent’ for this. It’s absurd, but it’s been bothering me anyway.”
“Are you sure it’s so absurd? You’ve led a good life here. Are you sure you’ll be fine giving up some of the things you’re used to?”
“I think I can endure,” said Lidia.
“All right.” Maggie stood up. “Could you live without hot water?”
“It’s not a huge deal.”
“Without the foods, the health products you’re used to?”
“With employers who lie to you and treat you like a slave?”
“Nothing I haven’t experienced before.”
“You sure?” Maggie sat back down. “If you’re positive, I don’t know why you’re here. Unless you’re looking for permission.”
“I’m an adult,” said Lidia. “Why would I need permission?”
“Because if I give you permission and something goes wrong, you get to blame me.” Maggie paused. “I’m not going to make it that easy for you. You have to make this decision, and you have to live with the consequences.”
Lidia shook her head. “If that’s what I wanted, why couldn’t I just blame dad? He’s the one who set this up in the first place.”
Maggie smiled. “You and I both know that he would never take any blame.”
* * * * * * *
On her first day free from the company, Lidia made the not entirely wise decision to explore the city on her own.
After that first day – with the endless lines, the sales pitches, the small talk – she leaped at the chance to shed her escorts. Given that she would be going it alone most of the time, it seemed logical for her to find important locations by herself so that she could get accustomed to the city. As she walked blindly down the streets, staring at a scrap of paper bearing instructions that didn’t seem to correspond with reality, she realized the flaw in her thinking. The unusual heat, coupled with the region’s brutal humidity, certainly wasn’t helping the situation.
“Qing wen, Auchan zai nali?” She asked several people for assistance, but most of them stared at her numbly before moving on. I thought you people were supposed to be friendly, she thought. Flummoxed, Lidia picked a direction and started walking.
“Excuse me, you’re looking for the market?” Lidia looked up, spotting a slender, bespectacled Western man. He sported several days’ worth of stubble and was clad in an eclectic outfit of greens and yellows unlike anything Lidia had ever seen. “You’re headed the wrong way, it’s the other way down the street. You really can’t miss it, it’s like a football stadium. Oh, and the sign’s a little misleading – it’s actually pronounced Oushang, which is why no one knew what you were talking about. Don’t feel bad about it, it took me six months to figure that out.”
The man walked past Lidia, who stood stunned for a moment. Finally, she responded. “Wait a second. How the hell did you know that I spoke English?”
The man glanced back towards her. “Oh, please.”
Lidia rushed to catch up to him. “I’m serious. How did you know?”
“What, are you following me now?” responded the man.
“You told me to go in this direction,” said Lidia.
“Fair enough,” said the man. “How did I know? Simple. You have American girl posture.”
“Meaning what?” said Lidia, pondering if she should take offense at his statement.
“It’s a lot of things. Your poise, your gait, the way you position your hands, facial expressions…no native-born Chinese woman walks the way you do.”
Lidia groaned. “American girl posture, huh? And you can spot that?”
“Sure.” Stopping at a busy street, the man pointed at a large building. “There it is. Auchan.”
“Thanks. I’d hope that I could have found that on my own.” Lidia stepped around a stopped bus, but was swiftly jerked back by her guide. “What’s your deal?”
“What’s your deal?” he said. “You don’t step into a busy intersection from behind a bus, especially not around here where no one ever stops. Is this your first time off the farm?”
Lidia chuckled. “Who are you?”
“R.R. Butler. Why, you looking for someone to show you around? Because I have plenty of time.”
“R.R…Do you happen to be a teacher?”
“Yeah, I work at QYE,” said R.R. “Why? Are you a new teacher?”
“Not quite,” said Lidia. “I’m Lidia Zhang.”
R.R. laughed to himself. “You’re the new director, aren’t you? Well, now I’m really glad I didn’t let you get hit by a car.”
“And you’re the senior teacher.” Lidia sized him up. “Hmm.”
“You having trouble with the clothes?” R.R. looked himself over. “This stuff was made in Tibet and I happen to think it’s distinctive. But for the record, I don’t dress like this when I’m in class.”
Lidia nodded. “Are you running errands today?”
“Actually, I was just headed to 85 Degrees for a coffee and a bite. You’re free to join me if you’d like.”
“All right,” said Lidia. “Caris did say that I should meet my employees.”
“Great. Now a few little hints for getting around the city.” R.R. walked over to the crosswalk. “A lot of the drivers are a little crazy. It’s not so bad here, but to be on the safe side, you should follow certain procedures. Intersection like this, it’s very simple: Light turns green, you run.”
“Run.” Peeking over his shoulder, R.R. spotted a green light. “Time to go.” The words had barely parted the air when R.R. took off, charging through the intersection like a sprinter.
“Wait!” Lidia took off after him, moving as quickly as she could manage. She couldn’t even recall the last time she’d run like that. Certainly, her body wasn’t accustomed to it – the air burned in her lungs with every breath. It was an absolute blessing when she reached the other side of the street.
“A little out of shape?” asked R.R.
“I’m fine,” said Lidia, panting.
“Most streets aren’t like this, really. And after a few months of climbing stairs and running for buses, you’ll be as fit like a track star.”
“Great.” Lidia composed herself as best as she could. “Where’s the cafe?”
“Just inside. Follow me.”
Auchan was a busy place even in the lull times, and this was not one of those. Buses and taxis dropped off scores of shoppers every minute, pausing long enough to scoop up people carrying astonishingly large shopping bags. Lidia felt oddly at ease here – something about the relentless flow of commerce made sense to her, even if she consciously disdained it.
“Douglas!” R.R. waved at someone coming out of the building – Doug Wellstone, his hands filled with plastic bags.
Doug nodded in recognition. “Hey, you know the new boss is looking for you, and…” He suddenly noticed Lidia. “…Oh. Morning, Miss Zhang.”
“Good morning, Douglas,” said Lidia.
Doug walked over to R.R. and whispered something to him. The two conversed silently for a few moments before Doug departed. R.R. turned back to Lidia. “All right, let’s go.”
“What did he tell you about me?” asked Lidia.
“What makes you think he was talking about you?” R.R. pushed open the door. “Don’t be paranoid.”
“When two people are talking out loud, and they start whispering as soon as a third person shows up, it’s not paranoia to assume that they’re talking about that person.”
“All he said was that you were the new boss and I shouldn’t do anything stupid.” R.R. held the door open. “Okay?”
“Fine,” said Lidia, walking through the door. “But in the future, I expect you and him to be more open.”
Lidia was expecting the cafe to be some bizarre reflection of an American institution, but really it was very ordinary – a counter with baked goods on display leading out to a dining area with tables and booths. She slid into one of the booths and waited while R.R. made his purchases – a cup of some sort of tea-based concoction and a tray overflowing with savory goods.
“You don’t want anything?” said R.R., placing his tray on the table.
“I’m fine.” Lidia stared at the tray. “I take it you come here often?”
“Not really, there are two bakeries closer to where I live.”
“Hmm.” Lidia reclined in her seat, staring at the wall. “American girl posture, huh?”
“You’re still on that?” said R.R.
“Yes, I am.” Lidia straightened up. “You’re the first person I met since I got here who didn’t just assume I was Chinese.”
“Can’t be the first time anyone’s made that mistake,” said R.R.
“Of course not.” Lidia sighed. “Back home in Illinois, it happened all the time. After the seventh or eighth time some anime addict tried to ramble at me in his broken first-year Japanese, I came to expect it. I did not expect it here.”
“Oh, it’s worse here.” R.R. pushed his tray to one side and leaned in. “As far as the people around here are concerned, you’re long de chuanren.”
“It means ‘heir of the dragon.'”
“I know how it translates. What does it mean?”
“It’s not that complicated.” R.R. slid his tray back in front of him, taking a sausage sandwich off the plate. “You look like them, so as far as they’re concerned, you are one of them. It’s not just you, it’s people of Korean descent, or Vietnamese, or even Russian.”
“Oh, that’s fantastic.” Lidia buried her face in her hands.
“There are some advantages, too,” said R.R. “It’s probably what got you that position in the first place. You’re American, so QYE can advertise Western management. That’s a real selling point, especially for experienced teachers. And when you’re in negotiations or dealing with the bureaucracy, the Chinese officials you’re dealing with won’t think they can take advantage of you.” He bit into a donut. “Your last name probably helps, as well.”
“My family name is very common,” said Lidia.
“True, but people will make certain assumptions,” said R.R. “They hear someone name ‘Zhang’ working in education, they’re going to imagine a connection to Zhang Yanli.”
Lidia perked up at the sound of his name. “It’s that important?”
“Oh yeah,” said R.R., finishing his beverage. “Zhang Yanli is a very important man around here, a lot more influential than you’d think. He’s like…” He rubbed his chin. “Oh, who’s the guy from your neck of the woods…Jameson.”
“He’s as important as Joshua Jameson?”
“In Southern China, he is,” said R.R. “With your name and your position, everyone you deal with is going to assume that you’re his daughter or maybe his niece.”
“I am his daughter,” said Lidia, looking R.R. dead in the eye.
R.R. smiled, but his expression quickly changed into one of distress. “Oh my God, you’re Zhang Lan.”
“How do you know that name?” said Lidia. “Have you met him?”
“Yeah, a few times. Look, I don’t feel so comfortable talking about this…” R.R. started to stand up.
“Sit tight,” said Lidia. R.R. slowly returned to his seat. “You’ve met him. What did he say about me?”
“I don’t remember exactly. He said a lot of things.”
Lidia closed her eyes. “He talks about me, but he won’t talk to me.”
“Sorry I brought it up.” R.R. stepped out of the booth. “Nice to have met you.”
“One more thing,” said Lidia. “What does ‘R.R.’ stand for?”
“It’s an old family name. Roderick-Random.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“Mine.” R.R. waved once as he walked away. “Later, Zhang Xiaojie.”
A reminder: If you’d like to read the entire The Dragon’s Heir now (rather than waiting until mid-December), you can download a copy here any time. And if you don’t have money to spend but want to help out, you can always share this with your acquaintances. Thank you in advance for your support.
“You’re taking a job there? Are you serious?”
Lidia locked the door to the office behind them. The passageways of Green Hall were almost deafening in their silence – the academic staff had departed for their homes, the maintenance crews were yet to start their rounds. The gentle, relentless hum of the fluorescent lights only accentuated the lack of humanity.
“What’s wrong with that?” said Lidia, shouldering her bag.
“There’s nothing wrong, it’s just…” Diana grinned. “Have you ever even traveled outside of Illinois?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Lidia. “I was born in California.”
“And you were what, three years old when your family moved?” said Diana. “It just seems a little abrupt.”
Lidia headed for the entrance to the building, Diana in tow. “I wasn’t going to stay here forever. Besides, I understand the culture as well as anyone.”
“Yeah, but do you understand life there?” said Diana. “Look, Lidia, you’re as smart as anyone I know, but you’re also innocent. You really think you can handle this?”
Lidia shot Diana a cold glance. “Yes, I do.”
Diana shrugged. “Okay, no offense intended. So what kind of job is it?”
“I’m working at a teaching company.”
“You’re going to be a teacher?”
“More of an administrator. I’m running the teacher’s division.”
“Really?” Diana scratched her head. “Don’t they normally give those positions to people with experience?”
Lidia pushed open the door. “They made an exception.”
“Did your dad have anything to do with this?” asked Diana.
Lidia hesitated. “As a matter of fact, he did.”
“Is he pressuring you into this?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” answered Lidia.
Diana nodded. “All right, Lidia. But why, then?”
* * * * * * *
A few rays of sunlight slipped through the curtains, casting irregular shadows across the room. Lidia opened her eyes slowly – even after getting some sleep, they still burned and throbbed. She was in a strange, unfamiliar room in a strange, unfamiliar building. Alice had presumably showed her the apartment, but the only thing she could remember from the night before was the urge to find a bed and pass out for a few hours.
She pushed herself into a sitting position and tried to take stock of her new surroundings. There were four bare, neutral-colored walls, all of them run through with wires and small pipes with no effort made to conceal them. In the center of the room was a sizable bed with a small bookshelf at the end. In her zeal to sleep, Lidia hadn’t noticed how absurdly firm it was, yielding only slightly even with her full weight on it. Lidia crawled over to the edge of the bed, crossing the wood veneer floor to the window. Though she was on a high floor, there wasn’t much of a view to speak of – just row after row of nearly identical apartment and office buildings.
Turning her gaze downward, Lidia realized that she’d slept in her clothes. Digging her sleep clothes out of the luggage didn’t seem all that important the night before, but it was finally setting in that she’d been marinating in her own stale sweat for the past two days. She knelt on the floor next to her suitcases, tearing through the meticulously packed articles for a towel, toilet kit and a half-respectable outfit.
Bundling everything under one arm, Lidia passed through the central room. This area looked like any other modern living space – coffee table, television set, a couch fit for an implausibly large number of people, a water cooler. More unusual was the washing machine mere feet from the front door – presumably, there wasn’t space anywhere else. If nothing else, it was far more spacious than she had anticipated, but that wasn’t her concern.
By contrast, the bathroom was tiny – little more than a closet off the main entrance with a sink, toilet, and a shower head separated from the rest by a curtain. Lidia disrobed and turned the shower handle, but only a pitiful trickle emerged from the shower head. “Come on…” She pulled the handle every way it turned, but nothing happened. Her eyes drifted to a small electronic panel located just under the shower head – manual controls for a heater, by the look of it. She mashed a few buttons on the device, watching the LED display change and flicker, seemingly at random.
Growing frustrated, Lidia redressed and stepped to the sink. As she lowered her toothbrush into the basin, a thought crossed her mind – This is a mistake. Using the tap water wasn’t a wise move. Suddenly, the water cooler made sense – it was going to serve double duty for drinking and hygiene. She drained some of the fresh water into a cup and returned to the bathroom, quietly congratulating herself on dodging the first pitfall.
Having cleaned herself up as best as she could managed, Lidia threw herself onto the couch. On the table were a few beverages and bits of food – a welcome gift from the company so that she wouldn’t starve on the first day. She unscrewed a bottle of something not entirely unlike orange juice and settled back into her seat, trying to gather her thoughts. Only a day out from home, and she’d already lost track of why, exactly, she’d left. But there was a reason…
Brzzzzzh. A shockingly loud buzz split the silence of the apartment. Lidia shot to her feet, all her thoughts departing as she frantically searched for the source of the noise. Her eyes fell on a telephone receiver mounted to the wall by the door, trembling from the sound of its overpowered ringer. She ran over to the door and lifted the receiver.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“Zao an, Zhang Xiaojie!”
Lidia groaned. “Alice?”
“Sorry. Were you asleep?”
“No, I’m up.” Lidia rubbed her forehead. “What’s the deal?”
“Today, I help you get settled. Will you come down?”
“Yeah, all right. Just give me a minute.”
Lidia grabbed her keys and pocketbook and headed out the door, struggling with the oddly complex lock as she went. The hallway outside was narrow, just two apartments per floor. Lidia looked down the staircase. She could vaguely recall dragging her luggage up five flights of stairs – this must be floor six, the top of the building. Bracing herself against the wall, Lidia worked her way down, hoping that she wouldn’t hit an unexpected wet spot and kill herself.
Alice was waiting at the bottom, grinning exactly as she had the night before. She waved at Lidia through the window in the door. “Good morning!”
“Yeah.” Lidia opened the door and stepped outside, cringing from the humidity. “Is the weather always like this?”
“It is not so bad,” said Alice. “Do you have any problems?”
“Can’t figure out the shower in my apartment,” said Lidia.
“We can help.” Alice gestured for Lidia to follow her. “Today, we get for you a bus card, a bank account, and a phone. First, I will show you the office. After that, we get lunch. Okay?”
“That’ll be fine.”
“Good. Welcome to Suzhou!”
Lidia had vague and cloudy recollections of Grant Avenue, back before her family uprooted and headed to Illinois. As a girl, she had been awestruck by the crowded streets of San Francisco. That was nothing. Even at a time of day where traffic was relatively low, the sidewalks were packed nearly shoulder to shoulder. On some level, Lidia still felt like that little girl, waiting to be swept away by the human wave.
Alice glanced back at Lidia. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry, I lost myself for a moment,” said Lidia. “Where’s the office?”
“Across the street, on right.” Alice pointed to a towering office building, glistening in the morning sun. “Floor twelve.”
* * * * * * *
There was a tone as the elevator doors opened onto the offices of the Qingxi Yanli Education Group. Lidia had never expected it to be this warm or inviting. The walls were painted in subtle pastels and lined with pictures of groups of happy children. A handful of love seats sat against the walls, looking out onto a large television set. A young woman sat at a reception desk at the rear of the room, a pair of glass doors behind her leading into the office. Were it not for the hanzi covering the walls and desk, it would have looked like any number of front offices in the United States.
“Welcome to the office. I will introduce you.” Alice walked over to the reception desk. “This is Huang Yan. She takes care of our clients.”
Huang Yan stared at Lidia for a few seconds before leaning over to Alice. “Ta yinggai shi Meiguo ren?”
“I am American,” snapped Lidia. She shook her head. “Sorry, I’m still tired.”
“That is okay.” Alice held open the door for Lidia. “Please, come in.”
The door opened onto a hallway lined with office space and classrooms. Whiteboards and cork boards dotted the walls. Next to the door on the right was a small display – photographs of teachers with names and basic information, all enclosed under glass. There were around a dozen pictures, though it seemed like the display had been originally made to accommodate more.
“Are you the new foreign teacher’s director?” A fair-skinned woman in a dark pantsuit stepped out of one of the offices. She looked to be in her mid-30’s, with a certain confidence that suggested she was comfortable in that office environment. “Caris Healey.”
“Lidia Zhang. Yeah, I’m the new director. And you…?”
“Oh! Sorry. I’m here from the central office.” Caris looked at Alice. “You can take a break.”
“Thank you.” Alice nodded slightly and backed into another room. “You will get me when it is time to do errands.”
Caris turned back to Lidia. “Sorry to drop in unannounced. It’s the first time we’ve had a foreigner in this position, and the big bosses felt you might need a little extra help figuring everything out.”
Lidia rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, my understanding is that I make schedules, prep the teachers, and run out the bad ones.”
“That’s just the start of it,” said Caris. “You’ve never taught, have you?”
“Actually, I was a student teacher for years.”
“College students are altogether different. Dealing with these kids takes a very different set of skills believe me.” Caris stared through the door to the lobby. “I was hoping you could meet the senior teacher and he could fill you in, but I don’t see him anywhere. You arrived at an awkward time – we’re in between semesters, so unless someone’s doing an in-center private class or working on lesson plans, we really can’t say where they are.”
“Is it really that important?” asked Lidia.
“Part of the job. You have to know the personalities to know where they’re going to fit best.” Caris stepped back into the office. “I’ll introduce you to the ones who are here.”
The teacher’s office was a cluttered mess, a result of its use as a meeting room, storage space, extra classroom, or whatever else was needed at the time. The center of the room was occupied by a large conference table, covered in handouts and abandoned books. The table, in turn, was ringed by an odd assortment of office furniture – carrel desks, bookshelves packed with assorted teaching supplies, a minifridge, coffee maker, water cooler, and an odd assortment of storage containers.
“Is this our new boss?” No sooner had they entered a room than a young woman sprang to her feet and ran over. She had a blonde ponytail and wore a very plain, conservative outfit, save an ornate sterling silver cross that dangled from her neck. “I’m…oh, sorry. MY NAME IS GLORIA. I AM ONE OF YOUR TEACHERS. I AM NEW HERE TOO.”
Lidia stared blankly at Gloria. “Yes, I could guess that you were new.”
Gloria clasped both hands around her mouth. “Oh! This is so embarrassing. I just assumed you were another local.”
“Yes, a lot of people make that mistake,” said Lidia.
“I’ll just get back to my plans.” Gloria backed away, nodding and trying to maintain a smile.
Caris leaned over to Lidia. “That’s Gloria Albright. Only been here a months, fresh from some dirt patch in the middle of nowhere…you know the type. Forgive her, she doesn’t mean to offend.”
“That might be difficult,” said Lidia.
“Get used to it. You’re a diplomat, now.” Caris gestured over to a lady seated at the table – an older woman with short, curly hair and a round face, quietly working on what Lidia took for a lesson plan. “And this is Emily Hallowell.”
Emily stood up and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss Zhang.”
“Sure,” said Lidia, shaking Emily’s hand. “If I can be honest, I’m surprised you don’t have seniority.”
“Oh, I haven’t even been here a year,” said Emily. “This is something I always wanted to do, and I never had the time until recently.”
“What did you do before?” asked Lidia.
“Registered nurse,” said Emily.
“We do appreciate having someone on staff who can resuscitate someone in the event that things get carried away.” Caris didn’t smile, leaving Lidia to wonder if she was kidding or not.
“I’ve never had to give anyone medical assistance, but I could,” said Emily. “It’s not so dangerous around here.”
“Good to know,” said Lidia.
“Who else is here…ah.” Caris pointed to a man in casual clothes, sporting a somewhat shabbily trimmed Van Dyke. He was lost in a textbook, searching intently for something that evaded his notice. “This is Doug. Douglas Wellstone.”
“Welcome,” said Doug, waving once before returning to his work.
“He’s a man of few words,” said Caris. “Hey, Doug, you’re friends with the senior teacher, right? Any idea where he is?”
“R.R. is taking a personal day,” said Doug. “He’s probably around here somewhere. He never goes anywhere on his days off.”
“You sure?” said Caris. “I called a few times, he didn’t pick up.”
“R.R. kills his phone on his days off,” said Doug. “He doesn’t want anyone to find him.”
“This is the guy who’s supposed to be helping me shoulder the load?” said Lidia.
“So he’s a little private when he’s off the clock. He does good work, you’ll get along fine together. The last director loved him.” Caris looked around the office. “I really wish there were more people here…I’m sure the girls on staff will throw a little welcome party sometime this week, and you can meet the rest.”
“I really don’t care for parties,” said Lidia.
“You might want to get used to them. As I said, you’re a kind of diplomat, and that means a lot of mingling.” Caris stepped out into the hall. “All right, one more thing and I’ll give you back to Alice – your office. It’s just at the end of the hall.”
Caris unlocked the door to the director’s office. The space was mostly barren, containing little more than a desk with a computer and phone, a chair, and a single filing cabinet. A few spots in the dust on the floor and walls suggested that there was more in this office at one point. There was a window in one wall and an odd-looking mirror in the other.
Lidia looked around the room. “How warm.”
“Guess the last director cleaned the place out when she left,” said Caris. “Well, we can fix this up, get a few things in here. You can decorate it however you want, although I’m not sure how much time you’ll actually spent in here. The director spends a lot of time on the move. Still, if you do need some privacy, this will suit you.” She laid a small key on the desk. “That’s for the door. There’s a file in one of those drawers with contact information on everyone here – numbers, addresses, whatever. The girls on staff will take care of the day-to-day stuff for the teachers, but I might recommend getting in touch with the ones you haven’t met yet.” She clapped her hands together. “I think that’s it for the office…any questions?”
Lidia stared at the mirror. “There’s something funny about this. Why is it built into the wall?” She noticed dim figures moving somewhere deep in the reflection. “…Is this one-way glass?”
“Yes…The original designer felt they needed a non-intrusive way to keep an eye on the teachers.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” said Lidia. “Not one bit.”
“That’s fine. You’re not required to use it,” said Caris. “Well…I’ll give you a few minutes, then send in Alice. I’ll stay in town for a few days to make sure everything’s okay. Went ahead and left a card with my phone number in the file if you need to get in touch.” She backed out of the room. “You’ll do fine, I’m sure.”
Lidia sat down at the desk and looked through the drawers. There wasn’t much there – just the contact file and the name plate of some previous director. She reclined back and sighed deeply.
What the hell did I get myself into?