How It All Breaks: 2014-2015

HowItAllBreaks(Parts 1, 2 and 3)

As 2013 came to an end, I decided it was time to draw something positive out of my pain the only way I knew how. I had been writing novels steadily, but since my dismal failure to find an agent in 2009, I hadn’t even bothered to try and pitch another one. But finally, after four books that I didn’t even bother to sell, I had one that I thought was marketable. Called The Dragon’s Heir, it was derived from my own experiences in Changchun and Suzhou. It wasn’t quite my story, but there was some reality in it. The family of Lidia Zhang was based in part on stories I’d heard of Audrey’s family, and they lived in the same city. More to the point, R.R. Butler, the eventual love interest, was based on me more than I’d like to admit (I’ve never slept with my boss, so my own sexual history isn’t quite as sketchy as his).

The Dragon’s Heir was far and away my most personal project to date, for reasons that I hope are becoming obvious. In effect, it was me carving myself up in hopes that my self-injury would impress someone. I think my own stats from elsewhere on the site tell the tale of how that worked out. It didn’t just fall flat with the agents, though; it also missed the mark with alternative means of publication as well as my attempts to sell it on my own. For the record, if any of you are interested as to what 2014 looked like for me, you can find bits and pieces of it here. This represents last year, more or less in its entirety.

So this year was pretty bleak when it opened. And then, in the middle of it all, Audrey contacted me again.

I didn’t know what was happening at first. She contacted me from a new email address, and she was no longer using the English name, so at first I didn’t know who she was. Here was this Chinese stranger contacting me out of nowhere, but I was willing to talk to him/her. Why not? Oddly enough, something like that happened once before, and I really hoped that this could lead to something positive.

It took a few hours to realize who it was, and once I did, it all came back in an instant. I was enraged, furious that she would come back after I spent so much time trying to forget about her. I responded to her, and I wasn’t very nice. But after the initial shock wore off, I decided to make amends. I could tell that things weren’t going so well for her, and I thought that maybe we could support each other like we used to. I hoped that by sharing my new life with her, I could shed some of the hatred I had felt for three years. It was awkward, and she seemed slow to respond, but I went along with her.

As it turns out, she didn’t just want to get in touch. She had ended up in some serious trouble. And now we get to another sensitive part. I can’t get too specific, not with these issues still going on. So here’s the couched-and-redacted version:

TDHArtCover

Not long after I left, Audrey had been drawn into a marriage by her family. The whole thing had been very quick and she clearly wasn’t sure if she loved this man, but she wanted a family, so she went along with it. Her husband, while from her hometown, had lived and worked in this country for a large portion of his life, which meant that she would eventually move here. This may seem odd given what I already said about her parents, but it makes sense to me – there’s a world of different between her leaving with a man from their town (who was sure to come back at least once a year) and someone from overseas (in which case, how could they know if they’d ever see her again?).

In any case, they had a quick marriage, Audrey had a child, and got her residency. She had moved overseas, at which point things had quickly gone awry. The husband had been seeing someone else in the States and decided that he wanted out of the marriage – he just hadn’t told her that until he had maneuvered her into a situation that he could control. I was the only person she knew, and she needed help badly.

This was a lot to deal with. For three years, I had harbored regrets over leaving Audrey. I had dreamed about the life we could have had if circumstances were different, and just talking to her was very difficult. Now I had to contend with a brand new situation, one in which she had lived a lifetime while I had moldered, chasing futile pursuits. But even beyond that was the guilt over how I had felt all those years. I’d hated her, wished awful things upon her, and meanwhile she was suffering terribly. I’ve been in some terrible, confining situations while living overseas, but she was facing even worse than that. And if there was every anyone who didn’t deserve this kind of treatment, it was Audrey, who has never hurt anyone in her life.

And that’s where I stand as of this writing. I am doing everything I can to help her out – I owe it to her for what she did for me and what I did to her. The lines of communication have gone silent for several days and I’m worried sick. I’ve spent the last week going over the events I’ve just described in my head, trying to find out if there was anything I could have done to make things better for everyone involved. I don’t think there was – I was locked onto this path a long time ago – but that doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility. And that’s how it all breaks – with a single week that recalls seven years of pain, regret, selfishness, cruelty, deception, and failure.

As I end this, I can only hope that it’ll all end okay. I’ve studied the angles, and there’s no reason that we can’t all walk away happy. But as you’ve seen, I’ve said that before. And I don’t know if good intentions are going to be enough.

Curtain

How It All Breaks: 2012-2013

HowItAllBreaks(Parts 1 and 2)

Back home, I did everything I could to keep Audrey’s spirits up. At first, she seemed fine – optimistic that we would be together again. We made plans to bring her over for my birthday. I was excited – I hoped that if I could show her some of the beauty here, she might change her mind about living in the United States. All I needed to do was get that job so I could support us, and it would all be ready.

2012 was not much better than 2009 when it came to looking for jobs. For me, it was a time of endless online applications, long drives and phone interviews all adding up to nothing. But things weren’t going much better for Audrey. She lost her own job and was struggling to find another. Meanwhile, her friends – who must not have cared for her dating a foreigner – had been talking to her parents, telling them that I was trying to steal their daughter. In the middle of all this, Audrey made some errors on her visa paperwork and was denied. She was convinced that she couldn’t meet me here, although I don’t think she really planned to. Even so, I was desperate enough to selfishly string her along, hoping against hope that I could pull a rabbit out of my hat and make it work.

One day, Audrey stopped talking to me. That was it, the end of the dream. She was gone. At first, I begged her to keep talking; when that didn’t work, I sent her angry messages. I was furious with her, angry that I had gone through so much to be with her and she had just cut me off. I hated her.

It’s funny how I felt after that. At first, I didn’t mind so much that she was gone. I remember thinking that maybe I wasn’t ready to get married, that maybe I should be with someone who wouldn’t be so dependent on me. But as the weeks turned into months, I felt the loss more and more. I thought that I would never have anyone like her again. I cried a lot, and spent a lot of late nights trying to find some way to distract myself from my pain.

I started searching for her. I spent hours a night combing through what information that she had given me, looking for something I might have missed. It wasn’t easy, as she had given me very little information about her personal life. So I set up accounts on the Chinese internet and started reaching out to people from her hometown, betting on a longshot that one of them might know her. I tried sending a letter to her last job in hopes of finding an old co-worker, but it only came back. None of it worked.

EGAfter a few months of that, I decided it was time to move on. I drove up to Lawrence, decided that I liked it, and a few months after that I moved there. I put in applications with the university, spent my evenings taking in local music and hanging out in bars, worked on my ever-increasing list of manuscripts, and generally enjoyed my liberty. I sent one last message to Audrey informing her of my new life, then left her alone.

Life in Lawrence is good, but it hasn’t necessarily been so nice for me personally. In my head, I saw myself getting a job at the university within the first month or so, but that didn’t happen. After that, I had to scramble. I had to take what I could find – mostly work from relatives, menial and generally low-paying. It was very depressing, and I found myself trying to forget about my problems through the most straightforward means available.

I’ve never been much of a drinker, which is odd. I grew up in a tiny town where there isn’t much to do but drink, I attended college in what’s euphemistically called a “party town,” and I worked in a country where alcohol is cheap and easy to find. But I never felt the desire to simply get drunk, at least not until I hit the skids in Lawrence. My first urge when things went bad was to throw back a shot. I resisted that, but I didn’t always win. I’d drink until I was numb and feel terribly ashamed, and then I’d stay away for a while. But things didn’t get better, and my personal demons multiplied.

And then I learned two things that made everything a lot worse.

One of them came while I was searching for new friends via the Chinese internet. There’s a big Chinese population in Lawrence, and I thought I could meet some people that way. When I signed up to one of the sites, it searched through my contacts and found Audrey. That was the first time I learned that she was engaged – that she had gotten engaged just a few months after I left. I was angrier than I’ve ever been – Was I that easy to cast aside? Was it all a lie?

OnTheBundI did eventually get over this, thought it took some help. I was on a date with a Chinese student and mentioned finding out that my ex had gotten engaged so quickly. This, in turn, led her to expound on a very strained relationship that she’d had with an American, one that had grown at least as strange as mine before she ended it. She said that Audrey might have felt more comfortable marrying someone from her own country, that she might have been uncomfortable moving here given that she’d never even been outside of China at all. All of it made sense, and I left feeling better.

The other thing was trickier. There was no one to help me on this one, and it was a far bigger shock.

This is something I’ve only recently began to discuss. It’s a shameful thing, and I have no excuse, no escape hatch to make me feel better about it. But I’m tired of keeping secrets and making people think I’m more chivalrous and pure than I really am.

It all goes back to the woman I saw in Changchun, and the possibility that I had a son with her.

All I really had to go on were a few pictures that I found on one of her accounts, pictures of a small boy. He was the right age, looked to be biracial, and even resembled me when I was small. I didn’t have any proof, but my stomach dropped when I saw it. I could only flash back on the last time I saw her.

She had invited me over to her apartment – something she’d never done before. It was awkward, as I’d already told her I was leaving; the relationship was over. She was clearly upset with me, angry and hurt that I wasn’t going to be her husband. I tried to comfort her, but she didn’t want to be touched…not at first. A few minutes later, her attitude changed. She grew very amorous, coming on to me pretty heavily. I’m not going into detail here – you can find another site if you want to get it off – but suffice it to say we ended up making love several times. As I said, I offer no excuse for this. She was a beautiful and sensual woman, and I wanted to sleep with her one more time. That’s all there is to it.

And that’s what passed through my head as I stared at these pictures. I don’t know how much time passed – it could have been hours for all I know. I felt like I was about to pass out. Eventually, though, I regained some of my rationality. I knew that women on these sites would collect other people’s pictures. I realized that there were no other pictures that would suggest that she had a child.

I haven’t spoken with this woman since I found those pictures, so I can never be 100% sure that I don’t have a son with this woman. But I have pretty good evidence that I did not impregnate my ex-girlfriend (something I never thought I’d have to see). But it’s funny how it goes. I realized what I was seeing, the panic passed, I felt relief…and then I felt a little empty. Prior to that moment, I never wanted children. But sitting there, with my life in shambles, the idea that I might have this son actually gave me a strange sense of hope.

And then it was gone, and I was back to my life.

(Final part tomorrow)

LawrenceC

How It All Breaks: 2011

HowItAllBreaks(Check out Part 1 here)

The transpacific flight is always a long one, and there’s not much you can do to make it go faster. You can go the chemically-assisted route, if that’s your thing – drink yourself into oblivion or take pills and pass out for a while. You can try to do some work or tinker with personal projects if you relish the thought of a vice clamped on your skull. For me, though, it was even slower than usual. I was thinking about what waited on the ground.

It was about midnight when we arrived, and Shanghai Pudong was a horrible mess. At that time of year and that time of night, all the arrivals are people coming in for work, and the terminal was packed with representatives from various companies waving signs. I couldn’t spot my company, even as my fellow passengers headed out and the crowd diminished.

Photo0736I was among the last people in the terminal when I saw Audrey. She was standing just behind the crowd, holding a handmade sign that read “Welcome, King.” She had asked if she could meet me there, but I wasn’t sure if I would see her after all. But there she was, like something from a dream I’d had. There was a magic that night that I had taught myself to live without.

As it turned out, Audrey was a more splendid human being that I’d anticipated. I already knew of her kindness and joy, but until we met in person I couldn’t have told you of her generosity or her passion. The first few weeks were difficult, and she was with me the entire way. She came by once a week, and every visit was a breath of fresh air. I was truly lucky.

Well, as far as Audrey was concerned, anyway.

Work wasn’t so bad at first. I found my schools with no problem – fantastic facilities both, with staff who were genuinely pleased that I was there. The textbooks were a pain in the ass, but I’d fully expected that. The relentless pace of the classes – dozens a week, all with different kids – was also tough, but at least I was only expected to come up with a few lesson plans at a time to cover them all.

Life was also an adjustment. In Changchun, everything I needed could be found in the blocks between my apartment and the office. I didn’t need a cell phone, didn’t need to understand the bus schedule. Suzhou was a different beast. I lived in an apartment complex nestled among other apartment complexes, a giant block of housing built for employees of the various companies in the area. There were no bodegas or convenient restaurants, and the closest grocery store was many blocks away. For the first few weeks I just wandered randomly, hoping to find something familiar, somewhere I could receive the same services that came so easily in Changchun. It was a slow process, and I was on my own – the few other teachers I knew had less overseas experience than me.

Sports Ceremony 08The big problem was the main office. They were even less responsive than my previous employers, and when they did talk to me it was usually to complain. These complaints varied quite a bit, but there were a few common themes. They had bought heavily into the “high-tech education” trend that is currently wringing the life out of education in this country. In their case, it manifested as an obsession with PowerPoint Presentations – constant lectures about how I wasn’t using enough PowerPoints with my ten year-old students (clearly a group that would benefit from them). They told me that I shouldn’t follow the textbooks too closely, then complained when I brought in my own materials. I got no end of grief over my lesson plans, which they insisted were not thorough enough (and didn’t mention the all-important PowerPoint Presentations). I was even repirmanded for drawing on the board. Keep in mind, none of this came from the schools – my handlers never had any problem with what I was doing. It was the administrators.

As frustrating as it all was, I was more than happy to put up with it. I had plenty of free time to explore the city, and enough money to enjoy whatever I found. And at the end of every long week, I knew I would get to see Audrey again. It wasn’t the ideal situation I had envisioned, but I was satisfied.

One day, two of the women from the main office came to the school at which I was working. They had done this before, and I assumed it was for the same reason – to observe a class, then complain that I had failed to properly utilize the blessed PowerPoints. Instead, they took me outside and informed me that they didn’t want me working for them anymore.

I didn’t take it well. That’s a nice way of saying that I exploded. After over a year of careful research, it was over.

I’ll never know why they fired me, as they didn’t tell me the truth. They insisted that there were complaints, but I have my doubts. After they fired me, I went back to the teacher’s room to collect my things and informed my handler – the only person in a position to make those complaints – that I wouldn’t be working there anymore. Not only was she shocked, but she headed outside and got into a heated ten-minute argument with the other ladies. It didn’t matter that I had friends on the ground, though – they’d made their decision. I was as good as gone.

And then it got worse. I had been fighting off a stomach problem – something I picked up from bad food or water, but which kept on riding on a wave of stress. I was fine as long as my stomach was empty, but even a tiny bit of food would set my abdomen on fire. I fought through it as best I could, but pickings in Suzhou were slim, and it was only a matter of time before I got kicked out of the apartment.

It was Audrey who came to my rescue. She helped me resettle in Shanghai, walking with me to the train when my stomach caught on fire again. She even got into an argument with one of the women from the office. They’d met on my first day here, and seemed to get along – right up until that moment, when the administrator accused Audrey of only wanting to date a foreigner for sex. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that very prim and proper Chinese women will say terrible things to each other when things turn sour.

Shanghai seemed like a great opportunity – lots of schools, many of which weren’t an option before as they insisted on in-person interviews. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be as easy as I had anticipated. One center advertising an opening turned out to be at capacity when I arrived at the branch. An opening for a business English teacher went bad when I was put on the spot to do a demo class and couldn’t put anything together in time. And then there were those red flags again – that paranoia that I couldn’t shake off as I paged through the listings. With each week, things looked increasingly grim.

Somehow, Audrey’s presence only made things worse. She was doing everything she could to help me and spending all her free time with me, stretching herself to the absolute limit. I was afraid of losing her – but that wasn’t all. I was also growing unsure of what she was expecting from me. She was trying to change me, to get me to better fit in with her world. I could see that she anticipated that I would stay there for a lot more than I had anticipated.

I told my parents that I was going there for a year. In my head, I was prepared for a longer stay – two years, maybe three or four depending on how everything worked out. I had planned to stay until I was ready to marry Audrey. That meant staying at least long enough to get to know her and her family, and long enough to find a decent job back home. I had never planned on teaching forever, just long enough to get everything into place.

I never discussed any of this with Audrey, and that was a major oversight. The more she spoke of her family and hometown, the more I could see that she wouldn’t leave them, and I was afraid to even bring it up. This, too, was a mistake.

I can remember the last time she came to see me. She had brought food, as she had several times. All of a sudden, she started sobbing. I held her and let her cry into my shoulder until my shirt was damp, doing whatever I could to comfort her. It was no good. She said she didn’t know why I was sad. After all, I was going home. In the absense of her family, she had put all of her hopes in me, and now I was leaving her.

It was a long flight.

(Part 3 tomorrow)

Lovers

How It All Breaks: 2008-2010

Let me tell you a story.

It’s a story of love, hate, betrayal, conspiracy, unanticipated joy and haunting regret. It’s picaresque and absurd and long – over 5k words by my count, so this will be multiple parts. It’s a story that proves “’tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” is a crock of shit, but “the road to hell is pave with good intentions” is right on the mark. Above all, it is a true story, albeit one trimmed to avoid hurting anyone. I recount this story not to impart some lesson, but to exorcise some of my own demons. I’m not going to come out of this looking great. Maybe it’s better termed a confession.

Either way, this is a story that hasn’t yet ended. Maybe by the time the last part rolls out, everything will have worked out. I guess we’ll find out together.

HowItAllBreaks

In 2008, I moved to Changchun, a city in northeastern China, to teach ESL. This was something that had been in the works for a while, representing my first serious attempt at any kind of life change. I’d been living safe and lazy for most of my life, and it was time that I stepped out of that world.

After I’d settled in, I decided to start looking for companionship. I started an account on a dating site (something I’ve written about elsewhere) and began reaching out to women in the area. But I also received a message from a woman who called herself Audrey who didn’t live all that close. She was about my age, but she seemed to have a bit of a schoolgirl crush on me from the moment I responded. She would spill out intimate details of her life at the drop of a hat and responded to my problems with intense emotions. I had no romantic interest in her – she didn’t seem like my type, and I was already heavily involved with another woman – but she was a nice person, so I exchanged emails with her for a while. After two months or so, I stopped hearing back from her. I didn’t think about her after that.

After that, a lot of very bad things happened. Poke around on this blog and you’ll find accounts of a lot of those things, but suffice it to say the job didn’t work out. Neither did the one after it, or the one after that. Nevertheless, I managed to stick it out for a year before returning home.

There is one part of this story about which I’ve never gone into much detail – the woman I was seeing at time and how the relationship ended. I knew her as Orchid, a beautiful name for a woman who had some problems. Her family was pressuring her into marrying and having a child, and I began to suspect that she was interested in me more as a solution to that problem than someone she really loved. Once I decided to return home, the relationship deteriorated quickly. After I told her I was leaving, I only saw her once more to say goodbye. The whole thing became so messy by the end that, for quite a while after, I had no interest in seeing anyone else – for the best, as I had other problems to deal with.

KoSCover2009 was a terrible year to look for a job. I had hoped to return to Lawrence, KS, where I had gone to college, and get something there, but everything fell through. In the meantime, I kept hearing stories about other people working or studying overseas and it made me very wistful. I tried to write a book about my experiences, but I soon discovered that there was simply no interest in my story as it was rejected dozens upon dozens of times by agents without a single request to see more. Against my better judgment, I found myself looking for more jobs overseas, and in 2010 I began sending out applications. This time, though, I would be ready; I would not repeat the mistakes I’d made before, I would ask questions and turn down anything that seemed suspicious at all.

Not long after I began my search, I received an unexpected message. It was Audrey, the woman I had first heard from over a year prior. It was strange, but there weren’t many people to speak with in my hometown, so I appreciated the conversation. I filled her in on what had happened in Changchun, and then started sending her periodic updates on my job search – one every week or two. She still had a bit of a crush on me, and showed a lot of concern over my prospects. When I mentioned looking into opportunities in a somewhat unstable country, she sent me warnings. I appreciated it.

But as time went on, it became more than appreciation. I started to have feelings for her, too. She had this irrepressible optimism, a sunny nature that made my own granite heart lift a little. Every little thing I told her about myself, she remembered as though it were vital. Any morning I received a email from her was a good one – no matter what setbacks I faced, it made me feel hopeful. I didn’t even know what she looked like, I only knew a little about her family, but I could already feel a deeper connection to her. I began to shift my job search back towards China, and more specifically towards the Shanghai area where she lived.

MidAutumnFor a while, I didn’t think it was going to happen. Numerous opportunities in the Shanghai area dried up – either they didn’t want me or I was too suspicious about what they were telling me. The whole process was becoming ever more stressful. I was staying up until one and two o’clock in the morning every day because that was the only time I could talk to the people at these organizations. Sometimes, I would send off documents, then have to wait for days before I heard anything back. I found plenty of ways to fill the time, but it was hard to enjoy myself, especially after the first few failures. Over a year had passed since I started my new search, and I was harboring doubts. Was it such a good idea? Changchun was notoriously corrupt, and I’d always figured that was why my previous experience had been so bad. And yet I was running into the same red flags everywhere I looked. I was afraid to keep looking, but I was also afraid to quit.

But then, in the summer of 2011, it happened – I received an offer from a company in Suzhou, an ancient city not far from Shanghai. The company was legit, I couldn’t find any complaints about them, and they were going to let me work in actual schools rather than teaching centers. As good as it looked, I was still tense over the whole thing. I spent days walking through the countryside, weighing the pros and cons and trying to decide if I was strong enough to take this risk again. In the end, though, it was something I had to do. And so I gathered my belongings and prepared for what I hoped to be a much better experience.

(Part 2 tomorrow)

Image by Jhong (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image by Jhong (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Socialism, Sustainability, Sushi and Sencha

Mike Huckabee does not speak for me.

As you may know, the fiery-yet-avuncular former governor recently kicked off a tour and media blitz for his new culture war tome. If it seems like there’s been a lot of press for yet another pundit’s book tour, it’s because everyone assumes that this is really the prelude to Huckabee’s probable Presidential run. That’s the kind of thing that makes our horse race-obsessed press drool.

Courtesy of M. E. J. Newman, University of Michigan

Courtesy of M. E. J. Newman, University of Michigan

Like many people who’ve made a run for President, Huckabee has published books about his beliefs and the policies he favors. This latest one is a different beast, though. It’s a compare-and-contrast between two worlds – “Bubbavilles,” where Real, True Americans live, and the decadent and out-of-touch “Bubblevilles” such as New York City. We’ll set aside the irony of referring to one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth as a “bubble,” as it’s a joke that’s been made by everyone who glanced at the cover and I’m above that kind of thing (usually).

This “Two Americas” nonsense is nothing new. Its current incarnation goes back at least fifteen years, when David Brooks used it to catapult himself to greater success. I’ve been clear about my feelings on Brooks, and many conservatives share that sentiment – justifiably, in my opinion. I see no evidence of similar rancor towards Huckabee, even though he’s saying the same thing, albeit in a much more folksy way.

There’s a specific narrative at work, one which explains why Brooks’ “bobos” invoked a conservative rage that Huckabee’s “bubbas” won’t. To the cultural conservatives who make up Huckabee’s audience, the mores, values, beliefs and tastes of our society are not ever-changing things that have shifted and continue to shift based on more factors than I could possibly detail here. Rather, this culture was a solid and immutable thing for the first two hundred years in this country’s history. It had to be changed by some sinister force, one that – in a stunning coincidence – waited to spring into action until the Baby Boomer social conservatives were old enough to notice it. They’re pretty sure they know who’s to blame, too – a tiny clique of liberal masterminds in places like Los Angeles and Berkeley and Manhattan, well-to-do elitists who made their fortunes in lucrative fields such as academia and civil service and now sip $13 cocktails in trendy bistros while they plot how to manipulate the commoners. Apparently, these are the only people in the States who don’t see that gay marriage is a threat to the republic.

There’s another side to that equation – those Real, True Americans living in Real, True America who are the victims of the elitists and their machinations. The interior of the country is a homogeneous, monolithic whole, comprised of humble, unassuming folk. They have the same families with the same struggles, attend the same churches every Sunday (or at least claim to), watch the same television shows (covering their children’s ears at the same parts) and face the same struggles. They also hold the same opinions, viewing the Hollywood smut-merchants, Beltway socialists and moral relativists as the enemy to their simple, honest, disciplined, simple (Did I say that already? Well, it bears repeating), God-fearing lives.

I’ve been led to believe that these two points are the only possibilities, without even a spectrum between them. You’re either a Real, True American or an elitist swine. The chief distinguishing traits are not things like class or social status, but where you live and what you like – and the latter is a factor of the former. People who are born and live in “bubbles” all like “bubble” things and hold “bubble” beliefs, and the same goes for the people in the Real America.

Chinese propaganda and hippety-hop.

Chinese propaganda and hippety-hop.

So going by that, it’s pretty clear where I stand. I’m one of those elitist New Yorker Ivy League globe-trotting sophisticate types who drinks sencha, displays vintage Chinese propaganda posters on my walls, hangs out with artists and indie musicians and listens to the society-destroying hippety-hop on vinyl. Clearly, I must be a “bubble” who doesn’t understand the “bubbas.”

Well, except that I’m not from New York and I’ve never lived there. I’ve never lived on either coast, actually – I’m from a town of less than 7,000 people in western Kansas. And I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, I went to state college, also in Kansas.

Huh. How about that.

Pardon the affectation, but as you may have guessed I’ve run into this particular crock before. This red-versus-blue, elitists-versus-just-folks thing is something that’s annoyed me since people started capitalizing on it. I keep thinking it’s gone (if only to be replaced by some other obnoxious, trivial thing), only to have it crop up every election cycle. It’s just too useful, a trump effective against politician who’s ever let his guard down or disregarded her press manager’s advice.

And I hate it. I don’t hate it because it trivializes the political process or because it feeds into an American cult of personality or anything similarly high-minded. I hate it because it means that someone is about to explain my own life to me, and that person is going to be full of shit.

Now, I don’t like Mike Huckabee. I find him dishonest in general and that stunt he pulled last year where he shilled for the CCP on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre was truly nauseating. Nevertheless, I don’t think he’s lying about the people he knew in Arkansas. He’s doing what most people do – generalizing their own experiences to a broad swath of people, applying a stereotype to a hundred million people he’s never met. The result is that Huckabee and his ilk ended up describing the place in which I spent most of my life as though it were a country I couldn’t pick out on a map.

This culture warrior version of the world does not encompass many of the people I knew growing up. Not the young iconoclast who Photoshopped an unpopular principal’s face into a 1984 “Big Brother” poster and distributed it around school. Not the pothead who used to get his kicks driving around town in an old hearse. Not the Mormon kids who were avid Dungeons & Dragons players. Not the 13-year-old girl who knew more filthy jokes by heart than anyone I’ve ever met. Not the guy who would jimmy open a locked classroom door if the teacher was late and taught me how to do the same. Not the good friend of mine who read Hunter Thompson like he was a prophet and got into shouting matches with the evangelical kids who called him a sinner. Not the girl who showed up at a dance with a female friend from out of town so the other girl could get in, and definitely not the students who came to her defense with the principal refused to let them in, thereby setting a precedent for legit same-sex couples in the future (and all without overpriced cocktails).

It also doesn’t include me.

Band01In all the descriptions of the good ol’ boys and clean-cut Boy Scouts that supposedly dominate my neck of the woods, I have never seen anyone who sounds like me. Not even close. I never went hunting or owned a gun. I didn’t spend my weekends under the hood of a car. I never played football, or even watched it; on the numerous occasions I was dragged to a game, I spent most of the time in the company of one of my compact friends from Nintendo. These stereotypes leave no room for the kid who read Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent at age 14 and spent the next two years talking about media consolidation to anyone who would listen. They leave no room for the kid who, for a state writing test, wrote an essay about why the test was badly designed and he didn’t feel the need to follow their standards. They leave no room for the kid who was drawn into a band and spent the end of a recording session freestyling an anti-war message for two minutes because he’d only bothered to write one stanza. For whatever it’s worth, that’s my life, and it’s not reflected in anyone’s Midwest clichés.

And there’s the clincher, the key that makes this all so absurd. You have people who perceive some sneering attitude from Hollywood or Harvard or whatever other shorthand for “coastal liberal traitors” happens to be in vogue. Their response to stereotypes is to double down on those same stereotypes, assuring their detractors (real or imagined) that everything they believe is true. And neither side acknowledges that there’s more complexity in this nation of ours than they imagined.

No one leaves room for a Midwestern town where – were I thusly inclined and had a lot more money – I could walk out of my door, purchase an ounce of Camel’s Breath pu’er and an original pressing of the White Album, tour a half-dozen art galleries, enjoy steak tartare with a $13 cocktail, watch some transgressive filth in an arthouse theater and wave to the local cannabis legalization advocates on my way home. And that’s a shame. If we could acknowledge the breadth of human experience and the diversity of culture that exists in our society, we could have more understanding and a lot more fun.

EG

The Great Fabulist Rewriting Project: Storyteller

I’m back from the void with more art, this time courtesy of artist Hragon. People seem to have a hard time visualizing Storyteller, so here you are:

StorytellerHragonNT

Here’s the description I gave to get the above image:

  • Character Name: Storyteller (spoiler omitted)
  • Age: Late 20’s/Early 30’s
  • Physical Description: He is of below average height and has a wanderer’s build – very slender (borderline emaciated) but with a bit of lean muscle on his frame. He has a narrow face which shows the signs of a life on the road, and consequently he looks older than he really is. His features have an “eroded” look. He has ratty brown hair and soft brown eyes.
  • Personality: Friendly, generally likable, though also rather loquacious. Nevertheless, he can be standoffish when it comes to his own personal history. He is a dedicated pacifist who solves his problems through charm and cunning.
  • Additional details: Storyteller’s clothing is all salvaged – contemporary, but mismatched and stitched up. This gives him a very patchwork appearance. He carries an old satchel – a small messenger bag – which contains a leather-bound notebook and pen, his most precious possessions.
  • Setting: Illinois circa 2030, fifteen years after a global catastrophe.

The Great Fabulist Rewriting Project

I’m a little late on this one since I’m almost finished, but what the hell. Does anyone remember The Fabulist, that story I wrote a year ago? You know, this thing? Well, I’ve spent the last six weeks painstakingly rewriting it for the purposes of publication. I’ll probably go into the details a little later, but here’s the short version. Thus far, there have been three major problems that have stopped me from shopping it around: the length, the connections to the unpublished Illinois Trilogy, and the lack of any similar books that might convince an agent that mine will sell. That last one is obviously outside of my control, but I’ve come up with a way to solve the first two by combining this story with elements from The Sunshine Crew, the novel preceding it.

Anyway, there’s not much to say at this point, so I’ve decided to post some pretty pictures. I’ve been speaking to some of the good people on the forums of the National Novel Writing Month about some book-related art. Here’s the first bit, a gorgeous cover design courtesy of the Inksplatter Art Shoppe. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

FNT

The Dragon’s Heir Needs Your Vote

Some of you may have noticed that there hasn’t been a new update to The Dragon’s Heir in a few weeks. I wish I could say that this was planned, but you know how it is – you slip once, it tends to keep happening. Anyway, this isn’t an apology, so I’ll get to the point right now. There’s this new program on Amazon…

Kindle Scout is reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books. It’s a place where readers help decide if a book gets published. Selected books will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50% eBook royalty rate, easy rights reversions and featured Amazon marketing.

…and The Dragon’s Heir is now up for consideration. And I need nominations.

It's better, but is is good?

Okay, you can read all of Amazon’s marketing crap here, but the short of it is that if I can get a lot of votes over the next four weeks, I have a shot at getting The Dragon’s Heir into their program. So you’re supposed to vote for The Dragon’s Heir and then share it with your friends, and I’m supposed to talk you into evangelizing for me by telling you how awesome the program is.

Well…eh, it’s okay, I guess. Certainly, we’ve all learned just how author-unfriendly Amazon can be over the last year or so. I’ve even complained about them myself. And Writer Beware, which tracks new developments in the publishing industry, seems a bit mixed about the whole thing.

Okay, so I’m not exactly thrilled about this program. Then why am I involved? As I put across in this post, this was an extremely personal and important project for me. I’ve spent this entire wretched year trying to sell it through every channel I could find – two hundred agents, then a range of alternative publishing options, until I was down to posting it piece by piece here. I’ve come to hate this manuscript, actually. And now it’s nearly December, and this is my last real shot.

So yes, this is a desperation move, the option of final resort. If it fails this time, then I’ll have no choice but to acknowledge that it is offensive, artless, unpalatable trash of the worst order and then dispose of it so that it will no longer remind me of my hackdom. If you feel that this is extreme, I invite you to go to the Scout page and nominate it. There’s a quarter of the novel or so on the blog, if you’d like to read more first.

To reiterate, I would like you to a) Go here and nominate me and b) Hit some of those share buttons below so that other people may do the same. Please do not hit the “Like” button on this post. That doesn’t help me at all, not an ounce. If you do not want to do either “a” or “b,” then hitting the “Like” button is not a consolation prize for me. Thank you.

The Dragon’s Heir Complete: Chapter 12 (Winter)

-2008-

The years leading up to college were brutal, but it actually got a lot easier after that. I looked at a lot of schools, but ultimately I went for one in my own backyard – Garden College, the institution my father had shaped. You might think that studying so close to home would be stifling, but it was quite the opposite. Maybe dad felt that I had finally accomplished my goal, maybe he felt I didn’t need his help anymore – all I know is that he gave me some room for the first time in my life.

For the first time, I had the freedom to pursue my own goals. No longer was I bound to my family traditions, I could be my own woman. But it’s funny how it goes – as soon as I was free from my father’s traditions, I began to ponder what those traditions meant. I immersed myself in Garden’s East Asian department – the history, the poetry, the language. Suddenly, my home became my greatest resource.

Except…My home was changing, too. Dad was spending more and more time away from home, and when he was home he was distracted by business. I tried to talk to him, but he never had much time for me. After years of dictating the course of my life, of drills and tests and lessons, it was like he had no more use for me.

I know that’s not true. He had his reasons, I’m sure. But after leaning on him my entire life, I was devoid of any direction. I was lost, alone. Mother tried to help me through this, but I could tell that she was lost, too. It seemed like she grasped the situation in a way that I didn’t, but she could never quite explain it to me. “You’ll understand one day” – that’s what she told me. I heard that almost every day.

With nothing but time, I threw myself into school. Education became my sole driving force. I didn’t see anything that wasn’t in a textbook. At first, I was trying to make him proud, to have something to discuss when he visited campus. But as those visits grew less frequent, I only redoubled my efforts, trying to fill that space with knowledge.

It worked. And then, one day, he sent me a message.

* * * * * * *

It was an unusually chilly morning in Suzhou, and Lidia was taking a personal day. It had been a while – ever since the last blowup at QYE, Lidia had made it a habit to check in on the office every day, even when the staff informed her that it wouldn’t be necessary. The last thing she wanted was any more drama transpiring under her nose. Anyway, relaxation just wasn’t in her nature – every day had to be, in some sense, a productive day. That morning wasn’t much different. What Lidia was doing was business in a sense, just not QYE business. She was more than happy to sacrifice the ready convenience and manpower in exchange for a little added privacy.

It’s not like Lidia needed the help, anyway. All she had to do was find a little bit of information, the kind people felt increasingly comfortable sharing with the world. It was a job simply accomplished by one woman and one computer. At least, that’s what she thought before she started. As she stared at the display, at the hundreds of identical names and thousands of similar ones, the futility of her task set in.

Brzzzzzh.

Lidia slammed the lid of the laptop shut and hopped up, nearly kicking out the chair behind her. It was a moment before she realized that she was still alone, the sound coming from the intercom. She sprinted into the living area and grabbed the receiver, interrupting the device before it could emit its ear-splitting ring a second time.

“Hello?”

“Is this Lidia Zhang?”

“Yeah. Who is this?”

“Caris Healey, from the QYE central office. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Lidia rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “Is there another emergency?”

“No, nothing like that. Can I come in? It’s a little cold.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll be down in a second.”

Lidia hung up the receiver and stepped to the door. She quickly took stock of herself – a bit of a mess, but at least she was respectably dressed. She threw open the door and sprinted down the stairs, taking them two at a time until she reached the bottom. Caris was waiting outside the door, dressed in an outfit that seemed excessive given the rather mild weather. “Good morning!”

“Yeah, sure.” Lidia opened the door, and Caris shot through and into the building. “It’s really not that cold.”

“Colder than I’m used to.” Caris glanced up the stairs. “Ah, I see they started you off in a walkup. Sixth floor, right?”

“It’s not so bad.”

“Give it time. I was in one of these things for a few years when I started, and racing up and down five flights every time you need some drinking water gets old.” Caris slipped off her heavy coat. “Mind if we go upstairs for a little bit?”

With a silent nod, Lidia led Caris up the stairs to her apartment. Stopping at the door, she turned back to Caris. “Is this business?”

“Yes, but it won’t take long at all.” Caris gestured towards the door. “Please?”

“Hmm.” Lidia held open the door for Caris to enter. “Go ahead.”

Caris entered the apartment and began to pace about, peering into every nook and cranny. “This place isn’t so bad. I hate to say it, but the people in Shanghai tend to put their first-years in real dumps.” She lowered herself onto the couch. “Yeah. I’ve lived in places that were way worse than this.”

Lidia leaned over the arm of the couch. “You said this was about business?”

“Oh, right.” Caris leaned forward. “I hate to bother you at your home, but you weren’t at the office and you didn’t pick up when I called.”

“I took the day off, and I left my phone in the other room. I didn’t want any distractions.”

“Personal business?”

“Yeah…” Lidia cleared her throat. “…I’m…giving a hand to someone at the office.”

“That’s nice. Going for the beloved boss, I see.” Caris smiled, but it quickly faded. “By the way, I’d really like to apologize for that situation with Martin Prosser. Look, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have kicked him out and left you short-handed like this, but that’s just how the company works. You get an order from above, you follow it, regardless of your personal opinion.”

“That much I get,” said Lidia. “What I don’t understand is why they’d specifically put me in charge of personnel and then swoop in and interfere in that duty. Why am I even here if they’re going to micromanage me like that?”

Caris shrugged. “Welcome to business in China.”

“I guess that’s something I should just get used to.” Lidia crossed her arms. “Was there something else? I doubt you came down from Shanghai just to have this chat.”

“Right. Almost slipped my mind.” Caris reached into the pocket of her coat and produced an envelope. “I have some paperwork.”

Lidia sat on the arm of the couch. “You could have just had the local office make a copy for me. I would have filled them out next time I was there.”

“Oh, these are already filled out,” said Caris. “This isn’t really about the documents. The locals want to size you up.”

“Size me up?” Lidia took the envelope from Caris. “Who are we talking about, here? QYE, or some teaching bureau?”

Caris stood up and donned her coat. “I’d explain, but it would take too much time. Just accept that this is something else you’ll have to get used to.”

Lidia stared at the envelope. “Fine, I’ll do it. But in the future, I expect more of an explanation.”

“Can’t make any promises,” said Caris. “Come on, get your things. This shouldn’t take more than an hour. I’ll even buy lunch.”

“Where are we going, exactly?”

Caris adjusted her coat. “The Suzhou Industrial Park. It’ll be very casual, don’t sweat it.”

“I’m still not totally clear on what that is,” said Lidia, collecting her bag.

“It’s not that far from your apartment, you’ve never been there?” Caris smiled. “The SIP is the heart of commerce here. It won’t be the last time you end up there, I guarantee.”

“Business isn’t really my thing,” said Lidia.

“Funny statement coming from a businesswoman.” Caris opened the door. “It’s not that far, but how about we grab a bus? The cold doesn’t agree with me.”

* * * * * * *

Minutes later, Lidia and Caris were on a bus rumbling its way towards the SIP. Caris was talking the entire time – a full description of the various bureaus that were looking over their shoulders – but Lidia only listened enough to know when to nod. The rest of the time, she watched the city, changing from the comparatively quaint apartments in her neighborhood to skyscrapers, large venues, and restaurants with familiar international brands. The people were changing, too – more people in business garb, but also more foreigners. After months spend in a complex inhabited mainly by locals, the sight of so many Westerners was almost disorienting.

“…that’s not all of them, but it is the ones that actually matter to us.” Caris nudged Lidia’s shoulder. “You okay? You look a little confused.”

“There are more foreigners here than I anticipated,” said Lidia.

“Well, sure. A lot of companies have their headquarters here. It’s like Shanghai in miniature, really. Western restaurant chains, markets with Western products, they’ve got it. If you want to take a few hours and go someplace where you’ll fit in…” Catching herself, Caris cleared her throat. “…Anyway, this meeting shouldn’t be a big deal. The guy’ll take the documents, look you over, maybe ask a few questions, and then you’re done for the day. We go to TGIF.”

“Sounds simple enough.” On a deeper level, Lidia doubted that it would be that easy. However, this was not the time to show doubt.

Caris peeked out the window. “That’s our stop coming up. Come on, you don’t want to get stuck behind the crowd and miss the meeting.”

Lidia left the bus and followed Caris a few blocks to a sizable building. “Here?” said Lidia. “You should have told me. I could have pulled out the suit.”

“You need a suit to go there?” Caris pointed at the corner of the building. There was a small business sporting the familiar Starbucks logo.

Lidia glared for a moment. “You’re kidding.”

“I told you it would be casual,” said Caris. “Hey, I bet it’s been a while since you have any decent coffee, huh?”

“I don’t drink coffee.”

“A graduate who doesn’t drink coffee? You’re a real rarity.” Caris held open the door. “After you.”

The inside of the coffee shop was familiar, much more so than Lidia had anticipated. She had expected some local spin on the franchise, but aside from the language on the menu it was identical to the franchises she’d seen back home. The crowd, on the other hand, was an interesting mix. Local college students intermingled with Westerners toting their small children and businessmen from a odd handful of nations.

Caris nodded towards one of the tables – a lean man of perhaps 35, sitting alone, smoking and nursing a cup of black coffee. “Lidia, this is Ricky Jiang. Good morning, Jiang Xiansheng.” Mr. Jiang nodded – a barely perceptible acknowledgement. “This is Lidia Zhang, from our Suzhou branch.”

Mr. Jiang took a drag off his cigarette, letting the smoke slowly escape from his lips as he studied Lidia. “{Nice to meet you, Ms. Zhang.}”

Lidia took a seat across from Mr. Jiang. “{Good afternoon.}”

“{Yes.}” Mr. Jiang knocked off his ashes. “I{ had heard that the new director was American.}”

“{She is American,}” said Caris. “Oh, sorry. I’ll let you take care of this.”

“{I was born in California,}” said Lidia.

“{You speak the language very well for a Westerner,}” said Mr. Jiang. “{Chinatown?}”

“{My mother was. My father was from this country. I picked it up from them.}”

Mr. Jiang nodded. “{Interesting.}”

Lidia pulled out the envelope and placed it on the table. “I understand that you’re here to collect these?”

Mr. Jiang opened the envelope and gave a perfunctory glance at the contents. “Good.” He looked back at Lidia. “You are here how long?”

“Half a year.”

“And you will stay here how long?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Mr. Jiang sipped at his coffee. “What does your husband think of this?”

“I’m not married.”

“This is too bad.” Mr. Jiang shoved the envelope into his bag. “We are finished. Thank you, Zhang Xiaojie.”

“That’s it?” said Lidia.

“That’s it,” answered Caris. “Come on, let’s go.”

Lidia followed Caris out of the coffee shop. “I got the feeling that there was some hidden meaning in that conversation.”

“There was,” said Caris. “Once you’ve lived here long enough, you’ll realize that most conversations have some subtext.”

“If it’s a cultural thing, I’d think I would understand it.”

Caris smirked. “You’d think.” She quickly composed herself. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be so snide. But we all have things to learn. Did someone at the office talk to you? The senior teacher, maybe?”

“Yes, he did,” said Lidia. “I grew up in this family. Are both of you telling me that there are aspects of this culture that you get but I don’t?”

“You know, they have a lot of terms in this country for foreign-born Chinese. You’d never use any of them in polite company.” Caris laughed. “Look, there’s no reason for this to be tense. How about lunch? Any place around here you like?”

“I think I’m going to take a pass on that,” said Lidia. “I need to get back to my project.”

“Have it your way,” said Caris. “Oh, but in the future, if someone asks you to go out to a restaurant or a bar? You really shouldn’t turn them down that flat. Some people might take offense.”

Lidia nodded. “Thanks for the advice.”

==========

Just discovered the series? You can catch up on previous chapters here, or get the whole story here, right now. Don’t forget to tell your friends!

The Dragon’s Heir Complete: Chapter 11 (Winter)

-2003-

I never really felt like an outsider until I reached high school. They tell me that everyone feels alone when they hit puberty, but this was different. There weren’t so many immigrants in Paradise Gardens back then, and I remember being the only Asian in my school who wasn’t an exchange student.

When we were kids, it didn’t matter – no one cares about race at that age. High school was different. We had a really strange district setup, which meant a lot of new faces in my school. It felt like they were trying to make me feel different. The girls in my class used to ask me questions – questions about my hair, the food I ate, my religion. They all acted like I was from Mars, like I couldn’t understand their strange Earth customs. The boys weren’t any better. Most of them ignored me; the rest paid too much attention to me. They’d tell me how exotic I was, as though I was supposed to take that as a compliment.

I’d never admit it to anyone, but that was the first time I really resented my parents. My classmates were teenagers, I couldn’t blame them for their ignorance. But my dad did everything in his power to make me feel like I didn’t belong. He started bringing in his business contacts – not Joshua Jameson, these men were from China. Whenever they showed up, it meant that mom and I had our own roles to play. Mom grew up in Chinatown, so she was used to that sort of thing. It was new for me.

I can still remember the first time, as clear as if it happened an hour ago. For weeks in advance, dad was playing these strange CDs in the house – some kind of traditional music, far different than the music he normally enjoyed. A few days before, my parents took me to a special dressmaker to have me fitted for a qipao. I didn’t understand any of it, I just went along.

It wasn’t until his contacts arrived at our home that I realized that he had a role for me to play, too. I was to be the obedient, filial daughter, the perfect complement to his perfect home. The day before they arrived, I was already prepared for presentation – dressed in my traditional clothing, my hair carefully arranged.

“Dad? I don’t understand.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “{In our language, dear.}”

“{I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?}”

“{Just introduce yourself. You can do that, right?}”

“{Yes, father.}”

“{Also, do you remember your vocal lessons?}”

“{You want me to sing? I don’t know…}”

“{Only if you are comfortable, Zhang Lan. I know you will do me proud.}”

I always did what he wanted. I presented myself to his guests, I sang their songs in their language. I was dutiful, obedient.

* * * * * * *

The onset of winter brought with it an early snow – very light, like a dusting of white across the streets. R.R. Butler didn’t much care for it, less for the snow itself than for the awful mess it made in every public building. The floors of every store and restaurant were covered in a thin layer of filthy slush, making ever step a bit precarious. Auchan was about the worst in that regard, owing to the massive amount of foot traffic day and night. Still, the lure of reasonably priced pastries was hard to resist, so on his first day after the end of regular classes he made the trek to 85 Degrees.

As R.R. finished loading his tray, someone stepped in front of him. “Qing gei wo ta de zhangdan.”

“Excuse me…” R.R. looked up to see Lidia laying down a few bills. “What’s this?”

“I’m paying you back for the Yunnan,” said Lidia.

R.R. shrugged. “All right. I suppose you want to join me?”

“Actually, I was hoping you’d join me.” Lidia pointed to a booth with a tray already sitting on the table.

“It’s your world, boss.” R.R. slid into the booth, Lidia taking the seat opposite him. “So what, you just happened to be here today?”

Lidia cleared her throat. “I’ve been coming here daily for about a week and a half.”

“Just to see me?” R.R. crossed his arms. “That’s a little creepy.”

“Well, I don’t know where any of the other teachers go on their days off.” Lidia pushed a half-eaten donut around the plate. “I went to the Chrysanthemum one night, but that went badly.”

“You went to Chrissy?” Immediately, a toothy smile spread across R.R.’s face. “Did they show you the back room?”

Lidia groaned. “Yeah, they showed me the back room. Some guy offered me money to sleep with him. Do I really look like a prostitute?”

“All the women back there are prostitutes,” said R.R. with an unusual frankness. “Or, at least, the local women are. You didn’t notice a lot of suspiciously attractive Chinese ladies cozying up to sloppy drunk Westerners?”

“Yeah…”

“How sheltered are you?” R.R. took a bite out of a baked sandwich before continuing. “There are a lot of prostitutes in this country, but they’re not streetwalkers. They occupy legitimate businesses. In some places they’re in massage parlors, in others they hang out at hotels. Here, they cruise nightclubs. Places like the Chrysanthemum are where foreigners go to get laid.”

“It would have been nice if someone had told me,” muttered Lidia.

R.R. threw up his hands. “Well, I could have told you if you’d given me a chance.”

The two of them sat in silence for several minutes. “How many of the teachers hate me now?”

“Most of them don’t know you well enough to hate you,” said R.R. “If you’re talking about Doug, don’t worry too much. He’s got his own issues he’s working through, Martin’s sacking was just a bridge too far. He’ll get over it eventually.”

“I’d really like to have a closer relationship with everyone,” said Lidia with a sigh. “I just don’t know how.”

“You’re treating it like it’s a business problem,” said R.R.

“It is a business problem for me,” said Lidia.

“It isn’t for the rest of us. We support each other, and that’s true regardless of whether or not we like each other.” R.R. slid out of the booth, shouldering his bag. “Thanks for the rolls.”

“Wait,” said Lidia, springing out of the booth. “Where are you going now?”

“I don’t know. Wander a little, I guess.” R.R. adjusted the strap of his bag. “I do that sometimes.”

“Do you mind if I come along?” asked Lidia.

“Come along where? I’m just going to browse the mall.”

“I know. I’d just like to spend time with someone today.”

R.R. stroked his chin. “You’ve never had a lot of close friends, have you?”

“Don’t get psychological,” said Lidia. “You’re the one who said you wanted to be friends.”

“Yeah, several months ago. Things do change.” R.R. paused. “…But I suppose that would be all right.”

Despite the weather – or possibly because of it – the Auchan building was incredibly active. On Alice’s advice, Lidia had only visited Auchan at its least busy times, and now she realized the wisdom of that advice. Every storefront was packed, and every food and drink booth had a significant line.

“Reminds you of home a little, doesn’t it?” said R.R. “Like the Christmas rush at the mall.”

“There aren’t any malls where I used to live.” Lidia spotted the escalator, packed person-to-person in both directions. “This isn’t really about Christmas, is it?”

“Don’t know. I never figured it out, and no one will tell me.”

“Hmm.” Lidia looked around, but apart from the rampant consumerism there was little to see. “You do this for fun, huh?”

R.R. stopped in his tracks. “Are you going to start insulting me again?”

“No,” said Lidia. “I’m just trying to understand you.”

“It helps me think,” said R.R. “Some people shut themselves away in a dark room, play soft music, and lay on the bed, and that helps them think. Me…I pick a direction and start walking.” He glanced back at the escalator. “You know, if we can find a way to the third floor, there’s this great little place that has good jiaozi. I had to go there for a year before they got used to me, but I’m like family now.”

“No thanks, I’m not hungry.” Lidia squeezed by a group of college students, falling several steps behind R.R. in the process. “Is there a place that’s not as crowded?”

“You picked the wrong country to live in if you don’t like crowds,” said R.R. “There’s a place at the other end of the building that’s usually pretty quiet. Usually, anyway.”

Lidia and R.R. pushed through the crowds to an isolated part of the building. As predicted, it was mercifully peaceful – thanks to ongoing construction, there was nothing to buy there. There were only a few people, eating or taking phone calls in the one quiet place they could find.

R.R. took a seat on a vacant bench. “All right. What did you want to discuss?”

“Who said I wanted…” Lidia caught herself – the last thing she needed was to come across as hostile. “…I wanted to ask you about Zhang Xiansheng.”

“What do you expect me to tell me about your father?” asked R.R.

“I’m sure there’s something,” said Lidia. “He has your phone number.”

“He has all our phone numbers.”

“You’ve met him in person.”

“Everyone’s met him, at least if they’ve worked here a year.”

“You have his picture in your apartment.”

“Ah. So that’s what it comes down to,” said R.R., clapping his hands together. “Is that why you were snooping around in my apartment? You thought I knew something about your dad?”

“I thought you might know more than me,” said Lidia.

“Why don’t you ask him?” said R.R. “He’s always in town at least twice a year – in summer to check on the branch, and in winter to meet his business contacts. He’ll be here within a week or two, I’m sure of that.”

“My father hasn’t talked to me – hasn’t really talked to me – in years.” Lidia took a seat next to R.R. “I don’t know anything about him.”

“Don’t give me that,” said R.R. “You’re a daddy’s girl, I can tell just looking at you. I mean, you’re just so much like him. You talk like him, you have his mannerisms…You ask me, you’ve talked yourself into thinking you have these daddy issues.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” said Lidia.

“That’s right, I don’t,” said R.R. “I don’t know anything about you because you never want to share.”

“As opposed to you?” Lidia spun around to face R.R. “I’ve noticed things about you, too. You’ve been distracted for weeks. Every time I see you, you look dead. And then that little performance at the office party? You’re doing a very bad job of hiding your problems.”

“I’m not talking about this.” R.R. stood up. “There are some things that should stay private.”

“So you want me to expound about my problems while you keep yours locked up?”

“I haven’t kept it locked up. I talked to Doug.”

“Fine. Now I want you to talk to me.” Lidia stared at R.R., waiting patiently for his response.

R.R. fidgeted with his hands, trying to ignore Lidia’s gaze. “You want to hear my story? Is that it?”

“Yes, I want to hear your story,” said Lidia.

“You’re that desperate to make friends?”

“I just want to understand you.”

“Okay.” R.R. returned to his seat, hands clasped together. “A few years ago, not long after I started working, I met a woman from Shangluo – that’s in Shaanxi, if you didn’t know. Her name was Jin Liming.”

“Golden Dawn,” said Lidia. “Lovely name.”

“Yes, it was,” said R.R., wringing his hands. “I was working in Hangzhou at the time – terrible job, but it’s not like I knew that at the time. She was visiting relatives there, and she saw me sitting in some restaurant. She was studying English, and wanted to talk. I could tell that she had a little crush on me. Asked me for my email address, I gave it to her…I gave it to everyone back then. Figured she’d contact me a couple times, and that would be it.”

R.R. stopped. “Are you okay?” asked Lidia.

“Yeah, it’s just not so easy.” He swallowed hard and continued. “So, about…I guess it would be almost two years now, I get a message from her. She’s taking a job in Suzhou, she saw that I was living here, and she wondered if we could get together when she arrives. I said okay. We chat for a while, just little things.” R.R. turned so that he could Lidia straight in the eye. “She remembered things I told her from years before, things that my closest friends didn’t remember. Talking to her felt different, like she really cared, like she actually wanted to know more about me. And when she talked about her family, about her home…it was beautiful.”

“She was your girlfriend, and she left you,” said Lidia. “I’ve heard this story before. I knew this girl back home…”

“She was my fiancée.”

“Excuse me?”

“My fiancée. Not just my girlfriend, my future wife.” R.R. shifted in his seat. “We were keeping it quiet at first while we decided if this was what we really wanted. Honestly, I was concerned about what the people back home would think. But we told my parents first, and they were ecstatic. Her parents were next; we were going to go to Shangluo when we had a free weekend and she was going to tell them in person. But before we left…”

“You can stop if you want,” said Lidia. “It’s okay.”

“No, I can finish,” said R.R. “The week before our train leaves, Jin Liming comes over, crying. Her parents told her that she shouldn’t even bother bringing me down, that they wouldn’t accept their daughter marrying an American. Apparently, she told some of her friends about me. They called up the parents, told them that their daughter’s foreign boyfriend was coming to steal her from them. She loved me, but if she married me no one from her hometown would have spoken to her ever again, including family. So she made her choice.”

“I see.” Lidia looked down. “So I guess that was a picture of the two of you that I saw?”

R.R. nodded. “I destroyed everything she gave me except for that picture. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, but that didn’t mean I had to look at it.” He looked away from Lidia, one hand on the side of his face. “That was about a month before the party. I thought I was fine, but as time went on it got worse. Seeing the Hlavaceks flirting with each other, doing the whole newlyweds on a big adventure thing…that’s what put me over the edge. That’s why I had too much to drink that night.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lidia.

“Everyone’s sorry.” R.R. stood up again, zipping up his jacket. “You know, I think I’d actually rather be alone today.”

“You can call me if you ever need anything,” said Lidia.

R.R. laughed bitterly. “Yeah. I’m sure there’s plenty you can do. Good luck with your father.”

==========

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