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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The Dragon’s Heir Complete: Chapter 10 (Winter)

-1998-

That was when father started his collection, the one that fills the house now. I think the first was some kind of honorary degree, something Garden College gave him. He was instrumental in upgrading their information technology, and for a while the college was a regional hub for engineering. After that, he started getting things from the governor, or maybe our senators – I really can’t remember precisely.

What I do remember was the day he started my collection. It was a simple thing – a corkboard and a shadow box mounted in the kitchen. As simple as it was, it was important. It started with an IQ test – 141, above the 99th percentile. That was when the display went up. It didn’t take long to fill – my parents saw to that. They started testing me for language proficiency, for spatial skills, for musical aptitude. They talked me into registering for math and science competitions. Each time another commendation went up on that board, my dad smiled for the rest of the day.

That was also around the time that we started mixing with Joshua Jameson and his family. I know that we were invited to his wedding to Hannah Millen, his second wife. The only thing I remember about that day was the sad little boy in the front row. Everyone else was smiling. I wondered what had happened to him, but I didn’t see him again after that.

When I was nine, Joshua came over to our house with his family. I don’t know why – maybe Joshua had something else to give to dad. He brought over his three-year old daughter, and his fifteen-year old. The boy stayed outside the whole time. I never understood why, but then again, I didn’t have time to think.

Joshua noticed the display right away. “I see little Lidia has been very busy.”

Dad was smiling. “She is very smart. See for yourself.”

“Okay.” He kneeled down to my level. “Your dad says you’re good at math. Tell me, what is…215 plus 178?”

“393.”

Joshua laughed – they always did. “That’s incredible!”

Dad nodded. “Zhang Lan, erbai jiushiyi jianqu yibai sishiqi.”

“Yibai sishisi.”

I was learning how to perform. It wouldn’t be the last time.

* * * * * * *

Lidia’s apartment had a tiny spare room which she had adapted into a small office. In reality, “office” may have been a generous term – a narrow desk on which she’d arranged a laptop computer, a small lamp, a few spiral notebooks and a tray of pens. Many was the night when she sat at that desk with a cup of dry noodles and a bottle of soda, laying out schedules or sending information to the teachers. Tonight was a different – the noodles and soda were still there, but there was no work to be done. Rather, she was staring at a list of names, waiting – hoping – that someone would come online, someone she could talk to.

Making friends was never one of Lidia’s talents, and she was fine with that – a solitary life suited her just fine. But that evening, just hours after a sacking at her office that had turned at least some of her employees against her, being alone didn’t seem so great. Back in the day, she might have hashed this sort of thing out with one of her students, but Diana was busy. Everyone was busy.

After an hour, Lidia decided there wasn’t any point in waiting and the best course of action may be to go to bed early and get an early start the following morning. She took the remains of her humble meal into the kitchen to dispose of the refuse. As she dumped out the remaining noodles, she heard a sound from the other room – someone was calling through. Tossing the carton in the trash can, she sprinted into the spare room and hit the answer button, not even looking to see who it was.

“Hello?” Lidia fumbled for her headset.

“Lidia?” An image of Maggie Qin appeared on the screen. “I didn’t wake you?”

“Oh, mom.” Lidia brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. “No, it’s barely nine o’clock here. Just caught me off guard.”

“So I see.” Maggie rested her chin in her hands, looking straight into the camera. “You haven’t called in a few weeks.”

“Yeah. I was busy.”

“Haven’t even sent an email.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” Lidia stopped, uncertain of how much she should reveal. “…I’ve had a few problems here.”

Maggie nodded. “I had a feeling.”

“Mom, I think I made a terrible mistake.”

“What makes you say that?”

Lidia shook her head. “It’s not something I can put into words.”

“Don’t give me that,” said Maggie with a sly grin. She was never the type to be fooled. “Run down the list. Everything that’s gone wrong.”

“Okay.” Lidia took a deep breath. “Well, for starters, my teachers hate me now.”

“And you think this why?”

“One of the teachers was fired today,” said Lidia. “It came from over my head, but they’re blaming me anyway.”

“Do you think that’s the only reason they dislike you?” This was a little game Maggie liked to play with her daughter. She’d hint at something, but as she expected Lidia to follow the thread of logic on her own.

Lidia leaned back in her chair. “I don’t know. I can’t think of anything I did to any of them. It’s not I spend that much time with them outside of the office, anyway.”

“So you leave them alone?”

“Yes. I…” Lidia leaned forward. “I don’t understand. How is that a problem?”

“What do you know about them?” asked Maggie.

“I know their strengths and weaknesses.”

“And?”

“And nothing. That’s all I have to know.” Lidia stared down at the floor, struggling to come up with an answer. “Is that what I don’t get? I need to know them better?”

Maggie smiled. “It sounds to me like the people on your staff don’t know anything about you. How can they like you if they don’t understand you? Put it this way – how many times have you been out with them?”

“Twice.”

“Lidia, you’ve been there for months.”

“Well, I always thought a boss should keep some distance from her employees.” Lidia rubbed her forehead. “But you’re right. It is a Friday – they’re probably up to something.”

“Interesting way of putting it,” said Maggie.

“All right, let me think.” Lidia tapped her fingers on the desk as she pondered the possibilities. “There’s the Swordfish. I’ve been there once, don’t remember where it is. One of them mentioned someplace called the Bottle, probably not what it’s actually called. And then there was a place…” Lidia snapped her fingers. “…Chrissy, they called it. The Chrysanthemum.”

“Then you’ve got choices,” said Maggie. “Maybe you should get ready.”

“Yeah, I think I should. Thanks, mom.”

* * * * * * *

Twenty minutes later, Lidia’s cab arrived at her destination. She had located both the Swordfish and the Chrysanthemum, but opted for the latter because it was closer. As it turned out, the Chrysanthemum was close enough that she could have walked there, but with the nights getting colder Lidia considered a cab to be a worthwhile expense. Besides, it meant that she wouldn’t risk getting lost.

“Chrissy,” as it turned out, was a nightclub. Suzhou was dotted with private clubs and nightspots, but the Chrysanthemum was the first one Lidia had seen that resembled an American nightclub, complete with a neon-drenched facade and music audible from the surrounding street. Lidia always avoided these places back home, if only because the clubs in Paradise Gardens were sketchy even by club standards. She figured this place would be worse if anything, but she’d come too far to turn back now.

The inside of the club matched the outside – dimly lit, neon highlights on everything, and thumping music so loud that Lidia could scarcely think. There were numerous bars, carefully arranged so that one was never more than a few steps away from alcohol. There were also a large number of tables and booths, but not much in the way of a dance floor. Instead, a stage dominated the front of the room. A few women were out of their seats and dancing in place, wherever they happened to be.

Lidia cautiously walked over to one of the more crowded bars. Much to her surprise, no one noticed her – she’d expected to stand out with her conservative dress, but most of the people there were dressed the same. A few of the women were wearing typical club gear, but the rest could have come straight from school, for all she knew. Looking closer, she noticed that many of them weren’t drinking – the bar was selling as much soda as beer. It felt like someone was trying to imitate a Western institution for a much more innocent audience.

Suddenly, a familiar voice carried over the music: “Well, holy shit. Look who’s here.” Madison slid up next to Lidia, a deep blue concoction perched in her hand. “I didn’t think you ever got out.”

“I usually don’t, but this seemed like a good night.” It suddenly occurred to Lidia that she wasn’t really sure how people talked in situations like this – a lifetime of avoiding bars and clubs had left her ignorant of the protocol. “So…What’s going on here?”

“What’s ever going on here?” said Madison. “Really glad you showed up, actually. Noah bailed on me, but this is better! I never get a girl’s night out. All the other teachers I know who come here are men.”

“I can see why you’d appreciate that,” said Lidia, trying to keep up.

Madison took a long swallow, then continued. “Hey, I heard about that bullshit at the office. Whatever those other assholes think, I totally believe you. No one would fire someone like that willingly – it’s just more headaches for you, right?”

“Exactly. Now that Martin’s gone, I have…”

“Yeah, forget about those other assholes.” Madison took another sip. “You probably haven’t been here before, have you?”

Lidia shook her head. “Nope. First time.”

“Well, stick with me,” said Madison. “They love me here.”

“Then you come here a lot?”

Madison shrugged. “Two times a week…three or four, if I have the time. Hey, wanna check out the back room?”

“The back room?” said Lidia, lifting her brow quizzically.

“Yeah. They get a lot of laowai here, so they set up a space just for us.” Madison tugged on Lidia’s arm. “Come on, let’s go.”

Lidia followed Madison to the back of the club, a shadowy corner just to the right of the stage. Madison pulled open a barely visible door, leading to a smaller space. It was like the club in miniature – one bar instead of many, a scaled-down stage at one end, and a handful of tables scattered about. The music was a bit quieter, the lights a bit more dim. Lidia thought that it resembled a little jazz club, or perhaps some side street karaoke bar that only a select few had ever heard about. As Madison had suggested, the crowd here was mostly foreigners, along with a few local women – girlfriends of the patrons, she assumed.

“Make yourself at home,” said Madison. “They got an open mike starting soon, if you feel like belting one out. I’m going to talk to some friends, go ahead and mingle. Back in a few.”

“Mingle…” Lidia took a seat at a nearby table. Her first instinct was right – this was really not her scene. Still, she couldn’t just leave and risk alienating one of the few people she knew was still on her side. Instead, she settled back and looked over the club. Several of the men were looking at her – flattering, if a bit unnerving.

Lidia walked over to the bar to place an order. As she rarely drank, she really had no idea what to get, or if this bar would even have what she wanted. Before she could pull out her wallet, a man appeared from over her shoulder and tapped on the bar. “I’ll take another, and whatever she wants.”

“Uh…thanks.” Lidia looked over at her new friend – a large Western man wearing business casual.

“You wanna get something?” he asked. “My tab.”

“I’m fine for now.”

“Okay.” The man stirred his drink – a Cuba Libre, by the looks of it. “Never seen you around. You’re new here, right?”

“Uh huh,” said Lidia. “First time in the club.”

“I thought so,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Lidia.” She looked around the bar for Madison, but she was lost in the crowd.

“Very pretty.” He downed half his drink in one gulp. “You plan on staying here long?”

“No, just getting a feel for the place.”

“I understand.” He smiled at her – a curious smile that suggested that he knew something that Lidia didn’t. “You sure you don’t want anything?”

“I’m fine,” said Lidia.

“Cool.” He leaned in closer and whispered something into Lidia’s ear. “Two-fifty.”

“What?”

“For the hour. Two-fifty good?”

Lidia recoiled from the bar. “Who…what do you think I am?”

The man shrugged. “Three hundred? I didn’t mean to insult you. I got cash, I can go higher.”

Lidia tried to say something, but there were no words. The room felt like it was spinning, a dark and horrible vortex that she never should have entered. She turned and ran through the door, knocking over chairs as she did. Breaking into the main room, she just kept on running and plowing through the crowd until she was back outside. The parking lot was quiet and desolate, a sharp contrast from the nightmare of the club. Without thinking about it, Lidia started screaming, howling with rage against the world and everyone in it. She lashed out against a garbage can, kicking it over on its side. That was finally enough of a release to calm her down.

Hailing a cab, Lidia headed back home. It wasn’t a moment too soon.

==========

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The Dragon’s Heir Complete: Chapter 9 (Winter)

-1993-

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?”

“Daxiang!”

“Right again.”

“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.

* * * * * * *

Bzzzzzz.

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.”

“Well…”

“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?

==========

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 8 (Autumn)

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!

===========

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?”

“No thanks.”

“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.

The Dragon’s Heir Complete: Chapter 7 (Autumn)

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.

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“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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