The first thing she tells me is where I cannot go.
“You cannot go upstairs,” she says, striding ahead. Ba Mun is shorter than I am with a boy’s haircut and a small face, at once sharp and puffy, like a tired mouse. Yet she walks quickly, not tired at all.
“The guest rooms are off-limits,” she continues. “While in the lobby do not sit on the couches. You may stand by the doors, but do not sit on the couches. You cannot go in the ladies’ room in the lobby. We have a bathroom in our office. Please go there. If it is occupied, please wait. Do not use the ladies’ room in the lobby.”
Trying to keep up I nod. People say working for the CIT is better, less work and more pay, but the moment I walked into the hotel, across the slick dark floor, everywhere immaculate white couches and trees in pots, tiny white lights and towering fragrant flowers, I knew I was in the right place. Shila Dun is its Chinese name, quite different from its English one, which I had searched for in the dictionary but couldn’t find. It’s just a person’s name, Ba Mun has told me. The person who started the hotel, an American of course.
Ba Mun is the head guide here at Wild Goose Tours, and my mentor. So I suppose you could say I am her protégée, though she did not choose me. I know now that she is the one who is always given the unwanted protégées, the new girls fresh from the countryside who happen to have a precise pronouncement of these strange foreign words, and I could tell by the way she wearily lifted her head as I walked into the office that she had grown tired of the task.
But when she stood she became a different person, brisk and business-like. She glanced down at a piece of paper, my application.
“Lu Ai Jun.” She announced my name as though we were in class, and I had to hold my tongue to keep from shouting, “Dao!” She looked at me. “It’s a good name. Are you called Little Soldier?”
I reddened. I hate my Chinese name. To Love a Soldier. Ironic for someone who is not even a Party member. “Sometimes,” I admitted. “But my English name is Pearl.”
She ignored this. “We will tell our tour groups that your name is Little Soldier. They will find that charming and appropriate, especially for this town.”
I nodded. That at least was true. Our town Xi’An is all about the terracotta soldiers. The hotel is full of them, small and large statues, framed photographs and well-lit paintings. Even the coasters on the tables are imprinted with their image.
Now she glances at me. Should I be writing this down, like a student in class? But I will remember. I already understand. I cannot go where the guests are. To them I’m only a guide, barely human. I do not sleep, I do not sit, and I certainly do not go to bathroom. But eating, on the other hand, is another story.
“Don’t eat in the restaurant,” Ba Mun says, but it’s a recommendation, not a command. “It’s Western food and overpriced. Just another way to trick the foreigners.” She laughs and, though uncomfortable, I try to follow suit. I do not like the idea of tricking a foreigner like my high school English teacher, Linda. “There is a fan dian next door which has take-away. It’s very good. Or else you can bring your own food from home. Of course on the tours you’ll eat with your group.”
I nod. I know this already. I feel like I have spent all morning simply nodding, which has still somehow exhausted me. I had expected a test of my English skills or else my knowledge of Xi’An. I had even stayed up studying. There are a total of three vaults for the army of terracotta warriors, the first, which was discovered in 1974, with 6,000 statues of soldiers and horses, the second and third, both discovered in 1976, with 1,000 and 68, respectively. But it seems there will be no thinking today.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ba Mun says. “Please be sure not to block the soldiers. Do not stand in front of them, or even near them. The foreigners like to have their pictures taken with them since they cannot with the real clay soldiers.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Have you seen them before?”
I shake my head. Although I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve never seen the famed army. Ba Mun sniffs.
“No matter. You’ll see them soon enough. Besides, mei you yisi. They’re not that interesting. But for some reason, the foreigners like them.” She glances at her watch. “My group is here,” she says, and sure enough a group of old foreigners, the ladies yellow-haired and wide-bottomed, the men tall with skinny, hairless legs, are gathering at the front door. “You’ll come with me. See how it’s done.” She takes off and I run to follow.
My mother thinks I am doing this to be near the foreigners. She thinks I like foreigners better – European, Canadian, and especially American – that I want to be one, to dress like one, to speak like one. To transform myself into an all-American girl.
“Ever since high school,” she says. “When you had that foreign teacher. Lee – Lie – what was her name?”
Linda. My foreign teacher’s name in high school was Linda and she was beautiful, her hair golden and curly and her eyes an odd color, almost green but not quite. Brownish but more so. Linda was the one who gave me my English name, Pearl, after Pearl Buck, the great American author, as well as her favorite gem. She always wore a string of them around her neck, the way my grandmother always wears jade, at her throat and wrists, to promote sleep and circulation.
Linda told me my English was so good that if I went to America, I’d do just fine. “Do just fine,” was what she said and I had to ask her what it meant. Now it’s a phrase I like to repeat to myself when things are going well. How was that test? I did just fine. How was your speech? It went just fine. How was your first day of work? As fine as fine can be.
I had hoped to get a job as an interpreter, like the young ladies in suits who sit behind government officials in their meetings on television, murmuring translations as though whispering sweet-nothings in a lover’s ear. But, they said, you’re not even in the Party – how do you expect to work for the Party if you’re not even a member? In college, you see, I had decided to be apolitical, staying behind to watch American television while my classmates went off to their Party meetings. I was truly learning, I thought. While almost all foreign shows are dubbed in Chinese, I’d often turn down the sound and make up my own dialogue in English. “Oh, my darling, let me hold you on the railing of this boat so that you may know what it is like to fly like a bird.” Now here I was paying for my aversion to politics. I’ll be a member, I told them, but even that didn’t help. It was too late; I should have joined up years ago.
I have not told Ba Mun that I plan not to tell my groups that I am called Little Soldier. To them I will be Pearl.
The whole next week is like my first day. I go with Ba Mun on her tours and listen. At first I thought her very intelligent, spouting facts and anecdotes as though she carried in her head the whole history of Xi’An. But I soon discovered that all her head carried were a few memorized speeches, and that when someone asked her something unrelated, she often didn’t know how to answer and would simply rearrange and restate some part of the speech she had made before. I took to whispering the correct answers to the foreigners when Ba Mun was out of earshot.
“The Temple of Great Maternal Grace, where the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is now, was named for Emperor Gao Zong’s beloved and deceased mother.”
“There are about 60,000 huiren, or Muslims, living in Xi’An today. The Muslim Quarter was the beginning of the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty.”
“What is that smell? Why, that’s sesame oil of course, one of Xi’An greatest exports.”
“You should give this tour,” one American girl told me.
I laughed and shook my head. “I am only an apprentice,” I said. “I’m not yet ready.” Secretly though I was pleased.
While the foreigners were off on their own, looking to be duped by the vendors, Ba Mun told me about the intricacies of being a guide. You must show them who’s boss. You cannot let them dawdle, especially in the shops, because there are other places to see, other places to spend money. If you let them take their time, who knew how long you’d be standing in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda while they took pictures from every angle? If you don’t feel like climbing to the top, tell them that the view is not so interesting or that the weather is bad, or that time is running short and they will miss out on seeing other things.
You must be friends with everyone. The ticket sellers, the ticket takers. The museum shop workers, the museum shop proprietors, the museum shop providers. You were giving each other business. Every day you brought them a dozen or so foreigners and their dollars or Deutschmarks or pounds, and they made sure to exclude certain “independent” guides who might take business away.
“Independent?” I asked.
Ba Mun nodded towards a young man in a bright yellow jacket talking to three foreign girls. “You can call me Happy,” he was telling them. “Why? Because I like to make everyone – ” He drew a large smile in the air. “Happy!”
“The illegal tour guides,” Ba Mun went on. “The ones not with any company, who bribe all the park and museum workers, then pocket the rest of the money. When they see the police, they have to run.”
“I see,” I said, and squinted at the young man. Did I know him? He smiled and I started. Yes, I did know him. He was a classmate of mine from high school and Jiang Hou was his name. He glanced in our direction. Quickly I turned away.
“Little Soldier.” Ba Mun stuck her face in mine. “Are you even listening to me?”
I saw the terracotta soldiers for the first time. I already knew the story: an old farmer digging for a well and discovers one, two, thousands of statues, all buried in a tomb for an emperor. It’s not uncommon, such trappings for royalty. How many rooms are there in the Forbidden City? Just one short of heaven. Bored at your summer home? Build a quaint ancient town.
The soldier statutes now, of course, are not as how the farmer found them. In their man-made canyon, they stand upright, spaced symmetrically down hundreds of rows. They have been reformed into their former perfect shapes, and only a few remain headless or armless, lying on their sides as they stare at their own legs. The foreigners’ reactions are always the same: a collective intake of breath, then a sigh, followed by a cacophony of foreign murmuring appreciation.
My first time I was disappointed. From above they seemed so small.
My second week our manager Madame Guo decided I was ready to go out on my own.
“I don’t know about that,” Ba Mun said. “I don’t think she’s ready.”
Madame Guo drew herself up rigid. No taller than either of us, she still seemed imposing. It was well-known that in her youth she was an opera singer in Chairman Mao’s Red Army.
“It is time,” she said. “How else will she learn?”
Ba Mun shrugged. She was eating an apple and spit out the seeds. “Suit yourself. Do you think you’re ready, Little Soldier?”
Like my mentor I shrugged. “If Madame Guo believes so.” Really I was relieved to leave the oppressive shadow of Ba Mun and excited to have the opportunity to strike out on my own. I wanted to tell the stories I wanted to tell, to be a kind and informative guide rather than one jaded and impatient.
“Well, there’s your first group,” Ba Mun said, nodding towards the lobby, and I turned, expecting to see a roiling, yellow-haired crowd, but all there was was one dark-haired family, a portly man, a tall woman, and their pretty daughter.
“Good luck, guide.” Ba Mun laughed and tossed her gnawed core into the trash.
I soon found out that all along that had planned on giving me only the small groups, the late-comers and early risers, the dawdlers and the misanthropes. Some were kind, the three American girls, no older than I, who chattered and asked questions and laughed over nothing; some were benign, like the three German women and one German man who said little to me but murmured continuously to one another in their native tongue; and some were strange, like the middle-aged American woman who told me she once removed her clothes for pay in a place called Las Vegas, and the three old Englishmen who walked about singing and brandishing their walking sticks like swords, and the Russian family who was interested only in what the vendors were selling.
None have been dangerous, as my mother worries they will be. At first she was pleased that I seemed to have the less demanding role – a smaller group would be easier to control, and the fewer the people, the fewer the questions, though I have assured her again and again that it is not the questions that I worry about, that in fact I relish them and being able to show how much I know. No, what I worry about is that these small groups is all I will ever have. And then, just as quickly, she begins to think that tours with fewer people are worse, and I know that she has been talking with her friends.
“With fewer people,” she says, shouts really, over the hiss of the wok, “there is more chance for one-on-one activity. Couldn’t they pair you with someone? Give you a partner?”
I am at the kitchen table, trimming soybeans. I shake my head but for some reason think of Jiang Hou, also known as Happy, that I have seen him again, this time at the temple of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. My group of American girls, it turned out, had toured with him the day before, and they shouted at him, “Happy! Happy!” but the police were there and he was running. He saw me though, his face lighting with recognition.
“The company would never do that,” I tell my mother. “I am lucky they even brought me in. Ba Mun would have been happy doing all the tours herself.”
“Even so,” my mother continued. “What if those Englishmen hadn’t been decent? What if they had been bad men?”
“Oh, Mother,” I say. “We’re always out in public. It’s not as though I return with them to their hotel rooms.” I laugh, at the boldness of my statement and at the picture of the three Englishmen and me sitting in their room as they continued to sing and swing their sticks.
“Taoyan,” my mother says. “Little brat. You never know what might happen. You don’t know how people are, especially these foreigners.” She is mumbling to herself now, but I can still hear her, every word as clear as porcelain. “I don’t know why you didn’t become a teacher. So many schools wanted you but no. You had to go with the foreigners.”
I don’t answer. I don’t say that the idea of being a teacher to a roomful of Chinese, to hundreds of students as apathetic to English as my classmates were, makes me feel trapped, like a bird caught in a tortoise shell.
The next morning I find one man waiting for me in the lobby. At first I do not think he is waiting for me. I think he is a guest and is waiting for his family or the rest of his group, but as I walk by he glances towards me and smiles. I return his smile tentatively, as I do with all the guests, the foreigners especially. Our expressions, like our persons, may approach only trepidatiously.
“What are you doing here?” is the first thing Ba Mun says to me when I walk into the office.
“What do you mean?” I ask. Is it Sunday? I think, and then, panicked, Have I been fired? Is this Ba Mun’s way of telling me?
“Your group is already here,” she says. She is eating breakfast, a big bowl of doujiang and some peanuts. “In the lobby.”
“That one man?” Quietly I release my breath. I have not been fired. I am still a guide. “But shouldn’t I wait for his group or his family?”
She slurps the soybean milk. “No group. No family. Just him.” She raises her eyes over her bowl. “You have an extra small group today.”
I hesitate. Just me and one man? Me and one foreign man. Me and one foreign man old enough to be my father.
“Is there a problem, Little Soldier? Is this a waste of your time?”
“No, no. It’s just – isn’t there anyone else who’d like to join us?”
She shakes her head. “And,” she continues before I can ask, “he doesn’t want to join my group later. Apparently he has an appointment.” When I pause again, she says, raising her voice, “Look, Little Soldier, if you have a problem with this, we can certainly find someone else.”
“No. It’s fine. This is fine.” I pick up my notes and scurry off.
This time when I approach, the man stands.
“Ni hao,” he says.
I laugh nervously. There are always foreigners who like to practice their Chinese on us: xie xie, thank you; duo shou, how much; and of course ni hao, how are you.
“Hello,” I say, holding out my hand. “My name is Pearl and I will be your guide for today.”
He reaches out his left hand and grips mine awkwardly. I notice then that his right hangs uselessly at his side. “Pearl,” he says. “That doesn’t sound very Chinese. Unless it’s a translation. That would make your real name Zhen Zhu. Am I right?”
I try to smile. I have decided that it’s not necessary for the foreigners to know my real name, whether it be Little Soldier or Pearl or Deng Xiao Ping.
“Yes,” I say. “You are right. And what shall I call you? Mr. – ”
“Jim. Please call me Jim. After all we’re going to be friends, aren’t we?”
My smile falters as my mother’s words echo in my head.
I soon discover, however, that my suspicions are unwarranted. Mr. Hindelmann – I am able to wrest his family name as we trudge up the hill above the Huaqing Hot Springs – is harmless, barely speaking to me as I take him everywhere, and because of this I talk more than usual, reciting every fact and anecdote I know, and even a few of Ba Mun’s, which I had come to hate. As we drive to the site of the terracotta army, I relax. The tour is almost over.
“It is quite amazing to see,” I tell him. “Thousands of clay statues standing in perfect rows. From far away they all look the same, but up close you would be able to see that each one is different.”
“I know,” he mumbles, not turning from the window.
“Ah, yes. You have read about our soldiers in a book. Or perhaps someone has told you.”
“No.” He looks at me and he is smiling, I see with a start, rather wickedly. “I’ve seen them before. I’ve seen all of this before.”
“It is not your first time to Xi’An, then?”
He shakes his head, vaguely. “So since we have both seen the soldiers, why not have a cup of coffee instead?”
At first I do not speak. Me and one foreign man old enough to be my father sitting together in a restaurant.
“Zhen Zhu,” he says, and I do not know what he is referring to till I remember my fake name. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just that I owe you one meal, don’t I? Isn’t that part of the package?”
“Yes,” I say slowly. “But you shouldn’t worry about me.”
“Please. It would be my pleasure.”
My smile is hard, as though carved out of clay. “Then it would be mine.”
We go to McDonald’s instead of the designated restaurant. I may have to explain why we did not appear, but the foreigner has already paid for everything so perhaps they won’t care. I order a fish sandwich while he drinks his coffee. He lays his lame arm on the table, and for a moment it look as though it were simply resting there.
Everyone stares. Not at his arm but at us, an older foreign man and a young Chinese girl, which of course means one thing, that I am a dalumei, a young China miss, and Mr. Hindelmann is my ticket out. If I were with a group, there would be no question, but now. Outside I can ignore them. I can walk faster and talk more loudly, but now I can only sit.
He talks and talks, as though the coffee were an antidote for his muteness. He reveals that he is an English teacher and has been living in Xi’An since September and in fact lived here last semester.
“Then what I told you this morning,” I say, “was nothing new.”
“No,” he says. “But I like the way you said it. Like you were interested. Not like some of these automatons.”
My mouth crooks. I did not understand his last word and so do not know if I should laugh or nod gravely. My fish sandwich sits at my fingertips untouched.
He goes on. “You were probably an excellent English student.” He rubs at his limp arm. “You probably would have been one of my favorites.”
The door springs open and in walks a young Chinese man in a yellow jacket.
“This was the first McDonald’s erected in Xi’An,” Jiang Hou tells the foreigners he is with, an older man and woman. “Most significant is that it is the one built closest to the terracotta soldiers.”
I shake my head. How is it possible that I see my old classmate again? Perhaps there are replicas of him, half a dozen or so, running around the city. From a distance they all look the same; only close up they are different. Mr. Hindelmann glances over his shoulder.
“Another guide, I see,” he says. “A colleague of yours?”
“Not really,” I mumble.
As though he has heard me, Jiang Hou turns in our direction. He says something to the two laowai, gesturing at a table nearby. They sit as he makes his way over.
Mr. Hindelmann has returned to his coffee and so starts a little when Jiang Hou appears at our table. His bad arms slide off into his lap.
“Hello,” Jiang Hou says in loud English. “How are you? Ai Jun, long time no see.”
Mr. Hindelmann replaces his arm. “Hello,” I say back. “How are you?” It is as though we are back in Linda’s class. Everyone always wanted to be paired with either of us because we would do most of the talking.
“Mr. Hindelmann,” I say. “This is one of my old classmates.” I pause, not sure of how to introduce him.
“You can call me Happy,” Jiang Hou says, in the same way he did when I saw him that time with Ba Mun. “Why? Because I like to make everyone – ” He draws the same, requisite air smile. “Happy!”
Mr. Hindelmann doesn’t answer. His face pinches with irritation and I remember now how some people found Jiang Hou that way. Before he can go on, I explain that Mr. Hindelmann is an English teacher I am taking on a tour and that he has lived in Xi’An for quite some time.
“Ah, Xi’An,” Jiang Hou says. “A lovely place to live. Though a bit drab and dusty, wouldn’t you agree? Why Xi’An, Mr. Hindelmann? Why not the bustling streets of Shanghai, or the chic spots of Hong Kong? Or even the majesty of Beijing?”
Still Mr. Hindelmann says nothing. He picks up his coffee and swirls it around; he drinks.
Jiang Hou is not floundered. “It must be the soldiers then. Our magnificent clay army. They have drawn many a traveler from around the world. Well, enjoy your fine meal and the rest of the tour.” Then, before he leaves, he bends to my ear and whispers in Chinese, “Congratulations on your new job, Ai Jun. Looks like Wild Goose Tours has found their new dalumei.”
“Sheme?” I say, but he is already gone, scurrying back to the waiting laowai.
“Zhen Zhu,” Mr. Hindelmann says. “Are you all right? What did he say?”
My clay smile returns. “Oh, nothing. He just made a joke, from our school days.” Inside my heart flutters, wings in a shell.
The rest of my week is nothing unusual. There are the old couples and small families, the young and occasionally odoriferous adventure-seekers who have finally succumbed to a tour after weeks on their own. They often ask about the bars and dance clubs, and I name the two I have been told to, the Old Gun Club and the Ferry Man Bar. I have not been to these or any such places, not even when I was at university, and have no intention of doing so now.
There was one boy, not American, Australian perhaps, who said that he had been to both places already and that they were – what did he say? – rank.
“Don’t you know of anywhere else?” he asked. He had large blue eyes and smelled of cigarettes. “Some place more hip, more happening?”
Hip, the place above my leg, happening, happen with ing. He leaned towards me.
“Some place I can score some – ” He brought two pursed fingers to his lips. “Dama?”
I sucked air in through my nose, as though I were about to breathe fire. “We have no such thing in our town,” I said. “Maybe in a bigger city, Shanghai or Hong Kong, but not here. This is a quiet town. We are a good people.”
Then he and his friends hung their heads, as though ashamed, but a moment later I saw them glance at each other knowingly.
As for Jiang Hou I do not see him again that week and try not to think of his odd statement. What did he mean by calling me a dalumei? I was only doing my job, just as he was doing his.
That Monday morning Mr. Hindelmann appears again.
He is sitting, just as he was the week before, on one of the couches, the cushions so deep he appears even smaller than he is. I am startled to see him and almost drop the bowls of soybean milk I am balancing.
He sees me and waves. “Zhen Zhu!” he calls.
The hotel works glance at him strangely, then at me. Trying to smile I gesture the bowls vaguely at the tourism office.
Inside Ba Mun and Madame Guo look up as their breakfast appears. “That man is here again,” I say.
They busy themselves with their doujiang and unwrapping fresh, greasy sticks of youtiao. Neither of them answer. I go on.
“I gave him a tour last week. Maybe he should go with you, Ba Mun? So that he can hear something different.”
“But doesn’t he want to go now?” she says. “That’s why he’s there. Besides.” She smiles. “He asked specifically for you, Zhen Zhu.” She guffaws while Madame Guo titters. Cheeks burning I leave and return to the lobby.
As last week he stands when he sees me. “Zhen Zhu,” he says. “So nice to see you again.”
“Yes, hello, Mr. Hindelmann.” Then before he can continue: “Is Mr. Hindelmann sure he wants another tour with me? Perhaps he would like go with someone new and hear something different.”
He smiles. “I like what you have to say. And please, call me Jim.”
I do not. “But it will be the same thing – it will be a duplication of our tour on Monday.”
“If a duplication is the least I can hope for, then I’m a lucky man.”
A taste like spoilt milk fills my mouth. I can feel the hotel workers staring and can imagine Ba Mun and Madame Guo leering too. I am trapped.
“As you wish,” I say.
At first I try to reword my speeches, to recite them in a different order, but he doesn’t seem to be listening. With that same small smile, he looks askance while I talk, not even taking in the sites. He is not bored, but he is also not interested. Either way by the time we are driving to the terracotta army, I am exhausted, as though I have been lifting rocks all day.
“Mr. Hindelmann is tired?” I ask. My voice is hoarse and my head aches. “It’s boring, no? Hearing the same thing again.”
“Oh, no. On the contrary.” He leans forward. “Driver, there’s that McDonald’s. Stop there, please.”
Wu Zhou glances at me. It’s not that he doesn’t understand – he knows enough English to recognize “stop” and “McDonald’s” – but he has been instructed to take instructions only for me. But I am too tired to argue.
“Go ahead and stop there, Wu Zhou,” I say. “It’s all right.”
As soon as we sit down, Mr. Hindelmann begins to talk, just as he did last week. I barely listen. I wonder if I have the same half-smile on my face, the same looking-off eyes. He tells me about his travels, how last summer he roamed the country, visiting such places as Ulanbataar, Heiliongjiang, and Lhasa.
“Mr. Hindelmann knows Chinese?” I ask absently. I have no desire to visit such places. I am only curious about what is beyond the desert in the West.
“Yi dian,” he says, cackling, and for a moment he looks like a baby bird, bulbous-eyed and beak-nosed. “A little. I had a guide.”
The door bursts open, and before I even look up, I know who it is.
“This was the first McDonald’s erected in Xi’An,” Jiang Hou says. “Most significant is that it’s the one closest to the terracotta soldiers.”
The foreigners he is with today are two tall men, black as coal. Everyone chatters and stares. A group of boys chant, “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” and dance closer and closer to them, only to be pulled back by their nervous mothers. I do not know for whom I am more embarrassed, the two men or my fellow Chinese, behaving like country bumpkins. Mr. Hindelmann doesn’t even appear to notice. He stares off wistfully, as though recalling a fond memory.
This time Jiang Hou sees us right away, but there are no empty tables at which his laowai can wait.
Instead he has them stand by the door, in between two large replicas, one of a terracotta soldier and one of the McDonald’s clown, frightening somehow with his white face and blood-red mouth. The yellow of his clothes, I notice, matches exactly the yellow of Jiang Hou’s jacket.
In a flash he is beside us once again.
“Ai Jun! Mr. Hindelmann! So nice to see you again!”
Mr. Hindelmann is startled out of his reverie and gazes unrecognizably up at Jiang Hou. To many foreigners we all appear alike, the way some Chinese mix up English words based on superficial appearances, will for mitt, dirt and bird, clay and stay, their eye passing over only outlines.
“I am Happy,” Jiang Hou says. “Remember?” He draws his invisible smile. “Happy?”
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Hindelmann says, and his face twists as though at something unsavory in a mother bird’s mouth.
“Yes, hello, Happy,” I say in English, then before I realize what I’m doing, in Chinese: “And if you’ve come here to insult me again, to call me names to my face, you can just leave. I don’t care what you have to say, and besides I’m just doing my job. Just like you.”
Now it is Jiang Hou’s turn to look surprised. “Ai Jun, my apologies,” he says in English, which seems somehow less meaningful. “I am sorry I insulted you. You see, I was only making a joke. A joke, you see, among friends.” He leans towards Mr. Hindelmann as though they are confidantes. “Sometimes girls take jokes too seriously, don’t you think?” He winks, then spreads his hands.
“Let us achieve détente. Let us have a meal together like friends.”
And I realize that this is what he wanted all along, to share our table, the only one with empty seats, and rather than annoyed I am relieved.
When Jiang Hou brings the men over, the girls next to us vacate their table so in the end everyone has a place to sit. “Gentlemen,” Jiang Hou says. “Whatever your hearts desire.” They give him their orders and Jiang Hou dashes off.
“Sirs,” I say. “I am called Pearl. What shall we call you?”
“I am Moses,” says the older one. “I am Gossai,” the younger one replies, and soon we are engaged in conversation.
Mr. Hindelmann is quiet all the while. Moses and Gossai try to draw him in, but he doesn’t respond. He glowers and rubs his dead arm. Soon Jiang Hou returns with the food and effortlessly slides into our talk.
For a moment I am envious of him. To be an independent guide, to be able to pick and choose your followers. You could drop them in the middle of a tour if you wanted, saying you had to evade the police. You could pass by the odd-looking ones, the dirty ones, the lone ones with something more than desperation in their eyes.
Wu Zhou appears in the doorway and waves at us with his cigarette. It is time to go. Since the arrival of Jiang Hou and his guests, the minutes have flown by.
“Gentlemen,” I say. “It has been a pleasure, but it is time for us to depart.”
They seem genuinely disappointed to see us, or perhaps just me, go. Jiang Hou smiles and nods, and as I pass him, he murmurs to me in Chinese, “If you ever need a favor,” and I shrug, wondering when I would ever need a favor from him.
Mr. Hindelmann remains silent on the ride back. He looks out the window, bending forward, as though concentrating very hard. I don’t even bother telling him about the sites we pass – the City Walls, the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower. I hope he is angry with me; I hope he is disappointed. I hope he never asks for my services again.
At the hotel as I get out of the car, I say, as I do to all my guests, “Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure being your guide.”
He doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t move, as though all of him, not just his arm, were dead.
He appears again that following Monday, and I almost weep to see him.
He is not annoyed with me. He smiles brightly, showing me all his long, yellow teeth, and nearly leaps to his feet when I arrive. He is happy to see me, and he still wants me to be his guide.
To the clay soldiers it didn’t matter whether they were in the ground or excavated. When the farmers found them, they did not jump for joy or shout in triumph, and they had no say in how they were displayed, in what row, whom they stood next to, whether friend or foe. And still they stand as the world moves around them, as strange hands touch them, as people ogle and whisper and point.
I am a clay soldier as I go into the office and pick up my day’s assignments; as I nod hello to Ba Mun’s and Madame Guo’s good mornings. I am a clay soldier as I return to the lobby and walk, with him, to the waiting car; as I get in and as I begin to talk, the same words, the same facts, and I hear them as though from a distance. I am a clay solider as we venture along the same route and pass the same sites, and as at the end of our trip, he suggests a different place to eat, not McDonald’s but a Muslim restaurant that serves roujiamo, fragrant meat pies, a Xi’An specialty, and I am not surprised because of course he would want to go somewhere that Happy was not.
“Let’s sit by the window,” he says.
I nod. Clay soldiers do not wonder why, if he wants to see out or if he wants us to be seen.
The waitress comes to take our order and does not stare. Few in the restaurant do, and I am not surprised as I have found that huiren, backwards and Counter-Revolutionary as they are, stare less, perhaps because their minds are already occupied. Perhaps because they are filled with God.
Mr. Hindelmann rattles off what he’d like – the meat pies, steamed juicy buns, regular steamed buns – and I translate, holding my tongue from suggesting also an order of fresh vegetables. When the waitress leaves, he leans forward.
“Zhen Zhu,” he says. “I was wondering, if perhaps you were not busy tonight, would you accompany me to a party?”
I swing my eyes to him, and they must be terrible because he says, quickly, “As a guide of course. A translator. It’s a Chinese party and my Mandarin, if you haven’t already noticed, is almost non-existent.”
Almost non-existent. I assume it means bad. “Doesn’t Mr. Hindelmann have a Chinese friend who can accompany him? Or a Chinese colleague?”
His features squeeze. “All of my colleagues are foreigners.” He says this as though he were not one, as though they were another breed, noisier, dirtier, more barbaric. His eyes brighten.
“I’ve already asked your supervisor, Madame Guo. I’ve told her I’d pay as though it were another tour.” He leans in even more closely and I can smell the staleness of his breath. “Plus I’d give you an extra 200 RMB. Just between the two of us.”
The food arrives and my vision is obscured by a veil of steam. My vinegar dish is filled and a juicy bun appears between my chopsticks. I take a bite and the juice scalds.
“Zhen Zhu? What do you say? Is that all right?” His voice is growing anxious.
The steam from our food has also fogged the window, but I can still see, for instance, a pedicab riding by, a vendor pushing his cart, the flash of a yellow coat.
I drop my chopsticks with a clatter. “If you would excuse me for a moment, Mr. Hindelmann. I am remembering that I need to tell the driver something.”
He nods but looks worried, as though I might run off. On the table I set my purse, a hostage.
“You will watch this for me, okay? I will return quickly.” Before he can say anything else, I jump up and run outside.
Jiang Hou has already gone in; I can see his jacket through the McDonald’s storefront. I hurry to our car.
Wu Zhou turns down the radio. “What is it, Little Soldier?” he asks. “Does the old foreigner want to go?”
“Wu Zhou,” I say. “Have you eaten lunch? Perhaps I can get you some lunch.”
He indicates the bowl of beef and noodles that he is already eating.
“But wouldn’t you like something else? A nice hamburger, or a fish sandwich?”
He shakes his head with disdain. “Evil Western influence. Overcharging us Chinese with substandard food.”
“A fish sandwich then,” I say, and run off, ignoring Wu Zhou’s protests.
Inside Jiang Hou’s foreigners, the same older couple from before, are already seated. He is waiting in line.
He turns and is not surprised to see me. “Ai Jun, hello,” he says, then glances around. “Where is your old foreigner? Did he find a dalu – I mean, a guide he liked better?”
I ignore this. “Jiang Hou,” I say. “Last week you said if I ever needed a favor – do you remember?”
He purses his lips as if searching his memory. It seems like a practiced look. “I believe so. Then again, I owe so many favors.”
“Jiang Hou, please.”
“Fine, Ai Jun. What is it?”
“It’s the old foreigner, Mr. Hindelmann. He wants me to attend a party with him tonight. As his translator, he said.” My stomach turns to hear it aloud. “Jiang Hou, I cannot say no. Madame Guo has already agreed me to it, and without even consulting me first.”
He hesitates, and nearly loses his place in line. “How much extra,” he asks, shoving in front of the woman trying to get by, “did the laowai say he’ll pay you?”
“Two hundred. I’ll split it with you.” When he pauses again, I say, “That’s an extra 100 yuan in your pocket, Jiang Hou, for going to a party. What would be you doing instead? Practicing English in your room?”
He smirks. “Little Soldier’s skin has grown thick. Haode, but don’t get too used to this. See those foreigners over there? They want to take me to America.”
I glance at the couple. They are perhaps my parents’ age, the woman red-haired and fair, the man gray-haired and kind looking. “Take you to America? How?”
He shrugs and says in English, “Where there’s a will, there’s way.” Then he turns, as though I have already left.
We meet at the hotel at eight o’clock.
I have told my parents that Ba Mun has asked me to accompany her on a night tour and that I am making an extra 100 RMB. They congratulate me, and the pride in their voices is like a sting.
Mr. Hindelmann is already there, sitting in the same corner of the same couch, and he looks strange surrounded by night. I hover at the front door, hiding behind a soldier replica. Jiang Hou has not yet arrived and waves of panic are crashing over me. Will he show? What if he doesn’t? Will I have to attend this party alone, with this old foreign man? And if I refuse will I lose my job and never find another, at least not as a tour guide, and live a long, purposeless life?
Jiang Hou rushes in. At first I don’t recognize him. Instead of his yellow jacket, he’s wearing a leather coat, and his hair is slicked back and his eyeglasses gone.
“Jiang Hou,” I whisper.
He turns and squints at me. “Ai Jun,” he says, coming closer. “What are you doing there?”
Then he looks me up and down. “You are not dressed for a party.”
I am wearing the same clothes I was during the day. “This is not fun for me,” I murmur, and carefully emerge. Mr. Hindelmann still hasn’t seen either of us. He is looking at his watch.
Motioning at Jiang Hou to wait, I go over.
Mr. Hindelmann is so happy to see me, I think his face might rip in two.
“Zhen Zhu,” he says. “You made it. You came.”
His eagerness is so palpable, an unwashed smell, but I am relieved to see he is also wearing his day clothes and has not dressed up.
“Good evening, Mr. Hindelmann,” I say. Then, before I lose my nerve: “I’ve brought a partner with me tonight. I hope you don’t mind. He is – how should I say? – more socially adept than I.” I turn to Jiang Hou and wave.
He jogs over. “Hello, Mr. Hindelmann!” he says. Even in his party costume, he is exactly the same. “I am Happy – ”
“Yes,” Mr. Hindelmann growls. He has changed so quickly, from joyous to angry, and when he looks at me, for the first time I am frightened. “I requested only you, Zhen Zhu. I thought you understood. I’m not paying extra for your ‘partner.’”
“Oh, no, of course, Mr. Hindelmann. Happy here is simply returning a favor.” I pray he understands I am only talking, that I know that Mr. Hindelmann wouldn’t like the idea of my giving away his money, even after saying it was mine. “All right then, shall we? Before it gets too late.” I stride towards the car, as though everything has been decided.
“Where to?” the driver asks. It is not Wu Zhou but another. Dan Bai is his name.
I turn around. “Where is the party, Mr. Hindelmann?”
He presses himself to the opposite door, as far away from Jiang Hou as possible. “The Red Style Bar,” he snarls.
Jiang Hou and I look at each other. The Red Style is one of the most, if not the most, fashionable clubs in Xi’An. I have heard that going to Red Style is like stepping into a club in Hong Kong, Paris, New York, though I am not sure from whom I’d have heard this as I know no one who has been to the Red Style, let alone Hong Kong, Paris, or New York. Jiang Hou rubs his hands together, excited about the evening, and I tug at my sweater, wishing now that I had changed, though into what I cannot imagine.
“Where?” Dan Bai barks. Cars all around are honking. “Hurry.”
I mutter reluctantly, “Hong shimao jiuba.”
“Hong shimao?” he nearly shouts. “You’ll never get in there.” He glances in the rearview mirror. “Then again with the laowai you might.” Finally he peels away from the curb, and I wish for Wu Zhou who never asks any questions nor forms any judgments.
As we drive along I can feel Mr. Hindelmann’s anger emanating as heat from a kang. But this is not what worries me. I have been to very few parties, only ones with my classmates, where we sang karaoke, played games, and perhaps danced. Ballroom dancing I know, not disco, not like what it will be at Red Style. I have no idea what it will be like and this is what worries me. Perhaps we won’t be let in, like Dan Bai said. Perhaps we, with the exception of Jiang Hou, will be deemed so unfashionable so as not to be let in, and then I will suggest we go to a noodle shop, and it will be harmless.
A crimson light hovers in the distance. At first I think it is the setting sun and wonder how it can still be light out. Then I realize it is the sign for the jiuba: three bright neon characters, Hong Shi Mao, each as tall as I am and with a color like red-hot coals, the burning end of a cigarette, clay turned fresh from the earth.
A crowd foams at the entrance. A man in black stands above them, seemingly mythically tall, but then I see that he is perched on an overturned cabbage crate. He nods or shakes his head at individuals, like the dragon god deeming those worthy – or not – at the gates of heaven.
“You’ll never get in,” Dan Bai assures us. “You see all those people? All those people want to get in.”
“We might as well try,” I tell him. “Let us out here and then go find somewhere to park.” He brakes and I open the door.
So this is fashion. Girls in tall shoes, tight pants, and chilling sleeveless blouses. Boys blind with too-long hair, earrings, and pants that hang below their hips and over their feet. One boy wears sunglasses although it is night. A pretty girl leans against the wall smoking. I have never seen a girl smoke before and I can’t help staring. Even Jiang Hou seems out of style compared to them, his leather jacket too old, his haircut too formal, but that doesn’t stop him from pushing to the front.
Mr. Hindelmann and I hang back. He looks as though he is reconsidering his invitation. I glance around for the car, hoping that Dan Bai hasn’t parked too far away.
But the next thing we know, Jiang Hou is waving us over. He is shaking hands with the man in black and clapping him on the shoulder. Of course Jiang Hou knows him. Of course his connections run past ticket sellers and collectors, museum shop vendors and providers, the girls who serve us hot sandwiches in paper, and now I wish that I hadn’t asked him along. He waves at us again.
Mr. Hindelmann has brightened. Now it will be easy, but he won’t thank Jiang Hou, I know. He will act as though this is his privilege and continue to regard Jiang Hou with disdain.
“Shall we?” Mr. Hindelmann says, offering me his arm.
“Heh, heh,” I laugh nervously. Everyone is watching. If I don’t take his arm, it will be an insult. If I do – I pretend not to notice and rifle through my purse.
Jiang Hou is still chatting with the man in black by the time we reach them. “You know how they are,” he says. “These laowai.” When he sees us, he says in English, “Ready? Let’s go.”
Like the crowd the black-clad man stares as we pass. Then he leers at me. “You must be new,” he says.
“Pardon?” I say, but we are ushered inside before he can respond.
A cloud of reddish smoke envelops us. Everywhere are soft ruby lights and the fashionable young – more fashionable even than those outside for this is the reason they are in – lounging and smoking, balancing in their palms colorful drinks in exquisite glasses, and everywhere, beneath, above, around, is a thumping – ump, ump, ump – and it feels as though we have been ingested by a giant heart.
Jiang Hou rocks his head to the rhythm. “Listen to that!” he shouts, and I realize that it is noisy. “Disco!” He leads us farther in.
Mr. Hindelmann looks around appraisingly, as though he owns the establishment. “Mr. Hindelmann!” I cry. “Where is your party?”
Jiang Hou glances over his shoulder while Mr. Hindelmann shrugs. He waves his good hand at our surroundings.
“This is it,” he says.
Looking at me Jiang Hou nods. There was never a party. He wanted only an escort, a young Chinese escort, to go to a fashionable club.
“I think there are some tables upstairs,” Jiang Hou says.
The club becomes less crowded but more smoky the deeper we enter. In the recreation center at my university, there were metal chairs to sit in. Here there are wide, deep couches, over which these boys and girls sprawl. They watch us too, with cat eyes, as we pass; if they had tails, they’d be switching them lazily back and forth. There are very few foreigners and the ones here are, like everyone else, young and beautiful in a careless way, like the backpackers I accompany on my tours, like the boy who asked me about dama. There is no one like Mr. Hindelmann, old with a dead limb, and for the first time, I wonder what it would be like to have a young and handsome foreigner want me to accompany him to a party, to lead him on the same tour, week in and week out, to take his arm.
We pass the bar, a sleek brown animal winding through the crowd, and emerge into a cavernous room, the heart of the heart you could say, where the music is loudest and the thumping moves from around to within. Inside my ears, my mouth, the cavern of my own chest. The entire dance floor pulses, moving together like a single many-armed, many-legged creature. Sometimes a hand or a foot thrusts out, as though for escape, but then is immediately sucked back in.
This is dancing?
A handsome boy walking by chucks me under the chin. “At least close your mouth when you stare,” he says.
I feel myself redden. He is tall and lean with hair that falls into his eyes. He glances back at me, grinning.
Jiang Hou elbows me. “Looks like Little Soldier has a boyfriend.”
Now my cheeks burn. Mr. Hindelmann says nothing, only glowers at the handsome boy’s slim back, his arms he swings effortlessly.
We find the stairs. Like the sofas downstairs, they are plush and vast; they are like the stairs in my hotel, up which I am not permitted to climb. The second story runs around the first like a ledge. There is a metal railing, against which people seem to like to lean, men especially, pressing their forearms while passing from one hand to the other their half-drunk drinks. They keep one eye on their drinks, and one eye down below, looking out for a pretty or interesting girl.
There are no clay soldiers anywhere.
“Let’s sit here!” Jiang Hou says.
He has found us an empty table against the wall. There are several almost-empty glasses littered across it, which he moves into a clump at the far end. “Would Ai Jun and Mr. Hindelmann like a drink?”
The one thing I would like. “Yes, please,” I say. “A beer.”
He nods, and we both turn to Mr. Hindelmann who has not yet answered. He frowns down at the tablecloth. “Mr. Hindelmann?”
“A gin and tonic,” he snaps, as though it is the third, no fourth time that he has said it. “Haven’t you ever heard of a gin and tonic?”
Jiang Hou smiles. “Of course, Mr. Hindelmann. I will return shortly.”
It is time again to look for something in my purse. I must look for something specific, otherwise it will seem unconvincing. My compact. I am looking for my compact because I may have something in my teeth.
“What is it he calls you?”
I am forced to raise my head. “Pardon?”
“What is it that he calls you? That – ” He grimaces. “Happy. It didn’t sound like Zhen Zhu.”
“Oh.” My mind flies. “That was my high school name. Sometimes Chinese people change their names according to their liking. If they’re too political or not political enough. ‘Pearl’ certainly isn’t very political, is it?” I chuckle.
“So what is it? I heard ai. Doesn’t that mean love?”
He pronounces it like “I,” toneless, a crow’s cry. “It doesn’t matter. No one calls me that anymore, only my classmates from high school.”
“Please, I’d like to know. I’d like to know more about you.”
I have already given him so much of myself. I have given him Pearl, which I offered to others freely, but he was the only one who took, pocketing it like a stolen jewel. I have given him my Monday mornings; I have given him my speeches, over and over. I have given him this night.
“It’s Ai Jun,” I say, pronouncing the second character differently. “It means ‘love for horses.’ My father, you see, is part Mongolian and – ”
His lips move over his teeth. “I like Zhen Zhu better.”
I look away. A couple leans against the railing, entwined like overgrown roots. I have never seen such kissing as this, mouths wide open, tongues darting back and forth. It makes me sick in a way, but something in my stomach flutters.
“Drinks are here!” Jiang Hou sings. He holds the three glasses between his fingers and carefully sets them down. “I ordered the same drink as you, Mr. Hindelmann. I have never had a gin and tonic before.”
Mr. Hindelmann frowns, as though Jiang Hou has stolen something from him too.
The music continues to throb around us. Jiang Hou taps his foot to the beat as he cranes his neck to see what is happening, what is hip, down below. Soon he stands to get a better look, then murmuring apologies to us, finally approaches the railing.
“What do you see?” I call. I don’t want him to leave. He cannot leave. “Anything interesting?”
He says over his shoulder, “Come see for yourself.”
I turn to Mr. Hindelmann with a smile, intending to invite him to join us, but he is now watching the enamored couple and doesn’t turn away when they see him.
From above we can see the crowd’s faces, and everyone wears a different expression. Some smile with abandon, throwing about their limbs in ecstasy. Others are quite solemn, as though dancing were serious business, like work or prayer. A spotlight sweeps over the room, illuminating some here, some there.
I ask, “Have you ever been to a place like this before, Jiang Hou?”
He shakes his head. “Not like this. Not this nice. The places I’ve been to – are very bad compared to this one.” He looks at me. “So what is going on with you and the loawai?”
I stiffen. “What do you mean?”
“Is this going to be a regular thing? Terracotta soldiers by day, parties at night?”
Tears come to my eyes. “I guess so. Unless Madame Guo says otherwise.”
He hasn’t noticed. He continues to scan the crowd. “Because till I go to America I could get used to making an extra 100 RMB a week.” He stands up straight. “Hey!”
“What is it?” Sniffling I wipe my nose. I am so relieved I feel like dancing myself. “You see someone you know? About time.”
“Someone we know. Look.” He points.
In the corner of the room sits a beautiful young woman in a long red dress. I cannot tell if she is truly beautiful, but she seems to be. Across from her is an old foreign man, as old as Mr. Hindelmann but better-dressed in a suit and tie. I am about to ask why Jiang Hou thinks we know her when the spotlight sweeps over their faces, and I suck in my breath.
“It’s Ren Wei, isn’t it?” Jiang Hou says. “She looks different, but it’s her.”
I nod. It is indeed our old classmate and she does look quite different. “What is she doing,” I ask, “with that old man?” Then, as though in response, the spotlight sweeps upward, and Ren Wei turns and sees us.
“I’m with somebody. Please go away. Please leave me be.”
Mr. Hindelmann has appeared at my side. “Zhen Zhu,” he says. “I would appreciate it if you would tell this person to leave me alone.”
Behind him is a Chinese woman, beautiful like Ren Wei with a heavily made-up face and long dress, hers a dark purple. She is smiling at Mr. Hindelmann, but when she sees me, her face smoothes with apology.
“Oh, Miss, I’m sorry,” she says. She has a heavy Shanghainese accent. “I didn’t know he was with you. Please excuse me.” The she looks me up and down, like the man in black outside. “You must be new,” she tells me, and saunters away.
“Zhen Zhu.” Mr. Hindelmann is red-faced and huffing, like an angry chicken. “I would appreciate it if you’d stay by my side. After all, that’s what I’m paying you for, isn’t it?”
I still feel the Shanghai woman’s eyes on me; I still feel the man in black’s. “Yes, Mr. Hindelmann. Please excuse me. Happy and I saw someone we know.”
“Yes,” Jiang Hou says. “An old classmate.”
“Who are you calling old?”
Ren Wei and her laowai have appeared before us, and Ren Wei is even more beautiful up close. Her hair is swept up in an elaborate arrangement of curls, and her face is perfectly smooth and white, except for her scarlet lips, and I think of a rose sitting on white velvet. She is something like a movie star or a famous singer, someone you would see only in magazines and never in real life.
“Jiang Hou,” she says. “Ai Jun.” She pats our arms and squeezes our shoulders. “What are you doing here?”
“We’re on a tour,” Jiang Hou says. “Ai Jun and I are guides, and we are taking Mr. Hindelmann on a tour.” He cocks an eyebrow. “What about you, Ren Wei?”
She doesn’t answer, only tilts her head. Then she whispers into the ear of her laowai, who bends down to listen. He nods and departs.
“Arnold is going to get us some drinks,” she tells us, then switches to English. “But you haven’t introduced me to your gentleman friend.” She extends her hand. “I am called Lily. And you are?”
Mr. Hindelmann is still holding his drink so he cannot take her hand. “Jim,” he says, not meeting her gaze. “You can call me Jim.”
Jiang Hou and I both watch open-mouthed. In school Ren Wei’s English was never so good – she often had to be forced to speak – and she was never so beautiful either. She was plain and quiet, like the rest of us, and never had a boyfriend. But I do remember her as being easily influenced, readily convinced to forego her studies and go apple-picking, or bike riding, or even for a walk up and down, up and down, the same dusty street, anything to avoid her studies.
“Ren Wei,” I say. “What happened?”
Still she does not answer. Her smile is like that of a concubine with a secret, at least as they are portrayed on those weepy soap operas broadcast from Taiwan. Her laowai returns with the drinks, and I wonder how he was able to get them so quickly when it seemed to take Jiang Hou a thousand years. Then I realize, of course, he is a laowai, automatically sent to the front of the line, at least in a place like this.
“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Ren Wei says. It is becoming more and more crowded. A group has already taken our table, and people passing by keep bumping into Mr. Hindelmann, into his dead arm, which swings like a pendulum.
To the left of the stairs is a room I hadn’t noticed. It is similar to the one on the first floor, full of couches and wide chairs, but darker, lit only by the candles on the walls. At the end of the room is a curtain, which Ren Wei parts to reveal a door. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a key. She unlocks the door, and we are inside.
The first thing I notice is the smell. It is at once bitter and sweet, like the creamy white flowers crawling along the walls, or incense perhaps, and then I notice in the corner two young women and one old man inhaling deeply on long thin pipes, and think, Now I know where the foreign boy can get his dama.
No one glances our way – if we have a key, we must belong – all occupied among and with themselves, lovely Chinese girls and a variety of foreign men, old and young, white, brown, yellow, and even black, like Moses and Gossai. At the back of the room is an empty couch.
“Please sit,” Ren Wei says to us, and perches herself on her laowai’s lap.
The material of the couch is the softest I’ve ever felt, not slippery like silk nor scratchy like wool. It is the same purple as the Shanghai woman’s dress, and I wonder for a moment if they weren’t cut from the same cloth.
“Jiang Hou,” Ren Wei says. Her smile is so pretty, her neck arched like a swan’s. “Perhaps Ai Jun’s gentleman friend would like to sit beside her.”
Distracted by this turn of events, Jiang Hou had settled down next to me, for which I was glad, but now at Ren Wei’s suggestion he jumps up.
“Please, Mr. Hindelmann,” he says. “This is your seat. And this one’s mine” He pulls a straight-back chair from the wall.
Staring around with a strange half-grin, Mr. Hindelmann lowers himself on the couch. He is so close our shoulders touch, and I inch away.
Ren Wei tells her story. She speaks in Chinese, and her friend doesn’t seem to mind. I try not to watch his hands as they travel here and there, from her waist to her hips, down her thighs and up her back, playing with the loose tendrils of her hair. I cannot tell if his hands already know these parts, or are getting to know, in anticipation for later.
“I never did well in school,” Ren Wei says. “You both know that. The teachers liked me because I was quiet, but I hardly studied. Nothing held my interest, not even English. And I know how much you two enjoyed that. You were the best students in Linda’s class. But for me English had no point. When would I ever use it? When would I ever need it? I was in China and would be for the rest of my life.
“I didn’t go to college – I didn’t even take the entrance exam! How could I study with my father and his wife fighting all the time? And then their divorce. It’s just an excuse, I know. Just like my mother’s early death is an excuse. Others have studied and succeeded under far worse circumstances.
“My friend – Fan Hua, you remember her, don’t you? – helped me get a job in a shoe factory with her. It was very easy, though boring of course, and after a while the fingers on my right hand would go numb, and my neck and back would ache so that I couldn’t sleep. But we had all the shoes we wanted, for very, very cheap and in the latest Italian fashions.
“One day Fan Hua came to me with a business proposal, which surprised me because I didn’t think she had much of a head for business. When she wasn’t working, she liked to go out and have fun. She was very sociable, more so than I was. She said she had met a woman at a party who was looking for single Chinese girls to take foreigners on guided tours on the weekends. There would be no pay, but in exchange we would receive free English lessons as well as complimentary trips to the beauty parlor and even new clothes at a reasonable discount.
“What did I have to lose? I wasn’t doing much on the weekends, and meeting new people for free haircuts sounded like a fair exchange. Of course I was very innocent then, as was Fan Hua, who when she found out it wasn’t just guided tours we were wanted for, ran off and married a boy from her neighborhood. As for me? I was shocked at first, naturally. But soon enough, when the free beauty parlor trips and almost-free dresses turned into yuan – ” She wraps the laowai’s hand tighter around her. “I got used it.”
“This is improper!” Mr. Hindelmann springs up shouting English. His drink tipples and a few drops land on my cheek. “This is not a proper place. Zhen Zhu, you shouldn’t be here. We should go.”
“You are right, Mr. Hindelmann,” Ren Wei says. “This is not a proper place for her. I only wanted to bring you all somewhere more comfortable, more private, where we could talk. I do apologize.” Then, rising from the laowai’s lap, she takes my hand. Hers, unlike mine, is cool and dry.
“But would you please allow us to use the ladies’ room? We will be only a few minutes, and then you will have your Pearl back.”
Deeper into the heart of Red Style, down a hall of closed doors, I follow Ren Wei. My mind reels to grasp what my classmate is now, what she does, something I had only heard of and could never quite believe happens here, not in my country, under the glorious reign of Chairman Mao, but only in the wicked West, Europe, Canada, and of course America.
In the bathroom Ren Wei settles in front of the mirror. All around are women like her, perfectly made-up and clad in long, tight dresses. Some seem older, tired; they slump against the wall smoking cigarettes. Some are younger. One girl sits in the corner and cries while her friend comforts her. The crying girl sees me and lifts her face to show watery black streaks. I look away.
Ren Wei is reapplying her lipstick. “You’re shocked, Ai Jun.”
I catch a glance of our reflections. In comparison I am like the winter countryside. “Yes,” I say. “Of course.”
“Why? You shouldn’t be, you know. Don’t you realize what you and I do is really not so different?”
I am aghast. “Jiang Hou told you. We are only guides. Mr. Hindelmann is a tourist. Why, just this morning I took him to the Banpo Village.”
“First the Banpo Village and now Red Style. Ai Jun, don’t be naïve. The foreigners come to us for a service, for enjoyment. They come to us for a link to China.”
“A link? How are you a link?”
She looks at me, long lashes blinking. “How are you?”
“I provide information, facts, and dates about our city’s most historical treasures. Some consider the army of terracotta warriors to be the eighth wonder of the world.”
“But do you? Do you consider them to be a wonder?” She returns to the mirror and from her purse whips out a wand of mascara. “No one in this town find the soldiers very interesting, but they do, the foreigners. You are only giving them what they want, just like me. Except that of course I make more money.” She flashes at me a dazzling smile. “And you could too.”
The back of my throat clogs with smoke. “I would never.”
“I thought the same thing, years ago. It’s not as bad as you think. Just stick with the foreign men who will treat you like a jewel. Not the Chinese men.” She waves the wand. “Chinese men see you as a dirty whore.”
“They see you for what you are.” The words are out before I know it.
She simply shrugs. “Perhaps. But it’s just like with the bingmayong, isn’t it, Little Soldier? We see them for what they are, old hunks of clay, and the laowai see them for what they want, whatever that may be.” She snaps her purse shut. “Shall we? Your Mr. Hindelmann is waiting.”
In a daze I follow her back, and in no time it seems we are in the white flowered room again, beside the purple couch. Mr. Hindelmann stands when he sees me.
“Here you are, sir,” Ren Wei says. “Your Pearl, as promised.”
I wish she would stop calling me that. I am not his pearl, I am no one’s pearl. I am no one’s Zhen Zhu or Little Soldier. He says, “We should leave immediately, Zhen Zhu.” His glass is empty and his breath sharp. “This is not a proper place for you. What would your mother say?”
He speaks as if he knows her. I look around for Jiang Hou and find him in the corner chatting with two girls. I wave at him and his face falls. He pulls himself from the young ladies reluctantly, talking all the while, as though he were connected to them by a giant rubberband which, stretching, stretching, finally snaps.
Ren Wei is hugging me and I am enveloped by the smell of roses. “It was nice to see you again, Ai Jun. Think about what I said.”
I still feel the warmth of her breath at my ear as we wind our way out. We pass through the locked door and the curtains; we pass through the other room. Walking down the stairs we pass the handsome boy from before. He sees me and stops, his friends almost bumping into him, and leans against the banister. I stop too.
“Zhen Zhu.” Mr. Hindelmann’s face as he looks at me is puckered and desperate. Jiang Hou is already at the bottom. “Zhen Zhu, don’t you want to go?”
I turn back to the good-looking boy, who leans on one leg and smiles. Yes, he is handsome; his teeth are fine, his arms at once tapered and strong. But what can he give me? Did he go to university? Does he have a good job? Does he speak English, is he intelligent, can he get me out?
“Zhen Zhu?” Mr. Hindelmann says once more, then hangs his head. He thinks he has lost me, and below Jiang Hou turns away. We are useless to him now; he has his own possibilities; he has been discovered.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, Jim, I would.” Then as they both turn to look at me, I take his arm, his good arm, and we descend.
Finalist, Glimmer Train Winter Fiction Open Awards, 2005