Chinese Puzzle Box

Explorations in and about China

Fox Spirit 8: American Face


Sara carefully hung up her clothes, donned her nightgown, and washed her underwear in the kitchen sink. She must ask Silver Wing about laundry. She felt exhausted, but sleep would not come easily. She lay awake in her bare room, thinking about the day, turning over her thoughts about the people she had met

Silver Wing – She was so nice, yet she seemed almost afraid of Sara. What had Jerry Wang told her?

The receptionist, Jade Wang, had been pleasant – but then it is the job of a receptionist to be pleasant. She may have been angling for a promotion to junior accountant that got derailed because Jerry Wang had hired Sara.  

The programmers – just out of college, they probably saw her as an old woman, nothing to do with them. Sara set them aside. She could get to know them later if she needed to.

Scarlet Li, the office manager – she had been on her guard until Sara had asked her about the little girl, then she unbent a little. She was closer to Sara’s age than any of the others. She was curious, interested in Sara. She could really help Sara if she wanted.  Sara would have to learn not to resent the personal questions.

Trueheart Zhang – was he worried about Sara coming in to share his work?  If he was he hid it well.

Oh come on, Sara!  Take people at their face value!  You’re not in California! These people have nothing against you!  She turned restlessly. It was only two in the afternoon in California. Her son Mark would be at work. She wondered what he was doing, what Richie was doing, whether they missed her. Come on, Sara!  Go to sleep!


            The next afternoon Sara waited at the opening of Trueheart Zhang’s cubicle. She caught a look of alarm as though she had trapped him with no escape. He rose quickly and asked formally, “Can I help you, Mei le Jingli?”

            “I was hoping, can we talk now, Trueheart?”

            Trueheart frowned. Excuse me, Manager Miller. In the Chinese office we use the family name and title, not first name.”

            Sara stepped back, feeling her hated blush rising. Whenever she felt embarrassed, her face suddenly splotched with red. Trueheart smiled slightly and waited for her to speak.

            Sara began again. “Of course. Pardon me, Manager Zhang. I wished to ask, Jerry Wang – I mean, Boss Wang  – he has told me that he wants me to put an American finish on the accounts of Rainbow Software, so that Western investors will trust us with their money. Do you agree with this?”

            Trueheart laughed nervously. “No problem. Boss Wang has told this to me also. Do you want to see the accounts so soon?  I haven’t prepared them for you yet.”

            “No, there is no hurry today,” Sara replied. “But I have seen your accounts in the Los Angeles office. Even though you were trained in Hong Kong, you easily adapted to American- style accounting. What does Jerry Wang expect of me?”

            Trueheart hesitated, as though choosing his words carefully. “Wang Jie Ri wants to build a company in China, where there is plenty of talent, and the cost is low. But money for investment is in America, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Investors there maybe aren’t very brave to invest in a Chinese company. They are afraid of competition from the  Red Army, afraid that Chinese government will interfere, afraid of the Chinese legal system, so different from America, afraid maybe they will lose their investment with no way to protest. All these elements are scary and strange.

            “So, we must make it less strange. If an American with investing money looks at our accounting, our finances, they must see everything is not scary at all. Maybe if everything looks familiar, and is explained by a familiar American face, investors will forget about the risk, and see the opportunity. You understand?”

            Sara nodded, her eyes narrowing. “Surely it would have been better to have a man as your ‘American face’, not so?” she suggested, her voice level.

            “This was discussed,” Trueheart replied with a shrug  “Wang Jie Ri thought it would be a sign to Americans that we are very modern, very up- to- date in our thinking, to have a woman speaking for our company. Others weren’t so sure, but Wang Jie Ri had been in America longer, and he is very persuasive.”

            Sara felt the red flush staining her skin again. She groped for words which would let her escape to her cubicle, where she could think. “I see. Trueheart – I mean, Manager Zhang – I’ll look at the accounting books when you are ready.” She bowed slightly and returned to her cubicle, only the unusually brisk clack-clack of her low heels betraying her anger.

            In her impersonal bedroom that night, Sara tossed and turned on her hard bed, too warm under the skimpy blanket, fighting jet lag and her thoughts. Yes indeed, Jerry Wang could be very persuasive. He had asked her to come to Beijing, told her that she would be needed, that she could help build a new company in a new place. And she had wanted to believe him, wanted to be needed.  How big a fool was she? He only wanted a mask, a paper doll!  What could she do? She pictured herself sitting day after day in her cubicle playing round after round of computer solitaire. She would go mad. She stared at the ceiling, turned over to bury her head into the pillow, before finally falling asleep just moments, it seemed, before her alarm blared.

            Sara barely had time to settle herself in her cubicle the next morning when Trueheart hurried up to her. “Already we have an opportunity to use your valued services,” he said formally. “I have a call from Boss Wang. This week he’ll be bringing visitors – Hong Kong people. Maybe they’ll invest in Rainbow Software, maybe they’ll help fund marketing in America. Today is Wednesday;  they’ll be here Friday. Can you prepare a presentation? We don’t have much time, but I’ll help with figures.”

            Sara felt panic rising as the thought of standing in front of strangers – those staring eyes, all on her. Suddenly her heart was pounding, stomach clenching. Unbidden, a memory of the inquest after John’s death rose in her mind. The County Medical Examiner constantly clearing his throat while he shuffled through his papers. Dr. Reiver refusing to meet her eyes,the unblinking stares of the reporters, avid for a slip, a scandal, a shocking headline.

            She heard herself protesting desperately. “Manager Zhang, you are the Chief Financial Officer. You will make the presentation, yes? I’m not accustomed to do this. And how can I make a presentation in Chinese?  My Chinese isn’t good enough. I will use the wrong tone, I’ll say something silly!”

            “I don’t have an American face!” he snapped, brushing aside her protests. “This is your purpose, didn’t you understand?  Now please come, I’ll show you the accounts. You can use American tools, maybe PowerPoint, maybe special animation, whatever – give us an American face! You speak English if you need to. I’ll translate.” He turned abruptly back toward his cubicle, not waiting to see if Sara would follow him.

            Sara felt a hand touch hers. Scarlet Li had reached out from her cubicle. Her soft voice was like cool water, quenching Sara’s rising panic.         

 “Manager Miller, this will not be hard. The investors will not see you, only the American face, white skin, red hair. They will hear only an American voice, speaking words they only half understand. Imagine you are behind a mask. If you were throwing your voice from behind a curtain to make a dog talk, it would be the same.”

            A sudden picture of a fluffy pink poodle talking to a group of rapt investors came into Sara’s mind, and she had to smile. Her panic left her. “I see,” she said “Zhang will provide the substance, I am the wrapping.”

            “Exactly!” said Scarlet. “Now go! Zhang is waiting.”

            Sara returned from Trueheart’s cubicle carrying the ledgers and some marketing materials she had received from Scarlet Li. She looked at her distorted reflection in the computer monitor, – her face like a white balloon, her eyes high and squinty, her hair a frizzy halo around the edge of the screen. “So – they want a white face and a Western presentation,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ll give them the best damn presentation they ever heard from a talking poodle.”


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Fridays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!


Fox Spirit 7:New Name, New Life

Behind the door marked “Rainbow Software” was another world. The receptionist, a young girl introduced as Wang Yu – Jade Wang – sat behind a gray Formica-topped reception desk which could have been imported intact from the office in Los Angeles.

            Beyond Jade Wang, an opening allowed a glimpse of gray cubicle partitions and a couple of glass doors leading, Sara supposed, to offices or conference rooms. Almost before Sara had time to greet Jade Wang with the ritual courtesies, Trueheart guided her through the opening.

             The programmers of Rainbow Software had decorated their cubicles with the same sort of whimsy she had seen in the cubicles of computer engineers when she had worked in Los Angeles. A large inflated flamingo stood at the entrance to the programmers’ area, a dragon kite floated across the ceiling, shelves in the cubicles held Star Wars action figures and Japanese Transformers. At the sound of footsteps three heads of dark hair and a half-dozen black eyes popped up over the cubicle walls. “Let me introduce you, Mei Le Jingli,” said Trueheart as he escorted Sara down the aisle.

            To Sara’s eyes the three software engineers looked barely old enough to be legally employed. Fortune Chen was a like a cartoon of a Chinese scientist with his thick glasses and mop of black hair. He mumbled hello to Sara with hesitant eye contact and a gap-toothed smile. Gateway Wang was Fortune’s opposite:  tall, with perfect teeth, well-cut hair, and good English. He shook hands with Sara Western-style. The last to be introduced was Light Wave Shi, very thin with hair cropped short. He gave Sara a confident “Hello” but no handshake.  “Manager Shi is our designer of games,” explained Trueheart. “Wang and Chen are our programmers and junior designers. We hope soon to have our first product from our own designers.”

            Gateway Wang spoke up. “Ah, Manager Miller, maybe you can help our English, be our teacher, hao ma?”

            “Yes, of course, I will help if I can, if I have time…” Sara stammered. She looked sideways at Trueheart Zhang and caught him frowning at Wang, who quickly back-pedaled.  “Of course, you will be busy at first… maybe later….” He subsided awkwardly as Trueheart pulled Sara further down the aisle of cubicles.

            Sara held back for a moment to ask “Trueheart, what is the name you have given me? Mei Le… is that as close as Chinese can get for Miller?”

            “Yes, it is a good name – “Mei Le… the meaning is ‘Beautiful Joy’.” And Jingli is “Manager”.

            “Mei Le is nice. But it will be odd to go by my last name. Can you translate ‘Sara’?”

            Trueheart looked doubtful. “In Chinese we don’t use the first name so much. It could be Sai le– means ‘stuffed full of happiness.”

            “How about Sa ye– that sounds closer to ’Sara’…”

            “Sa ye is not so good – it means bu limao– behaving rudely.”

            “How about Si le”?

            “Means ‘dead’. Very unlucky. It will be better to go by your family name and title, I think.”

            Sara laughed and gave in. “Now I see why Chinese families take such care to name their children – it’s not easy to find words that don’t have a bad side! I’ll take ‘Mei le’ and ‘Sai le’ then.”  Inwardly she exulted. She had a brand-new name to start her brand-new life. But there was something Trueheart had said.

            “Trueheart, you said that soon we would have our first product. But if we have no product, what are you and I accounting for? When we met in the Los Angeles office, there were sales. Jerry Wang was very busy, it seemed.”

            “We have product, but not our own design. Wang Jie Ri has a license to sell some games made in Japan into the US and China. Our Chinese sales manager also has found customers in Shanghai and Hong Kong. This has been very good business for us. Now here is your place.”

            Sara noted the unoccupied cubicle on the other side of the aisle. “Who is opposite?”

            “Ah, this place is for Cheng Bao Feng – Storm Cheng – our manager for sales in China. He isn’t always in the office, so I think maybe this will give you a little more … what do you say in English?  Privacy?”

            Sara remembered Silver Wing’s blank look – “What is the Chinese word?”

            Trueheart Zhang paused for a moment, considering. “This word isn’t so easy to translate. In Chinese always there are many people together in a family, in a building, in the neighborhood. You could say ’yinju’ but the meaning is a little bit not so good, like you maybe have something not quite right in your head, you are afraid of people. I think this ‘privacy’ is a Western idea. Western people are accustomed to being more alone, so I tried to make a place comfortable for you.”

            “You are too kind, to give me the best space by the window. I hope no one will feel badly.”

            Trueheart grinned at her. “This is no problem. In an American office, I know the window office is best. In a Chinese office, close to center of the room is best. So everyone is quite satisfied.”

            “Why is the center best?  Chinese people don’t like the light and the view?”

            “Having light and a view is not so important as being in the middle where all actions cross. In the center you know who talks to who, who comes in and goes out. There are many useful things to observe.”

            Sara felt a pang of doubt – was she being relegated to a backwater?Aloud she replied, “I do not mean to be so out of the way. Perhaps I could be closer to you so I could study your methods?

            “Ah, this is embarrassing. Our arrangement is set. It’s not so many steps for me to come to you…”

            “… Or for me to come to you,” Sara interrupted. She did not intend to sit waiting for Trueheart’s attention. There was a moment of silence before she continued, “And who is next to me here?”

            “Let me introduce you.” Trueheart rapped on the edge of the partition to officially attract the attention of the young woman inside. “This is our office manager, Li Jingli called Hong – Scarlet.”

            Scarlet Li patted her hennaed hair into place before holding out a hand for Sara to shake. “Hello Mrs. Miller. I am happy to meet you”, she said in careful British-accented English. Sara saw Scarlet’s hesitation and the wariness in her eyes. She caught sight of a photograph tacked onto the side of Scarlet’s cubicle over the computer monitor and plunged ahead.

             “Ah, what a pretty child. Your little sister?”

            Scarlet Li’s laugh broke past her shyness. “No, that’s my daughter, called Xue Mei – Snow Plum. She is a student at Bei Hua Children’s Palace. She is two years of age. ”

            “Children’s Palace? That sounds very grand.”

            “Not really a palace,” replied Scarlet. “But still very lovely. Was once the home of an important ambassador. Maybe you can visit the Children’s Palace someday and see.”

            Something about the little girl reminded Sara of Richie. “Yes, I’d like to see a Chinese pre-school, if that is possible.”

            Scarlet Li nodded eagerly. “Keneng. It’s possible. You like children? Maybe you have some?”

            “I have one son, but he’s not a child anymore. Not pretty like Snow Plum.”

             “You have a son. Very good fortune. Only one?  I have heard in America one can have many children, no problem.”  She paused, inviting Sara to explain.

            Sara willed herself to keep her voice level. “You may if you can. We were happy to have one.” She and John must have tried every position in the Kama Sutra, hoping for a sibling for Mark. Then the doctor had told them. Sara had a tipped uterus; they were lucky to have one child. “Please excuse me….” Sara turned to her cubicle, away from any more questions. She must send an email to Mark. Perhaps Jerry Wang would let her use the office phone until she had her own – she would ask tomorrow. Meanwhile email from the office would have to do.


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Fridays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 6: First Day at the Office

The next morning the blaring alarm brought Sara out of sleep just when she would have been beginning to dream if she were still in California. She forced herself upright, pulled the opaque plastic curtain back from the window, and squinted at the burst of eastern light. Was the air clearer, or was she already becoming accustomed to the haze? She caught herself humming a tune as she dressed.

            Silver Wing had advised her about proper office garb: “No bright colors!  They are not respectful.” And about proper shoes: “The office has no restaurant in building. You will need to walk.”  Sara made a quick breakfast of green tea from last night’s leaves still in the pot, plus a bean-curd bun and star fruit from the previous day’s market trip. She was ready in her gray dress and flat sensible shoes when a knock summoned her to the door.

 Sara smiled with recognition at the thin young man waiting on her doorstep. “Trueheart Zhang. Hai pa tai mafan ni– I’m afraid it’s a nuisance.”

Trueheart’s smiling face under bristling black hair seemed all thick glasses and teeth. “Mei wenti – no problem. We’ll be colleagues in accounting for the company’s finances. I’m glad to be useful to you.”  He ushered Sara into a small dusty black car parked next to Auntie Chen’s window, and drove off with a jerk as Sara struggled to find and fasten a seat belt.

            She looked around carefully for landmarks as Trueheart drove out from the courtyard. “When we get to the office, will you write down directions for me to get back here, Trueheart?  I’m not very sure about asking people on the street. I don’t even know my address.”

            “Jiandan – very simple. You are living in graduate student housing, Courtyard 19, on property of Bei Hua University. The office of Rainbow Software is also in Bei Hua University building, number 38. It used to be classrooms, but now Bei Hua rents out.”

            “Why does the university rent space to outsiders?  Is the university getting smaller?  Are there not enough students?”

            “Bu shi. Bei Hua isn’t small. It’s our top university for technology, like your Stanford or MIT. China wants many more engineers, more doctors, more research, more technology. Many students want to come here.”

            “Then why…”

            “Let me explain.” Trueheart waved to acknowledge Guard Fu in his kiosk and swung left into the market street. “During the Cultural Revolution, all Western thought was bad, all Western contacts were bad. But when Mao died, our new leader Deng Xiao Ping had new ideas:  ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘Getting rich is glorious.’  Now factories, universities, everyone needs to make money from outside. There is no more always getting money from the government.” 

            A bicycle laden with a mother, two children and a bulging bag of groceries suddenly burst from a side alley in front of them. Sara clutched the dashboard as Trueheart swerved to avoid it, and then slipped the car into a side street while Sara was still gasping. He turned and grinned at Sara. “Bicycle riders think the road is theirs only.”

            To Sara’s relief he turned his eyes back to the street as he resumed his explanation. “So, the computer science department needs to make money- but how to do it?  Japan has been very lucky with computer games having big success in America. Maybe Chinese games also could be popular.  A professor at Bei Hua knows Wang Jie Ri, Wang knows business, and together they start Rainbow Software.” 

            Trueheart pulled to the curb, stopped the engine, and opened the car door. “Here is the office, on the second floor. Please come up.”

            Sara stared at the featureless concrete building and sat for a moment without moving. Two years earlier, when she had first worked for Jerry Wang as a contractor, the Los Angeles office of Rainbow Software had sparkled with new carpet and the latest computer equipment. Later, when she was eager to get away from her empty house and her neighbors’ gossip. Jerry Wang had offered her a way out and she had taken it gladly. She had not asked about the company’s origins or financing. What if it was all a sham? 

            She shook herself and got out of the car. Sham or not, Jerry Wang had paid for her escape to China. If it was not exactly what she expected, she would have to deal with it. She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and walked up the stairs.


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Fridays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 5: Bicycle River


  The afternoon of Sara’s first day in Beijing was a blur of offices, all connected in some way to Sara’s request to have a phone in her apartment. “Lucky you are living in Bei Hua,” Silver Wing told her. “You can connect to the University network. Much easier.”  But by the time Silver Wing had led Sara to the office of the Bei Hua Registrar to get a certificate of residency, to the university accounting office to set up an account, and to the university operations office to schedule a time for getting the phone connected, Sara was dizzy from answering questions and filling out forms. She did not protest when Silver Wing suggested a nap after they returned to Sara’s apartment.  “You rest, I will put away food.”  Sara lay down on the hard bed and was instantly asleep, waking only when Silver Wing shook her shoulder gently an hour later.  “Not good to sleep too long.  Save some for tonight. Now we will go to Zhongguancun to get phone.  Bei Hua will not provide a phone.”

            Silver Wing ushered Sara into her small silver sedan, and exited a different gate from the university grounds.  Sara gasped as they came to a stop at an intersection.  It seemed that a river of bicyclists was crossing in front of her, hundreds and hundreds of cyclists, handlebars almost touching, barely room to pedal, more than she had ever seen or imagined in one place. “Is it a race?” she asked Silver Wing.  “Why so many bicycles?”

            Silver Wing looked at her in surprise.  “Not so many.  This is only a side road, three lanes each way, one for cars, two for bicycles.  And only afternoon traffic. Later on, after working hours, or on the main roads, like Chang’An, you will see many more. Do not Americans ride bicycles?”

            “Yes, but not so many.  We more often drive cars.”

            “Ah, we are still catching up to Western ways.  For us, when I was growing up in the countryside, we all wished for the Three Rounds – A bicycle with its round wheels, a sewing machine with its round power belt, and a round-faced wrist watch.  A bicycle is very good for traveling around Beijing, which is mostly flat.  Not so good in winter, maybe, but then we have the buses.”

            Suddenly the river of bicycles parted.  The light had changed.  Silver Wing drove slowly across the intersection, surrounded by bicyclists.   Sara shivered as she imagined herself on a bicycle among the throng. 

            When Jerry Wang arrived at 6 p.m. with a picnic-basket dinner of dumplings, rice, and long beans, Sara asked with some embarrassment for the use of his cell phone to call the US. She needed to reassure Mark that she had arrived safely. But the time difference found her reaching only the answering machine. Of course – it was only 3AM in California. Thank goodness she had not awakened Rennie or the baby. She listened with longing to Mark’s familiar recorded voice, enjoying the brief illusion of a conversation before she left her message.  

            Sara did her best to stick to Mandarin over dinner. But several times she caught Silver Wing and Jerry Wang exchanging smiles and glances as she hesitated over the right word.. Finally in exasperation, she challenged Wang:  “All right, I know I said that wrong. But what did I say that made you laugh?  I said ‘Wo yao wen ni…  I want to ask you….’  I think the words are right – what is so funny?”

            Silver Wing giggled and looked down. Wang grinned broadly. “You used the wrong tone. ‘Wen’ with a falling tone means ‘ask’. ‘Wen’ with a rising tone means ‘kiss’.”  Sara replayed the sentence in her mind and groaned.

            “Don’t worry. It’s not a problem,” Wang said gently. “We’re friends, and I know enough English to understand what you meant to say. Maybe we should speak English until you have a chance to get used to the tones of Mandarin.”

            “No. I must practice. I can’t learn Mandarin by speaking English.”  Sara fought to keep a quaver from her voice. She was suddenly very tired again.

            Wang nodded. “This is true, but you won’t learn everything on the first day.”  He pushed back his chair. “Now we’ll leave you to dream, perhaps in Mandarin. I will not be in the office tomorrow, but you remember Trueheart Zhang, who worked at our California office? He’ll come for you in the morning to bring you to the office. ”

            The Wangs left, and Sara was alone. She took off her clothes slowly, savoring the silence and the cool air from the window air conditioner on her skin. Her thoughts skipped over her first day in China. Silver Wing’s kindness, her timidity. The staring curiosity of the bystanders. Silver Wing’s childlessness. What would it be like to live with Mark and Rennie – three generations under one roof? We would have killed each other.


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Fridays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 4: Nose Products


Sara looked about her. The space was simple – a living room with a kitchen along one wall: a sink, a two burner stove, and a small refrigerator. A door led to a second small room with a bed, another open door revealed a tiny bathroom with a shower stall.          

  “Excuse that the room is so bare,” said Silver Wing. “I thought you would like your own things for decoration. She stole a glance at her husband, then continued. “I have made a small meal for you – so embarrassing, nothing very good. Tomorrow after you have slept we can shop, if you would like.”

            “Wo ganxie ni. I would like that very much. But, Jerry, shouldn’t I go into the office?’

            “Not necessary. Tomorrow is your first day in Beijing. You should rest from your long travel, get used to the time change, find out where to shop, meet neighbors. The next day we’ll welcome you to the office.”

            Silver Wing was showing Sara how to use the cook top, mini-oven, and sink when she noticed Sara leaning against the kitchen counter, her head bobbing with exhaustion. Silver Wing exclaimed, “How foolish I am!  You must be hoping for your bed. We will leave now, and I will come tomorrow at eight thirty to introduce you. Do you have an alarm clock?  Sorry, we could not so quickly get a phone for you.”

            Sara pulled her travel clock from her duffel, conferred with Silver Wing to make sure it was properly set, and bowed the Wangs out the door. She wondered fuzzily about what or who she was to be introduced to the next day as she stripped to her underwear and crawled between the sheets. For a few moments she lay awake on the hard mattress, listening to the whirr of the refrigerator and air conditioner, the sounds of the street. The dial of the clock glowed – 10PM in Beijing. It would be 7AM on Monday in Santa Flora. Mark would be drinking coffee, getting ready for work. Rennie would be feeding little Richie, getting him ready for daycare. A longing to hear her son’s voice swept over her. He had been such a strength for her while John was ill, so stalwart at the inquest, so protective at the funeral, so good at keeping away the curious, the press. For almost a year he had been with her almost every day, in daily touch by phone longer than that. And then the quarrel with Rennie.  Rennie had been so odd about the inquest, asking questions about why Sara had not called 911 when John’s breathing slowed and stopped, why the pills went uneaten. She should have listened, not lost her temper. Just like with Dr. Reiver.  She should have been more tactful.  So stupid to quarrel with her only son’s wife.  She would call Mark tomorrow. No phone in this place. Maybe after her “introduction” tomorrow. Sara pulled the thin blanket closer, and then she was asleep.

            Sara woke jet-lagged, fought past a mild headache, and looked around at her new surroundings. The two-room space was as empty of personality as a cheap hotel room. The linoleum floor of both rooms was yellowed and worn, streaked with red and charcoal in a pattern designed to hide dust or dirt. A faint odor of fresh paint came from the gray walls. The sturdy wooden furniture looked as though it had been through several previous tenants and was expected to last through several more. Skimpy curtains backed with opaque gray plastic blocked the light at each window. The air conditioner whirred valiantly but still the air felt heavy – almost gritty.

            Sara pulled a curtain aside. Dust in the air hazed her view of the interior courtyard. The thin shrubs were also coated with dust, showing only a faint green. There was no sign of life in any other window, but she could hear sounds of traffic. The city was awake beyond the wall.

At 8:30 when Silver Wing knocked at Sara’s door, the August heat was already building in the courtyard. At the compound entrance the security guard in his kiosk pulled to full attention at the sight of a foreigner and gave Sara a formal greeting in English. The ice melted into a genial grin when Sara answered him in equally careful Mandarin.

            “Excuse us, Guard Fu,” Silver Wing interrupted. “We must do our shopping before the heat is too strong.” Sara managed only a quick “Zai jian – see you later” to the guard before she found herself swept into the bustling street market outside the university gates.

            A row of small shops, each with its awning of colorful tarpaulin, displayed the day’s produce on wooden stands in front of each shop door. Meat and vegetable stands alternated with food stalls. Fresh fruit and vegetables shared space with live fish wriggling in basins of murky water and newly plucked chickens hanging by their necks. Sizzling woks offered rows of newly fried filets of unknown origin. The odors of hot fat and spices mingled with the stench of yesterday’s decayed meat, rotting vegetables, and the fumes of passing autos. A crowd of shoppers was already prodding the fruit, hefting the fish, or haggling in rapid-fire exchanges with the vendors.

            “This market is very good,” Silver Wing assured Sara. “Vegetables are fresh, fish are still alive and healthy in water. You must always shop early to get the freshest, healthiest fish.” Sara nodded and followed behind Silver Wing, very aware of the stares and comments of both customers and vendors at the unexpected vision of a tall red-haired foreigner among the usual sights of the market.

            Silver Wing had brought a small folding shopping cart and Sara immediately purchased another for herself. Soon both were overflowing. Two hours later Sara’s shoulder had begun to feel the unaccustomed strain of dragging the cart, and her feet ached from walking on cobblestones from stall to stall. Her brain throbbed from her jet lag. Her clothing was sticking to her skin. She felt grit in her eyes and between her teeth. Sara was trying to remember how to ask for a rest when Silver Wing anticipated her.

            “So, shall we now stop and eat something? Maybe some soup?” Sara nodded with relief. They settled onto two stools in one of the food stalls and waved to the server. Two bowls of steaming noodles materialized quickly, along with a pot of tea and two small handle-less cups.

            “It’s always good to drink hot soup and tea on a warm day,” said Silver Wing comfortably. “It opens your skin and makes you cooler.”  Sara put aside her yearning for a glass of ice water and sipped the tea. It was, in fact, very refreshing. She looked around her. The small open-air tea shop was an oasis of calm in the noisy market. Each table was surrounded by two or three or four customers, mostly women,  seated on sturdy wooden stools and bent forward over their noodle bowls. The floor of the shop was the same cobblestone pavement as the street, only slightly less dusty. Ribbons of paper covered with Chinese characters fluttered from the posts and awning.  Sara guessed that these announced the specials of the day. She cradled the small cup of tea between her hands and realized that she should be making conversation with her hostess.

            “Thank you, Silver Wing, for taking this time. You are missing work so you can spend the day with me?”

            “Mei guanxi. No problem. I have no job, so my husband asked me to help you specially.  He tells me you have no family, no home, and you must come to China to work. We will try to make this a happy time again for you. ”

            “I’m not so badly off as all that.”  Sara felt the sting of Silver Wing’s pity. “I have family. My brother lives in California, in Pasadena. And my son and his wife also live near Los Angeles.”  She remembered her longing to hear Mark’s voice. “And, excuse me, I need to call -”

            Silver Wing’s eyes widened in surprise. “You have a brother? You have a son? And still you come to China?” 

            “My brother is not in charge of me.” Sara replied, bristling at the thought. “And my son and his wife are busy with their own life and their new baby – they don’t need me. But I do need to let them know…”

            Now Silver Wing looked even more shocked. “Your son has a baby? He has not kept you in his home to take care of his child?  Even if the baby is a girl…”

            “It’s not,” Sara said. “It’s a boy – my grandson Richie.”

            “You leave your grandson?”  Silver Wing stopped speaking, as if the enormity was too much for her.

            Little Richie. Sara’s voice was thick as she replied “My daughter-in-law had her own ideas. She didn’t want my advice.”  The thought of phoning Mark at home had lost its appeal.

            “So different,” said Silver Wing “In China a son must take care of his mother and grandmother, or there would be a great loss of face for the family. Three, four, even five generations under one roof – this is our good-luck wish for a family. It seems very strange that you have a son and grandson, and yet no home.”

            Sara flinched.  What’s that Robert Frost poem? “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” She’s right. I have no home.

            She tried to respond without irony. “American traditions are different. Our Bible says ‘A man shall leave his family and cleave only to his wife’. I can see the Chinese way is good, if Grandma is there to take care of the child.  Only after the mother and father come home from work they would want Grandma to disappear, I think.”

            Silver Wing answered as if she has not noticed the sarcasm in Sara’s closing words. “Yes, the Chinese way is good. But Wang’s family lives outside Beijing, very far from our house. We would see our child only on the weekend. And if the child lives outside the city, he cannot attend a good school in Beijing.” She paused a moment. “Now I have no job, no child, so no problem.”

            There was an awkward pause. Sara suddenly realized that she was being stared at. The other customers in the tea shop were making no attempt to hide their interest in the red-haired foreign woman in their midst. She tried to ignore them, sip her tea, and drink her hot soup. The hot spicy liquid made her nose run; without thinking she pulled a tissue from her purse, blew her nose, and replaced the tissue. There was a murmur from the observers, they were pointing, grimacing.

            “Silver Wing, what are they saying?  Did I do something wrong?”

            Silver Wing giggled nervously. “No problem. They are not accustomed to Western ways. In China we do not treasure our nose products like you do. It seems strange to them.”

            “Treasure our nose products?” asked Sara blankly.

            “Yes. In China we do not clear nose in public. We think this is not clean. Instead we try to get nose products into the mouth, then spit them out. But you Westerners blow your nose products into special cloth or paper, wrap them up carefully, put them in your pocket or your purse. I always wonder – what do you do with them later?”  She waited, head tilted like an curious bird, for Sara’s answer.

            Sara looked around at the attentive strangers and the hated flush of embarrassment rush to her cheeks. Her voice rose plaintively. “What should I do when I drink hot soup and my nose drips?  I don’t know how to spit. In America only men spit.”

            Silver Wing broke into a laugh which held a note of relief. “I was afraid you would know so much more than me. Now I must teach you to spit!”   For a horrified moment Sara thought that she was about to be given spitting lessons on the spot. She kept her eyes down, and took a last swallow of soup, ignoring the watchers.

            Silver Wing filled Sara’s empty teacup and tried to make her voice more serious. “May I ask, why did you come to China?” 

            Sara kept her head down, fighting to control the ripple of hysteria. But she could not keep her voice from shaking. “I wanted to go where no one knew me. I thought in China I would be invisible, that I could disappear.” Sara took a furtive glance sideways at the attentive crowd in the teahouse and started to giggle helplessly. “Maybe I thought wrong.”


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Thursdays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 3: Happy Landings?


August 1997

Sara tried to remember the polite response in Mandarin, as Jerry Wang sprang from the car and unfastened the trunk. “Your suitcases?  This is all?”  He glanced at Sara’s suitcase and duffel and looked around for more.

            Sara gave up the struggle and answered in English. “I only brought things I really needed. Things I want I can buy in Beijing, can’t I?  Beijing is not a remote jungle.”

            “Very true,” Wang replied, slipping into English also. “But when I see American tourists loading onto buses, they bring their whole household. You come to stay and bring only two bags.” Wang lifted the cases into the trunk with an effort. “Two heavy bags.”  He grinned again and motioned her into the front passenger seat, dashed around to the driver’s side as other drivers honked at the obstruction, and jumped in. They took off with a clash of gears.

            Sara held her breath while Wang fought his way to the airport exit, his feet alternating rapidly between the accelerator and the brake pedal as he dodged around pedestrians and slipped past buses. She could see little order to the traffic, no striping, and few signs. Somehow they emerged onto a highway, with a sign for Beijing clearly lit. She turned to Wang with an exhalation of relief, and tried again to remember her much-studied Mandarin.

            “Ni tai keqi.Tai mafan ni.” You are very kind. I have made too much trouble for you.”

             “Bu keqi. Don’t be so formal.” Wang turned to look at her, waving her thanks away with one hand. Sara gasped as a car appeared in front of them, so close. Wang returned his hand to the wheel and his eyes to the road. He continued, “You’ve suffered much; your husband died. Of course I must welcome you to Beijing. We’re colleagues again; we must support each other, mustn’t we?”

            Sara hadn’t cried when John died, or at the inquest, or even after that fight with Rennie, which had cut her off from her only son and grandson.. But sympathy was hard to take. She blinked rapidly to dispel the prickling behind her eyes, and changed the subject. “Are we going to the office?  Is it far?”

            Wang shook his head. “I’ll be taking you to your new house. It is a very small attached house in an old courtyard, in the university campus. Also very convenient for the office. It’s about two hours from here. You can sleep if you want, while I drive – no problem.”

             “You’re too kind. I don’t want to sleep. I’m too …..” Sara looked for the word “excited” in Mandarin – could not find it – “… sleep is not possible. Tell me where we’re going, please. ”

            Wang nodded. “I understand. Driving now you’ll see the outer part of Beijing. The airport is on the west side– we will go on the third Ring Road to the University on the east side, far from the tourist places. You’ll see the real city of workers as they are returning from work.”

            On either side of the roadway large banners pictured fields of sunflowers sloping up to purple mountains in the distance, masking any view of what lay behind them.

            “Why are there these banners blocking the view?  I can’t see anything,” Sara asked Wang.

            “It’s the Chinese way,” Jerry Wang replied, both hands gripping the steering wheel as he scanned the road for a gap in the heavy traffic. “Outside of Beijing is all industry, factories, old apartment buildings – not a good first impression, yes? So the government puts up pretty pictures to hide the view – like a mask.”

            Like a mask – she knew about that. Like Dr. Reiver, so smooth at the inquest. Helen Roberts, that snake, so smarmy polite to my face. I was right to leave. I have to be right. It’s too late for me to be wrong. I should call Mark to let them know I arrived. Will they miss me? Are they glad I’m gone?   

            The car moved off the elevated highway and dropped down onto a street whose narrow sidewalks barely held room for the widely-spaced street lamps. Some of the circles of light illuminated groups of shirtless men, cigarettes aglow, squatting around a cloth strewn with playing cards. Wang threaded his way between tall square blocks of buildings, their blank facades studded with air-conditioners protruding from the darkened windows. Shadowy figures sat in doorways. Sara was aware of Jerry Wang glancing at her from time to time as he drove.  Had she changed much?  She knew she was thinner than before. She had let her hair grow, since she hadn’t had to keep it under control for an office job.

She wondered why he had selected her to help with his accounting.  Surely there must be Chinese accountants. Maybe because they had been friendly  when Rainbow Software opened the office in Los Angeles.  John had been well then, and Jerry’s wife was in Beijing.  Jerry had come to their house for dinner, he had been invited to her grandson’s baby shower.  Then John was taken ill, and she had to give up working, and they had lost touch, except for Christmas cards.  And she had sent him a black-edged card when John died.  And then the invitation, the escape.

She gasped as Jerry Wang suddenly braked and swerved, cursing softly. He had almost hit a bicyclist. The bicyclist kept pedaling, oblivious to his narrow escape. 

“Sorry, these cyclists, so stupid, ride at night, no lights, all in black.”

            The car pulled up to a gate. Wang exchanged words with a sentry at the entrance, and then passed into an even narrower street lined with trees and with wider sidewalks. The car pulled through another narrow gate into a courtyard surrounded by a small group of single-story buildings. A door opened and light poured out around a slender figure. Sara stirred awake as the car came to a stop. Wang jumped from the driver’s seat and hurried to open the trunk, set Sara’s belongings on the tiled pavement, and open the door for his passenger, conscious of his wife’s eyes watching.

            Sara rubbed her eyes as Wang took her elbow and drew her toward the waiting figure in the doorway.

            “Shi wo taitai, jiao Yin Yi – my wife, Silver Wing. She’s been getting your place ready. Not fancy, not like your American ranch house, but maybe okay for China.”

            Sara bowed to Silver Wing, and her carefully rehearsed Chinese phrases finally surfaced. “Wang Taitai, ni tai keqi” – it is too kind of you to have prepared my place and to stay up so late.”

            “Mei wenti – no problem”. Silver Wing held the door wide as Wang carried Sara’s suitcase and duffel bag into the house.   “Gou le? – is this all?”   Silver Wing, like Wang earlier, seemed surprised at Sara’s light traveling gear.

            “Yes,” Sara replied, without elaborating. Refugees travel light.


Fox Spirit episodes appear on Mondays and Fridays. The sidebar gives you access to previous episodes.

To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 2: A Mixed Welcome


August 1997

Sara pushed her curling auburn hair back and leaned forward to look out the airplane window. The yellow lights of Beijing spread out below as far as she could see. Millions of people down there. Only two of them so much as knew a face to go with her name, and even they didn’t know much more. A new start. A new life. She smiled with anticipation and leaned back in her seat.

            The man in the aisle seat was still asleep. He had wanted to be friendly: “Your first time in China? Why are you coming? Tourist group meeting you?”

            She had answered him curtly. “I was offered a job,” and turned away from further questions. There was something about him that reminded her of Dr. Reiver, something oily in his voice, the over-solicitous look in his eyes.  She would be wary of friendliness now.

            Exiting the Beijing Airport baggage claim into the night was like diving into an unlit aquarium. The air was moist and heavy, and sounds seemed muffled after the brightness and clamor of the baggage claim. Large shining tour buses swam lazily into view. The brightly colored flags of tour guides darted here and there as the guides sorted jet-loads of tourists and their luggage into the buses. A musty smell swirled from the surrounding  traffic circle, as though each car and bus had brought a little of the city’s grime along with it. Business people queued for taxis, or headed down the curb for their hotel bus, or disappeared into the maw of the subway. Returning residents were met with shrieks and a barrage of chatter, and then were swept into waiting vehicles full of multi-generational welcome. 

            The humidity had set Sara’s hair free. With one hand she pushed the damp auburn tendrils away from her face, while with the other hand she struggled to pull her suitcase out into a space at the crowded curb. But where was her welcoming person?  She had expected to see someone at the gate holding a placard with her name on it amid the throng of limousine drivers and corporate greeters lining the exit ramp. Probably not Jerry Wang himself, but some subordinate, surely. Jerry Wang had been so urgent, so eager to hire her, so delighted when she agreed to work in Beijing. Sara looked again at the line of greeters without finding her name. The four semesters of intensive Chinese she had taken suddenly seemed perilously inadequate to navigate into the darkness beyond the traffic circle. She realized she had no idea where she would sleep tonight; she had only an address and phone number for the Rainbow Software office. The crowd was thinning, bus after bus was leaving, and still there was no sign, no placard, no one calling her name.

            “Sell a mirror! Sell a mirror!!” The shrill cry came from a small grey car at the curb. An arm waved madly. Recognition came to her: “Sell a mirror” was “Sara Miller” with a Chinese accent.

            Sara grabbed the handle of her rolling bag, balanced her duffel and shoulder bag on top, and hurried over to the gray car. The light inside revealed a stocky man of uncertain age, all bushy eyebrows and smile, and overflowing with rapid-fire Chinese. Sara recognized him with relief.

            “Ah, Wang Jie Ri, shi ni ba! Wo mei xiang dao…” Jerry Wang! I did not expect you to come to meet me!”

            “Too long since we met! Of course I would meet my new manager! Welcome to Beijing! 


            By 6 pm that same evening the crowd was already thick around the bar at the Old Gold Mountain Wine Shop, and the air was gray with cigarette smoke. Storm Cheng and Bright Liu had managed to obtain their glasses of beer and secured a table in the back corner near the rear door, as far away from the bar as possible.

            “Now we have both broken our iron rice bowls.”  Storm raised his glass and saluted his friend. “I’m lucky that my parents have resigned themselves to my new road. Sooner or later your parents will also understand why you’re not working for the government as they do. “

            Bright sighed. “I don’t know if my family will ever be resigned. My father isn’t blind; he sees that China is changing, but he doesn’t like my choice. To be a travel guide, to rely on the Westerners for tips – he remembers not long ago when a Chinese would refuse a tip for good service, would say proudly ‘You should expect no less in China.’  Now he says we grovel for this money, says we have lost face. I can’t make him see.” 

            Storm frowned and stared into his glass, avoiding his friend’s look. “I can understand your father. Being a travel guide for Western tourists.… How can you trust your future to these people? These Westerners have no thought of the next generation – spending money that could be used to buy a house, land, education for a child or grandchild. Travel to China is fashionable today, but tomorrow? Who knows?” 

            Bright was unfazed by his friend’s doubts. “You say this, Storm, but your life doesn’t match your words. If travel is only a fashion, how about software games?  At least, a tour guide has duties, with real customers, with real money. How can you make money selling software in China, where every game is available from pirates without paying any fee?  You could create the number one game in China, and still only sell one copy for money!”

            Storm bit his lip and swirled the beer in his glass. “You’re right, Bright.  I’ve also thought of this, but I believe that Boss Wang will find an answer. Meanwhile I have a salary, I have a chance to make more money, and I’m building a business for China with Chinese people.”

            “I’m also building a business, for myself and for many Chinese workers,” Bright retorted. “The money is good!  The tourists appreciate us!  And the kickbacks from the souvenir shops and other special stops we make are amazing!. I can earn more in one month than I could make as a junior manager in my father’s office!  I remind you that Deng Xiao Ping said ‘getting rich is glorious’.”

            Storm spluttered as he tried to hold back a laugh in mid-swallow. “If only he’d spelled out an approved method!”

“We have to go with the times,” his friend replied. “Fifty years ago your grandfather ate moldy rice with Mao on the Long March; twenty years ago he was in jail as a counter-revolutionary. My father was sent to the country to pull turnips because he had studied English.  Now he’s editing English travel brochures for the Government Tourist Office to lure Americans here. Our world has been turned upside down more than once.”

Storm Cheng’s mood shifted again. “Maybe I see these changes and I’m not as comfortable as I hoped to be when change came.” 

            He set the glass down carefully. “Did I tell you that Boss Wang has sent us an American Face to present our financial arrangements to investors?  He thinks that a white face holding an American-style left-bound ledger will be more convincing explaining a Chinese business plan. This angers me – even our own people want to defer to a white face. This person will be in our office daily. I don’t know how to deal with it.”

            “Ah, now I see,” said his friend. “You’ve always scorned those who don’t believe enough in China. Yet China is big –we are large enough, old enough, to have taken in Buddhism, communism, and now capitalism, and we are still Chinese…”

            “Yes, ‘Chinese Communism with Western characteristics’ as Deng Xiao Ping said. The great accommodator, Deng. I’ll do my best to follow his example, but I can’t like the white face speaking for my colleagues and my friends. And some of these changes weren’t done smoothly or pleasantly…” Storm’s voice drifted off.

            Bright raised his glass and clinked it lightly against Storm’s. “Ah then, if the government changes its mind again about the foreigner, perhaps you and I will be sent to pull turnips together. Meanwhile… ganbei.”


Fox Spirit will continue on Mondays and Thursdays. To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

Your comments are always welcome!

Fox Spirit 1: Escape

Huli jing (Mandarin Chinese): Fox spirit. Literally, “exquisite fox.” Also a modern colloquial term for a dangerous seductress.


你做过了一万里的路  来完成我的等待

为此停滞的夜 升起了繁星

            – 陈立强

You traveled a ten thousand mile road

To fulfill my long waiting.

Hence from the stagnant night

Burst forth a million stars

            -Chen Li Qiang (1998)



June 1997

            “I thought sure the corpse would be bleedin’.”

            Sara was certain she was meant to overhear the half-whispered remark. She stiffened her back, sitting as straight as possible, and willed herself not to turn her head. She could feel the tell-tale flush rising, knew her cheeks would be splotched with red, but if she didn’t turn her head, they would not see. The mortuary chapel was quiet, the moments between the soft organ music and when her brother Jasper would step forward and begin the memorial service. She was the widow, she was not expected to speak, she would not have to face the whisperer. At the end of the service she would be in a receiving line with her son Mark, his wife Rennie, Jasper and his wife Carol. Everyone would walk past and take her hand. She would not try to identify the whisperer, not look for shifty eyes, ironic voice tones. They would be there, in more than one face, more than one voice.

            If she had known the consequences, would she have acted differently?

             “A young woman like you, with your husband so ill for so long. If there is anything I can do…” and Dr. Reiver’s hand had lingered too long on her shoulder, while John’s labored breathing could be heard clearly from the sickroom. If Sara had been more tactful. If she hadn’t lost her temper and threatened to report his unprofessional conduct. Of course, he bore a grudge. And refused to sign the death certificate.

            Dr. Reiver at the inquest. His voice so earnest, so regretful. “If Mrs. Miller had followed my advice, I’m sure her husband could have lived longer. But when I made a house call, I saw that the pills I had sent home with him were on the bedside table unopened. I have to think there was, if not criminal intent, at least neglect.” And just that one triumphant glance toward Sara at the end. The verdict, death from natural causes, and no charges filed, but the damage done.

           Her neighbor, Helen Roberts, her vicious gossip working its poison up and down the street. People she’d known for years, not speaking. And Rennie, her own daughter-in-law after the inquest. Her tear-streaked face, her contorted mouth when she cried out “You let him die!”

            “He wanted to die. He said he wanted to die.”

            “He couldn’t have meant that!  He wanted to see his grandson grow up. He told me so. And he could have lived longer – that doctor said so!  You killed him!”

            Sara had heard Richie, her grandson, wakened by the angry voices, starting to whimper. She turned her head to see her son Mark, standing frozen by the door, caught between the two opposing forces of his mother and his wife. She felt immensely tired.

            “I think I’m done here.” She brushed past her son, picked up her handbag from the table next to the front door, and left the house. When she set her handbag on the seat of the car next to her, it gaped open. The white rectangle caught her eye – Jerry Wang’s letter, offering her a job in China. She had meant to send him an email, thanking him politely, but no thanks, her family needed her.  She thought of the whisperer, the half-hearted condolences at the reception, Rennie’s face. She would send a different answer now.

August 1997

Storm Cheng

            Storm strode the length of the small conference room, and then turned on his heel to glare at his colleague.

            “How can you be such a turtle-man? It’s your department, your abilities being challenged!  This American Face, this foreigner, is coming to replace you, and you are not angry?  You’ll do good work, she’ll take credit. She makes a bad decision, you’ll be blamed. How can you be accepting this, sitting like a stone?  You…”

            “Hush,” interrupted Trueheart Zhang. “It’s for the good of the company. Boss Wang believes an American Face for our accounting department will go down well with investors. Many companies are hiring an American Face to represent them – this is no strange idea.” 

            “It’s shameful!” exploded Storm. “You have all the knowledge, all the skills required to manage our affairs!  You’ve worked in Hong Kong, worked in California.  This American woman comes just to put a fake veneer on our business. This is a waste of your talent and our money!”

            “It’s good of you to be so concerned about waste,” Trueheart said, an edge to his tone betraying his irritation as the time being wasted in calming Storm’s outburst. “You must make allowances. Sara Miller worked with me in America when we needed temporary assistance to help set up our new office. She tried to understand our ways. She studied Chinese. And of course…” Trueheart paused to give weight to his next words. “… she was very friendly with Boss Wang. It’s natural he should want to work with her again.”

            “Ha!” Storm stopped his pacing and scowled at Trueheart. “Boss Wang didn’t have his wife with him in California, right? I have no time or respect for a woman who mixes private life with business.”

“I didn’t say that anything happened,” Trueheart said quickly.

“No? But even if there were nothing between them, I don’t agree that a western face will help us. She’ll be no more than a drag, an extra cost. I won’t play the hypocrite at a welcoming party. And this week I have business in Suzhou.”

He turned on his heel and banged out of the conference room.  The interloper, though she might be the boss’s pet, would not find an ally in Storm.


“I don’t want you to go, Mom.” Mark stood with her at the boarding gate, holding onto the handle of Sara’s carry-on as if holding it hostage. Passengers eager to board pushed past them as if they were boulders in a stream.

            “It’s for the best, Mark.” She pushed her unruly hair back, shifting her tote bag on her shoulder, checking her boarding pass once more, looking everywhere but into her son’s eyes.

            Mark put his hand on her shoulder and forced her to look at him. “Whose best?  Not mine!  I’ll miss you every day. And not Richie’s – who will look after him like you could?  And not you!  Going half around the world to a place where no one knows you…”

            “But that’s the point – no one will know me, except for a couple of people I met in the Los Angeles office. And to them I’ll just be the American colleague, the accountant. I notice you don’t mention Rennie.”

            “Oh Mom. I’m sorry. She does that – gets upset and then blows up. When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t let one quarrel…”

            Sara straightened and stared at her son. “It was more than a quarrel. She called me a murderer. And it’s not just Rennie. You know what people are saying about me since your Dad died, and the inquest. I can’t stay around here, Mark. I need a place like you said, where no one knows me, or anything about me. In China, I’ll just be Sara Miller, that American. Now give me a hug, there’s my final boarding call.”

            She let herself relax into his hug for a moment, reached up to stroke his cheek, and turned with her suitcase to the waiting gate.


Fox Spirit will continue on Mondays and Fridays. To follow Sara and Storm, scroll down to the blue bar on the right side of the screen which invites you to “Follow Chinese Puzzle Box”. Follow instructions, and you’ll get a notice for every new post.

And if you REALLY like Fox Spirit, please invite your friends!

And comments are always welcome!


Poems by Chen Li Qiang are offered with permission of the poet. Translations are my own.

Coming next Monday to this site: Fox Spirit – a Tale of Two Cultures

Here’s a sneak preview of my novel Fox Spirit, which I will be publishing chapter by chapter on this site, with new episodes every Monday and Thursday until the thrilling conclusion.

When Sara Miller’s husband dies and the inquest is inconclusive, Sara impulsively accepts an offer to work in Beijing, away from gossiping neighbors and a resentful daughter-in-law. In Beijing she finds a new set of challenges, as she navigates culture clashes, political minefields, and a perilous possibility of new love.

Here’s the first few pages:

Fox Spirit

Huli jing (Mandarin Chinese): Fox spirit. Literally, “exquisite fox.” Also a modern colloquial term for a dangerous seductress.

你做过了一万里的路  来完成我的等待

为此停滞的夜 升起了繁星

            – 陈立强

You traveled a ten thousand mile road

To fulfill my long waiting.

Hence from the stagnant night

Burst forth a million stars

            -Chen Li Qiang (1998)


August 1997

            “I thought sure the corpse would be bleedin’.”

            Sara was certain she was meant to overhear the half-whispered remark. She stiffened her back, sitting as straight as possible, and willed herself not to turn her head. She could feel the tell-tale flush rising, knew her cheeks would be splotched with red, but if she didn’t turn her head, they would not see.

The mortuary chapel was quiet for the moments between the soft organ music and when her brother Jasper would step forward and begin the memorial service. She was the widow, she was not expected to speak, she would not have to face the whisperer. At the end of the service she would be in a receiving line with her son Mark, his wife Rennie, Jasper and his wife Carol. Everyone would walk past and take her hand. She would not try to identify the whisperer, not look for shifty eyes, ironic voice tones. They would be there, in more than one face, more than one voice.

            If she had known the consequences, would she have acted differently?


If you would like to follow Sara’s adventures and misadventures in China at the turn of the 21st century, scroll down and click on the little blue bar on the right sidebar, and you will receive an alert for every new post. Hope you enjoy!

Of course, your comments are always welcome!

Ode to the Wind – Yu Shi Non (558-638)

Ode to the Wind

Chinese Dance Veteran Lim Moi Kim On The Importance Of Sticking To  Tradition In Arts Education | Tatler Singapore

The dancer’s light sleeves flutter,
Spinning together around the column
In tune with the music.
Moving branches cast confused shadows,
Windblown flowers bring fragrance from afar.

This poem reminds me the conclusion of W.B. Yeats’ “Among School Childen”:

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

yong feng
chant wind

虞世南 【Yú Shì nán】 Yu Shi’nan (558-638), politician of Sui and early Tang periods, poet and calligrapher, one of Four Great Poets of early Tang 唐初四大家 【Táng chū Sì Dà jiā】 Four Great Poets of early Tang; refers to Yu Shi’nan 虞世南, Ouyang Xun 欧阳询, Chu Suiliang 楮遂良 and Xue Ji 薛稷.

zhu wu piao qing xiu,
Pursue dance flutter light sleeve

chuan ge gong rao liang.[I can’t make this word fit. a Name?
express song together revolve Column

dong zhi sheng luan ying
move branch give birth to confused shadow

chui hua song yuan xiang.
blow flower from far fragrant

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