Chinese Puzzle Box

Explorations in and about China

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!


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