Chinese Puzzle Box

Explorations in and about China

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.


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