THE LIFE OF HUAI LI – Peter W. Fong

The government reported that two men fell from the sky that winter, but Grandmother could confirm only one. He was a foreigner, tall and handsome in the same way that a peach tree, split by lightning, remains pleasant to the eye. His passing tore an irregular hole in Grandmother’s tile roof, and some of the cracked black slates landed beside him on the dirt floor of the kitchen, where the old woman had been boiling water for tea.
Kuan Di said later that Grandmother could not remember if the man was wearing red or orange but that his eyebrows were frozen—she was sure of that. Ice crystals glittered among the dark, curling hairs; it was the first thing she noticed in the unfamiliar light—that, and the white patches on his pale skin, like frost on a potato.
Huai Li could not take his eyes off Kuan Di as she told this story, with her strong legs tucked beneath her on the thin mattress of their Shanghai lodgings.
“Little brother,” she said, holding the throat of her nightgown closed with a fist, “these foreigners are—”
And then she waved both hands in the air, so that the gown fell partly open—so distressingly open that he forced himself to watch her painted fingernails, fluttering in mad arcs of intolerable beauty.
She laughed too, so freely that he wondered if his own excitement should rightly be called joy or sorrow. Everything seemed strange to him during those first anxious days in the city: the buildings, the air, the people—and not just the outlanders with their odd customs and otherworldly hair, but even Kuan Di, who had bathed him as a child. He could not understand how she had become so different during his four years at Hangzhou Foreign Language High School. Her face, which had been ruddy and cheerful, was now pale and smooth as a winter melon. And her manner, while recognizable, had become infinitely more interesting, a multi-layered puzzle of symbols and gestures that might inspire years of devoted study.
At that moment, if you had asked him what he wanted most in the world, America might have fallen from its customary position, replaced by the desire to press his cheek against the skin between Kuan Di’s collarbones, to taste the air that escaped, spent, from her lips.
It was a shameful feeling, and the shame warmed him in the drafty, high-ceilinged room, the smallest of twelve apartments in what had once been a single family’s home. Behind a false partition, the judge’s old wife coughed, then struck a match. Huai Li waited for the sharp tobacco smell to overpower the stale scents of last night’s sleep and yesterday’s fried dumplings. Kuan Di stretched both arms above her head and yawned without the least inhibition, showing so much pink in the back of her throat that he had to look away.
The judge’s old wife coughed again. No one in the building, including Comrade Gong, had ever met the new wife, or the judge himself for that matter. It was said that they had disappeared separately, no more than a few days apart, soon after the revolution. But that would have been sixty years ago or more. The Comrade didn’t look old enough for first-hand information, and Huai Li wondered if Gong had read the story in a newspaper or heard it whispered in the alleys, although he himself did not know which should be considered the less reliable source. The Shanghai Daily, for instance, had echoed the government’s account of the frozen men, describing their fall from the landing gear of a Boeing 777 that had arrived in China after ten hours in the air from, of all places, Paris.
Still, it was possible, he thought, looking up at the pressed-tin ceiling of what had once been the judge’s elegant ballroom. Anything was possible in Shanghai, the Paris of the East—but all things were possible in America.
Kuan Di stood suddenly up, leaving him alone on the mattress. “It’s time,” she sighed.
Huai Li knew what she meant but resented it all the same. When she held out a hand to him, he took it cautiously. They were the same height now, but he—who had always been smaller—still felt himself at a disadvantage.
As usual, he had slept in his gym clothes. Kuan Di tugged briefly at the neck of his wrinkled t-shirt. “You can’t go out like that,” she said.
Huai Li drew a deep breath, hands at his sides, as if to fill himself with purpose, although even he knew that purpose was not what he lacked. Kuan Di had already turned away and stood now at the melon-crate desk that doubled as her dressing table, contemplating her lipsticks. He watched as one of her hands combed distractedly through her hair, cropped short in the manner of this season’s television idol, while the other twisted a knot of fabric against her hip. With her back to him, it was easier to pretend that they did not share a family drama, complete with absent mothers and a bit-part gangster father. Huai Li had forgiven his father for many things over the years, but this accident of blood was beyond absolution.
He felt a childish misery rise in him, a nameless anguish that was nothing like the pain imparted by his monumental failure on the university entrance exam. In those first weeks after receiving his inadequate scores, Grandmother had been afraid to leave him alone with the kitchen knives. “Never mind, boy,” she’d said. “Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.” But try as he might, he could not understand what had gone wrong. He could remember the quiet certainty with which he had answered each question, the weary confidence he had felt at the end of the third day of testing, surveying the scene outside the exam center, crowded with anxious parents, some tight-lipped, others weeping. It had been an unusually stifling July, and the sweetish stink of rotting vegetables wafted across the fetid canal. He had not been expecting anyone to meet him, and yet there was his father, wearing a knock-off suit cut for a bigger man, his bare forehead dampened by the summer heat.
“So, Professor,” his father had said, grasping him by the elbow, “soon you will be teaching everyone about America.”
Huai Li had smiled back at him, surprised at the gratitude that welled like hope in his breast. He had almost forgotten what it was like to be glad to see his father.
“Hey, dream boy,” Kuan Di said, turning from the dressing table. “Are you listening to me?” She tightened the belt of the nightgown before placing her hands on his shoulders.
Huai Li struggled to retrieve himself from the confusing memories of assurance and pain, to return to the everyday desolation of unknowing. He forced himself to look into Kuan Di’s unfathomable eyes.
“Today we need money,” she said.

*

The funny thing, Huai Li would think later—in one of those repetitive loops that added meaning to his life in the same way that waves add detritus to the shore—the funny thing was that he never even tasted the cheesecake. He had seen it from the street at first, through the window, on the plate of a foreign woman, an American or oversized European, where it glistened like an emperor’s bauble, bejeweled with fruit: small dark berries that were bluer and rounder than grapes.
He had noticed the café before, one of the many Nanjing Road establishments that displayed its clientele as prominently as its wares. Always he had made the requisite covetous glances, then moved on to the next exhibit of wealth and finery: Italian handbags, French pastry, American athletic shoes. Now he was no longer intimidated by such places, he told himself—and at that moment someone touched his arm.
“Excuse me,” a woman said in English. “Can you help me find this address?” Her gloved finger pointed to an entry in a guidebook: “The Former Residence of Mao Zedong.”
“Yes,” he replied, pausing to take stock of her knitted cashmere cap, the dangling jade earrings, the mature constellation of freckles on her cheeks and nose. Was it really cold enough for hats and gloves? “I think so,” he continued, while the woman openly returned his gaze—not in a challenging way, but as if she were genuinely interested in the tenor of his reply.
Remarkably enough, he knew the place—Kuan Di had walked him past the gate on his first day in the city. She had not taken him inside of course—the entrance fee was five yuan—but it was only a few blocks away.
He glanced at his reflection in the café window, seeing his image as dressed by Kuan Di, in a blue oxford shirt and khaki cargo pants from the Xiang Yang market, notorious for cheap and occasionally skillful counterfeits. Because of the hunch-shouldered way he had slotted his hands into his pockets, he did look a bit chilled, if not actually cold. He saw himself smile and nod, then noticed the other woman standing behind him, anxiously clutching her shoulder bag, another American.
“Hello,” he said, politely extending his right hand, as if he greeted foreigners every day.
“Hello,” she replied, moving closer to her friend with the jade earrings but visibly relaxing. “I’m Megan, and this is Hannah.”
Both women appeared to be of the same indeterminate American age, neither fourteen nor forty, though much closer to the latter, Huai Li thought, judging from Megan’s faded denim jacket. That style, he knew, had been popular in the 1970s, after The Last Picture Show but before Annie Hall. For a moment, he felt the old inevitability return. It was time for a test, and he would know all the correct answers. His head echoed with Kuan Di’s voice: stand straight, take off your sunglasses, don’t waste your time with exchange students, lift your chin, introduce yourself with an English name.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “My name is Huai Li.”

*

Mao had lived in the lane house for nine months in 1924, with the second of his four wives, Yang Kaihui, their two young sons, and Yang’s mother. Huai Li followed Megan and Hannah through the young family’s drawing room and bedroom, populated by thoughtful wax mannequins. The two Americans were respectful, if not openly awed. They took off their hats and gloves, then snapped pictures of Mao’s figure seated behind a desk, his writing brush poised at the edge of the paper. Hannah asked how old Mao had been at the time, and Huai Li answered, “Thirty-one.” Then he added, “Very young.”
As they proceeded through the second-floor galleries, Hannah paused before each display of photographs and artifacts, lightly touching his arm again and again, her fingertips cool against his skin. As they regarded the leather sofa on which the Chairman had sat when visiting the Shanghai Machine Tool Works, Huai Li began to wonder seriously what might happen next. He had read on the internet that sex with a stranger was the most erotic subject of American women’s fantasies. Of course, he had also read that swallowing ten thousand milligrams of vitamin C a day would prevent cancer and that the Chinese central government planned to build a city of one million people that would be entirely self-sustaining, with no need of food, water, or energy from beyond its borders, like an island ark. How could he know which of these statements were true?
“Seventy million,” Megan murmured, shaking her head.
“Pardon?” said Huai Li.
Hannah smiled thinly. “I’m sure that’s exaggerated,” she shrugged, her fingers again finding his forearm.
He knew then that the two women were referring to the widely cited number of deaths attributable to Mao, and he considered reminding them of the Iraqi body count—but instead his mind leaped oddly to Mao’s second wife, Yang, who could easily have been included in the former number. She had been arrested in Changsha by a local warlord and executed on November 14, 1930. Mao, who was by then the leader of the Red Army (and involved with another “revolutionary wife”), had made no move to save her. No doubt it would have been impossible, Huai Li thought, or perhaps even unwise. His enemies would have been watching for just such a sign. This portion of the story remained untold in the museum, and Huai Li could not, at that moment, recall where he had learned it himself. No doubt on a Google search via some proxy server. But what did it matter, in the end? As far as the museum-going public was concerned, Yang’s mannequin—trim and modest, wearing a chaste white turtleneck, seated alongside a plumply waxen boy—was evidence of the Chairman’s common humanity, his ability to form ordinary family attachments. Mao loved. And he was loved in return.
Huai Li allowed himself to look closely at Hannah for the first time since she’d asked for directions. She reminded him of a certain American actress, the one who vacuums an empty living room wearing nothing but a slip and high heels, a scene that he’d cued up over and over on the school library’s DVD player while researching a paper on “Images of Honorable Labor in the post-Capitalist Cinema.” He smiled at her, and she responded by saying, “I’m hungry,” as if that were the most uncomplicated statement in the world. Her teeth looked very sharp and bright. For some reason, he thought of the blueberry cheesecake gleaming on its pedestal of clean white porcelain.
They followed the signs to the exit, no longer paying attention to either the exhibits or their typeset placards. The route led them toward the requisite gift shop. Huai Li walked behind the Americans, asking questions about their lunchtime likes and dislikes, until he suddenly stuttered on the word “dumpling.” Ahead, to his surprise, sitting straight-backed on a folding stool, was Comrade Gong. Or was it? Huai Li hadn’t realized that Gong was gainfully employed; the man always seemed to be hanging around their building, playing cards with the neighbors at a folding table, smoking cigarettes on the dirty stone steps that fronted the entryway. He didn’t seem to have the motivation to keep a caged bird, or even a pet cricket, much less a steady job. Huai Li peered down the hall at the man’s profile: the wide-winged nose and smooth-shaven cheek, the delicately mouse-like ear, the receding thatch of gray hair leaking from the band of his security guard’s cap. If only he could see the bald scalp, scaly with eczema—but that was no longer necessary.
The guard turned his head at the sound of their voices. Huai Li met his gaze. He would have spoken a greeting if Gong hadn’t flicked his eyes from Huai Li to Hannah and then quickly away again, to some vague middle distance. Huai Li felt an unaccountable warmth suffuse the back of his neck, the palms of his hands—not shame exactly, but something like guilt. Without recognizing the source of his resentment, he scowled at Gong’s placid face.
The Comrade held a Chinese-English dictionary in his hands, not reading it but apparently contemplating its weight. He nodded at Huai Li in noncommittal fashion, as if they shared some secret that Megan and Hannah were not privy to. The American women took no notice of Gong at all, moving through the gift shop with practiced discrimination, ignoring the standard paraphernalia of Mao’s divinity: bronzed medallions, crystal paperweights, a palm-sized gilt-framed portrait that cost more than Kuan Di’s monthly rent.
Huai Li edged closer to Hannah, turning his back on Gong. He leaned over her shoulder, pretending to be interested in a Foreign Press edition of the treasured Red Book. He held his breath, listening to the blood beating in his brain as she rustled the pages, then read aloud in her guileless voice: “We must first be clear on what is meant by ‘the people’ and what is meant by ‘the enemy.’”
Gradually, he became more aware of the nearness of her person, of the warm expanse of skin beneath the dangling earring and the hemmed neckline of her blouse. When he allowed himself to breathe again, a stifled intake of the air close between them, bearing a ration of her scent into his lungs, the image that formed in his mind was of Kuan Di descending the steps of the judge’s residence while Gong’s gaze turned, focused, then turned again to that middle distance, the practiced stare of a card player who already knows what’s in his hand. In that moment, Huai Li’s attention had also been on Kuan Di, on her face shining in the dull light of a Shanghai dusk, on the casual smile that lifted his heart like a leaf. It had seemed petty to take notice of Gong at the time, and yet here was the man again, commanding attention in the manner of a wayward piece of furniture, like a kitchen stool in a parking lot.
He couldn’t think of anything to do except follow Hannah out of the museum and into the brick courtyard. There, free of Gong’s abstracted scrutiny, his mind returned to the present task. To his astonishment, Huai Li saw that both Hannah and Megan now held small bags from the gift shop. He stared at the pair of them, wondering when they had found the opportunity to make these purchases and marveling at the ease and quickness with which they had parted with their money. Hadn’t he been in the same room, breathing the same air?
“What’s next?” asked Hannah, rubbing her hands together, though the temperature had increased considerably while they’d been inside. She smiled at him—she always seemed to be smiling—and at that moment Huai Li understood that she was not desperately beautiful like the American actress, nor achingly beautiful like Kuan Di. Her face was too generous with optimism and good cheer. Hannah, he realized, would give him anything he asked, within reason.
He stepped forward and took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I have another appointment.”
“Oh no,” said Hannah, still gripping his hand. “But what about our lunch?”
Huai Li was again close enough to register the scent of her skin, a distinctly sweet smell among the sun-warmed odors of the city, tainted with a trace of body lotion and a faint whiff of baked goods.
“Please let us take you to lunch,” Hannah continued, looking into his eyes as ardently as some people gaze into mirrors.
“Something for your time, at least,” said Megan, stepping between them, a ruddy hundred-yuan note in her hand.
Huai Li glanced away from the money, but the calculations came unbidden: fifteen bowls of beef noodles, twenty-five plates of pork dumplings, fifty bus fares, one thousand text messages—if he’d owned a hand phone, which he did not. “No,” he said resolutely, shaking his head to banish the image of Kuan Di’s disapproval. “Really. It was my pleasure.”
He walked away from them, out of the gate and onto Maoming Road. He forged ahead, furiously resisting the urge to turn back, sidling across the busy Weihai Road and its shops of dusty autoparts—a drab commercial block destined, he had read, for repurposing as luxury apartments. At the next gate he turned into a quiet lane, where a remnant of Shanghai’s traditional rows of stone-framed housing had survived the latest real-estate boom. Between the high walls of red and gray stones, his thoughts slowed to match his steps. Kuan Di was wrong about this; he was sure of it. Money was as indispensable as criticism—that went without saying—but what good would it be to arrive in America with his heart frozen inside him?
In Huai Li’s estimation, the two foreigners who fell from the sky had made at least two mistakes. First, they had botched the choice of destination: it was absolutely no trouble to get to Shanghai. Millions of undocumented peasants had done it, by bus or by train, with little risk of frostbite. More importantly, the two had failed to insulate themselves against the rigors of the journey. They had dressed like construction workers ready for an ordinary day on the job, when in fact their occupation was nothing like a job. It was neither a living nor a livelihood, but more like a rehabilitation, the deliberate recovery from a grievous injury, inflicted at birth.
He had heard of a boy from Chengdu who had walked to America, literally walked from his parents’ tea house, out of the provincial capital and over a succession of mountain passes, walking whenever he felt tired or hungry (which was all the time), walking vaguely south and east until the low hills gave way under his feet, walking until the river became a delta and the delta became a port, walking undeterred aboard a freighter bound for Lima, Peru, laden with laptop computers and children’s toys, walking watches around the deck, miles and miles across the indifferent ocean, walking long after his persistence had been proved.

Author’s Statement

For two years in the mid-aughts—after 9/11 but before the financial crisis—my family lived in a housing compound in one of Shanghai’s western suburbs. In those boom times, it was possible for someone with a U.S. passport and an American salary to exist as if inside a glorious bubble—villa, maid, driver, tailor. We tried it, but the graft didn’t take.
Knowing that I would soon be leaving the city, I found temporary work writing for Shanghai: The Complete Residents’ Guide. Much of my day-to-day research involved wandering the city’s disparate neighborhoods on foot or by bicycle. As I pedaled past factories and food stalls—sharing the road and its potholes with wheeled vehicles of every size, from cement mixers to handcarts—I was granted many opportunities to wince at the blare of horns and the crash of fenders, to wrinkle my nose at the alternate scents of steaming and frying, solvents and glue.
On my way to amusement parks and brewpubs, I would occasionally pause on a bridge above a gridlocked expressway or a putrefying canal. Sometimes I would stop at an intersection just to witness all those knees going up and down, with no particular rhyme or rhythm—to try to get a grip on all those different destinations and desires. This was China after all, where I was no longer one in a million, but one among billions.
As a native New Yorker with indeterminately Asian features and only a beginner’s grasp of Mandarin, I posed a puzzle to many Shanghai residents. Some pegged me as Japanese, or Korean, or even Mongolian. But very few would admit that I could be American by both birth and training. Because I wore a bike helmet (a rare sight in those days), many people assumed that I was a construction worker—or a government informant masquerading as a construction worker. Their disbelief in my origin story encouraged me to question it too.
Instead of a jaded American relocated to Shanghai, what if I had been a young Shanghainese who dreamed of emigrating to the United States? How would an idealized vision of “the beautiful country,” forged by Party propaganda and bootleg DVDs, hold up against the repeated blows of ethical dilemma and flesh-and-blood paradox?
The short answer is: I’m not sure yet. The inhabitants of this novel feel real to me. I dream about them and hear their voices in my head. While I must reckon with the death of the American dream, they continue to live and breathe in an era when the idea of Youtube is brand new—and Google mail remains in beta.

 

Peter W. Fong currently lives in Tangier, Morocco. His work has appeared in American Fiction, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The New York Times, and many other publications. His first novel, Principles of Navigation, a love story set in the Florida Keys, won the inaugural New Rivers Press Electronic Book Competition.