by Denis Wong
After Hana died, I rode my bicycle down the side streets of Shanghai in search of red bean mochi.
gasoline in plumes,
the taste of smoke and grit and roasting yams.
I went from bakery to bakery, and in each, I would bewilder the counter girls, trim in their white aprons and matching nurse caps, with my growing desperation. "No, no," they would say. "We don't carry mochi here. Try a Japanese bakery."
I kept going, past columns of empty two-litre Coke bottles piled fifteen feet in the air, swaying a slow dance on top of motorbike carts. A light green taxi almost clipped my handlebars; its horn blared a constant wail as it sped by. I didn't bother to swerve aside.
Rust, accumulated during the four months of rainy season, had shaved enough iron off the centre of my handlebars to make riding hazardous: without warning, the handlebars could slip free from the screw holding them in place, leaving me with nothing to steer with.
Three weeks ago, I crashed into a drainage ditch outside of the junior high building of Shanghai International School, landing between Classroom Six and the staff office where I spent most of my time. The students who saw me through a window came out to help me. "I'm OK. Just a bit wet and dirty." They wiped off my bicycle and reattached the handlebars the best they could. "You should fix this Mr. Wong," Hana told me. She gave me a tissue for my face.
"I probably should."
"It is dangerous in rain," she said. "You cannot always see."
I let her help me up, only leaning a bit onto her slight frame.
I had made a list before my first day of teaching. "Lists are useful," Juki told me. This was back in July, when I still lived in Brooklyn. Not just useful. For Juki, lists were a way of life.
"Crossing off an item from a list? Better than an orgasm," she had said.
"That's right. An orgasm is just a primal surge, barely any use at all. But eliminating an item from a list," she drew an aggressive line through the air with a blue fingernail, "is intention realised."
"Like potential energy?"
"—in bullet points."
I paused. "That important to you, huh?"
"Progress, that's the name of the game."
"Huh. What if an orgasm is on your list?"
"I knew you would say that."
I had been assigned a room in Teacher Building Five, a campus dormitory with cobwebs clinging to the undersides of faded and beaten traditional Chinese furniture. On my first day, the whole time as I swept and mopped, I could hear a song lilting through the laminate floor, a wavering melody. Was someone singing? A radio? I walked down to the ground floor and listened for the melody again, but the voice was gone. All the same, in the hallway, I tried to recapture the notes in my head. I stepped forward for a skip from one to fifth, a minor half step to the left, then was it down a third? My feet traced a waltz. No, that didn't seem right.
"Nǐ tiàowǔ ma?"
I looked over my shoulder and behind me was a young girl, thirteen maybe. A few locks of her hair were pinned to the side by a butterfly clip.
"Um sorry, my Mandarin isn't so great."
"Oh!" She changed to English. "You … dancing?" She moved her arms up and down and smiled.
A woman called out from a distance.
"Sorry," the girl said. "Must go. Dorm mother. Bye bye."
I waved and watched her jog back to the building across from mine. Student Dorm Four, or the international students' dorm.
Beside the dorms was a large playing field. At night, its emptiness echoed: my ears, too used to the random sirens and shouts of New York, created its own white noise. My first weeks in Shanghai were spent like this, letting the stillness fill my limbs. Breathing until the rhythm of my heart took over, until night became dawn. Then at 6:00 a.m., I would stare out into the fields.
By the time it was 7:00, my vigil would be broken by the uniformed students from the school's local division, the one for the Mainlanders. First, they organised themselves into neat lines on the grass. Then, to the rhythm of an amplified female voice, they began their calisthenics with a series of stretches and twists, eventually moving into more strenuous jumps and lunges.
Yi, ar, san, si, wu, liu! Yi, ar, san si, wu, liu!
Later, around 7:30, the international boarding students would finally emerge yawning, their gazes only resting for a moment on their track-suited counterparts marching away.
"Why are there so few of them?" I asked one of the older expat teachers, an Australian with permanent three-day scruff. "I know all the local students live here, but out of the almost six hundred international students, there must less than a hundred boarding here."
"More like fifty. Look I know you're still young and idealistic being a couple years out of uni, but don't feel sorry for them. Their parents are all big-shot millionaires who can't be bothered to look after their own kids, so they dump them here. Mum and Dad probably live thirty minutes down the street, somewhere in the Bund or Pudong. Some might be out of China altogether. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Korea, Singapore; it's all about the business that bind, right?" He scratched his chin. "These kids might be on their own, but they've got wads of cash in their pockets. More than we make each month for sure. That's the new Shanghai for you, millionaires everywhere and a mall for each one. "
"So those kids never go home?"
"Oh sure, they could go home on the weekends, but most of them would rather stay here. Now that's gotta say something about the school, right? What, I don't know, but something."
Hae Rim, Jongwoo, Keiko, Dreamy, Miyu, Chie. I learnt later why none of the students in my class were actually from China, although some were born in Shanghai. The real Chinese weren't allowed to mix with the international students. The local Chinese had won their places in the school via a rigorous entrance exam, while the international school students were admitted via tuition fees or family connections. This two-system approach worked well for the school; the local division was perhaps the most prestigious academic institution in Shanghai, the international section the most profitable, and neither side interfered with the other.
The locals might be smart, my kids said to me once, as we watched them march by in the morning, but they're crazy; they think they are the centre of the world.
Juki looked up at a cluster of clouds gliding over us. Her mouth a set line.
"I don't know how you're going to do it, up and leaving for Shanghai all of the sudden. It's hard enough to figure things out just in Midtown."
I had told Juki about my decision to leave earlier that morning, and the entire workday she hadn't said anything about it. We had known each other for a few years. With both us being new employees of a small publishing house, we had quickly become friends. In fact, we spent so much time together that everyone assumed we were a couple. Even I sometimes wondered why we weren't.
"Well, it's not like I plan on living in China forever." I stumbled over my words. "Just a year to clear my head."
"I wonder if that's it."
"If I wait any longer, they'll just be more and more responsibility piled on me, and that'll be that. If we don't take chances now, soon there won't be any chances left, don't you think?"
"Sorry, it's nothing. It's just that I worry about you; you're like the most innocent person I know. Seriously Allen, what are you going to do in Shanghai?"
Every morning, I got dressed to the sound of the knife sharpener, a whirling grind. I could see him from my window. With his back hunched, he worked the blades up and down the whetstone. He was thickset, his oversized worker's uniform wrinkled and stained, yet dignified. A week into my stay, I had attempted my first halting conversation with him. I had stood awkwardly in front of him, waiting for him to notice me. When he didn't, or perhaps he chose not to, I decided to take the initiative. "Good morning, how are you?"
He answered in slurred Shanghainese. A stub of a cigarette hung on his lips, but somehow it barely moved when he spoke.
"Ah … Sorry, I don't understand. Shuo Putonghua, ma?" I asked.
He muttered again, but this time in Mandarin, which I caught a bit more of, though his accent threw me off: "Morning … go (eat?) … Shanghai … (sky?)?" Smoke from his cigarette twisted in the air as he regarded me for a few more seconds. I smiled what I hoped was a friendly smile and took a guess, "America? New York City? Um … I'm a high school teacher here. English. And history, yes that, too." The academic subjects at least, I knew how to say.
The sharpener's expression didn't change, and after a pause, he went back to the task at hand. The knife was thin, more of a tube than a blade, and the sun's glare dispersed along the length of the edge. The handle was of simple wood, rounded off, smooth with use and age. I wanted to ask him more about his job and life, the last thirty years of Shanghai and all the sidewalks being pulled apart, but the sharpener, deep into his work again, made no other attempt to speak to me.
I slung my bag of books over my shoulder and walked away, the scrape, scrape, scrape following me.
I checked one last time, and, yes, the frogs and cookies were still in place, all nestled in the tin's protective casing. The frog erasers were from the stationary store across from the school. With wide-eyed smiles, some were caught in mid-leap, others sat contently on a lily pad.
The cookies, mostly intact, were a different story; they had accompanied me across the ocean in my carry-on. Besides my clothes, they were all I had left of home.
"Why Veniero's?" Juki had asked back in New York. She was a fan of the hipper, newer bakery on Broome.
"C'mon, how can you trust a place with gluten-free cupcakes?"
"Hey, people have allergies. Why should they be shunned? Are they lepers?"
"Dairy-free cheesecake?" I raised a sceptical brow.
"Lactose is a bitch."
"Egg-free chocolate chip cookies?"
"No, it has to be Veniero's." I had considered the options beforehand. Cannolis would never last, neither would a true New York cheesecake. No, for long-distance travel, it had to be something durable: cookies, real New York Italian cookies, and the closest bakery I was willing to buy Italian cookies from was Veneiro's.
We turned onto 11th as we reached between 1st and 2nd Ave. The old Veneiro neon sign was lit, the n and o buzzing an intermittent call and response. I pushed the brass handle of the door, and the two of us walked in. Dim, overhanging lamps illuminated the cracked white and green tile flooring. A haphazard collection of wooden tables and plastic chairs decorated the back.
"It certainly looks over a hundred years old," Juki said. "Definitely scores high on the grime factor." Despite her snottiness, I knew she loved the place, too. After all, she had already given me a list of the top five Veneiro's Italian cookies to bring to Shanghai.
A woman with tightly permed white hair popped out from behind the glass counter. "What's it gonna be, hun?"
"Um, you decide. I'm leaving for China tomorrow."
She held up a hand, "Say no more. I got just the combination platter to help you bring world peace."
In the end, she chose four out of the five items from Juki's list.
The Linzers, the counter lady said, would get soggy and stale if left out too long.
In the classroom, I wrote my name on the board with a series of crooked taps and scratches. Written in chalk, the name seemed mysterious and unknown. Was this really the same name as the other me? The Allen Wong who worked in a cramped corner office with three other editorial assistants on 23rd Street, he wouldn't have written in a slope so dramatically slanted, as if the name was trying to run away from itself. The letters would have been more precise, more contained, vibrating with Brownian motion.
"Um, hello, my name is Mr. Wong, and I'll be your English teacher this year. You might have noticed that I'm Chinese, but I was born in New York City. I've been in Shanghai for exactly two weeks and two days. So, I'm international, like all of you."
No reaction. They sat waiting in rows, notebooks open.
I pulled my sleeves up, leaving a stretch of chalk along my left wrist. "Well, let's get right to it." I wrote on the board again, this time trying harder to leave strong, confident lines. "Here are my four rules. First rule: only English …"
The class dutifully copied down everything I wrote; their faces were soft and serious and lit with beginnings. I wondered if I ever had that look about me: dread tinged with boredom.
"… and now it is your turn to introduce yourselves. Can you please stand up and tell me your name, where you are from and a hobby you have?" So far, the script, which I had typed and recited to myself the night before, had been followed to the line.
In the back, I recognised the girl who had spoken to me that first day in the dorm. She was the fifth student for introductions, before Yoshiko, but after Andrew, Maki, Joyce and Soo Hyun.
Her hands were folded together, and she wore an eye patch that day, an accident on the badminton court, she would explain later on to me, after she didn't need the patch anymore.
"I am Hana, I am from Hong Kong and I run."
Caoxi Bei Lu,
I continued to ride deeper into Shanghai, under looming elevated five-lane highways. As I pedalled, Hana flew further away, floating up and up, and then dipping down again, toes about to graze the broken asphalt of the road. Almost. But why would anyone want to touch the ground; the twisted metal, rubber and shards of glass? The air around her was sharp, much sharper than she had ever experienced, clean and biting and hard. It entered her lungs in a rush, in fits. All around was emptiness, but Hana felt calm, anchored. She had a firm conviction of time and place, no divergence inside her. Behind her, there was her family, there was God, there were her friends and there was the ground, flat and close and then distant again.
In her memories, she was walking back to Student Dorm Four, through a thick darkness. Sometimes an unfamiliar voice would break in and confuse everyone. "Who's that? Andrew? Yoshiko? Joyce?" Hana would ask. They would sing pop songs that travelled between the trimmed maples and dipped into the ponds that lined sides of the cobbled walkway. Once in a while, a teacher on a bicycle would ride by, too, and say hello in that enthusiastic way that teachers had, and Hana would say hello back. A late dinner at the dining hall. Brushed teeth, a few more exchanges with her roommates. Dorm lights off at 10:00 p.m. The sleep, when it came, was quiet, with a feeling of permanence.
The lights of Shanghai began to glow and flash. Red and yellow. Ringed around stores and streets. An endless row.
After introductions, I slid the tin of cookies out from under my desk. The students in the front row craned their necks to get a better look. I untied the blue ribbon and opened the box. Raspberry jam, chocolate-dipped, Quarzmali, Pignolli—except for a few cracks, all of the Italian cookies I had brought from New York were still reasonably intact.
"I brought something from my home to share with you." They each chose one. "My favourite are the jam-filled, but I think you'll like the others as well." For a few minutes, the room was silent except for the sound of crunching and chewing. One student coughed.
Hana looked at her cookie intently, twisting and turning the chocolate dipped finger so that she could observe it from every angle. A minute later, satisfied with her inspection, she took a nibble. Then as if coming to a final conclusion, Hana raised her hand.
"Mr. Wong, you are Chinese."
"But you are from America."
She nodded, and then raised her hand again.
"I thought that you are new student. Before." She tilted her head to the side, as if trying to slide the correct phrases into place. "That maybe you lost."
At the end of the lesson, I tried to say a few words to Hana in Cantonese as the rest of the students shuffled out, but Joyce interrupted me, "She cannot talk." Then Joyce herself switched from English into flawless Cantonese, "Hana isn't really from Hong Kong, that's just where she was born; she can't speak Cantonese. She grew up here in Shanghai."
"Oh … Well, thank you Joyce." Hana watched us, and I couldn't tell if she understood what we were saying, but she seemed embarrassed.
Joyce stuck her tongue out at Hana, and the two of them ran out of the classroom together, a jumble of muffled whispers and secrets between them.
Too late I realised that I had broken my English only rule.
At 6:15 a.m. every morning, two hours before the homeroom bell, Hana ran seven laps, three clockwise, four counterclockwise. She walked out alone, emerging from her dorm in shorts and t-shirt, long before the slight brightening of grey that signalled dawn, before the parade of earnest, overachieving local students, before even the knife sharpener began his trade.
Once at the edge of the track, Hana would take a couple deep breaths, raise her arms, pause for a second or two and then take off. She glided smoothly down and around the pebbled track, her stride shallow, eventually lengthening until it seemed as if she were leaping from foot to foot. At the end of each lap, there would be a few moments when she would pass almost directly under my 4th floor window. Even from above, I could tell that she was going fast, much faster than I could ever run. When she was done, she kept her hands on her hips, her chest rising and falling evenly. It never seemed like Hana was tired at all, yet in the rising light, I could see her body trembling.
One day, I decided to time her, and after four laps, about a mile, my watch told me that five minutes and forty seconds had passed. While I was timing her, I had noticed something that I had never caught before, too, probably because I had never watched her face so closely. When Hana ran down the two straightaways of the track, she always kept her eyes closed, pinched together and clenched.
In October, Andrew and Hana began to sit close together, sharing glances, a brush of the hands, head on shoulder, keeping utterly still so as not to break contact. I turned a blind eye in class, though I wasn't above tossing difficult grammatical points their way now and again to redirect attention. I didn't need to interrupt them often, though, since Yoshiko and Joyce teased the new couple enough as it was. The two girls would pretend to embrace each other with ardent urgency and make loud kissing noises. Oh Hana! Oh Andrew! Let's make babies!
Andrew and Hana would give each other bemused looks, and I covered it all with auxiliary verbs, modals, indirect, direct, indirect, direct.
On my fifth stop, closer to the French Concession, I finally found mochi, half-stacked on top of each other in the display window. Like dominoes about to topple over, though the stickiness of the rice paste glued them together. I went inside and stepped closer to the tray; they didn't look quite right. These mochi were too fanciful. Each mound was about two inches high, but on the surface were different drawings and figures. A cat on some, cherry blossoms on others. I called over to an attendant. "Excuse me are these red bean?"
"Oh no sir, these are filled with chestnut paste, why don't you give them a try anyway, they're delicious."
"Well, do you have red bean?"
"You don't want chestnut?"
"No, only red bean."
"We have chestnut."
Back outside, a few droplets of rain hit my nose. I hadn't thought to bring an umbrella.
On the day I left New York, I opened the blinds to the windows of Juki's studio apartment. When I turned back to look at her, she was still asleep. The light illuminated the fine golden hairs of her thighs. The faint hairs surprised me and made me imagine the parents that left her behind in Korea: a petite pizza delivery girl who then abandons her baby to avoid shame, or maybe two international students studying Japanese literature in Tokyo. I felt a bit ashamed that I had never asked her more about her past, but I hadn't wanted to pry, and Juki had never offered any details.
She woke and squinted at the sun, breaking me from my daydream.
"It's bright out this morning, isn't it?" she said. The words felt like they were coming from another room.
I lay back down in bed and absently traced my finger between her breasts, from one pale freckle to another, connecting her heart to her abdomen. The gesture felt completely natural.
"Hey Juki. I think we should talk—"
She sat up in bed and put her arms around my neck. I wanted to kiss her, but somehow a kiss was too intimate for the moment, even though we had examined each others' bodies completely the previous night, partly out of curiosity. For both of us, it was the first time with another Asian.
"My mom would never say goodbye," she said. "People used to think she was either rude or crazy, because she would never say it, not to customers at the store, not to her sister, not to me. Not on the phone, not even once. It was always 'see you soon' or 'have a good day.'"
"It would be easy for you to come with me," I said. "All I have to do is ask the school. We'd be able to travel everywhere together."
She hugged me. Her lips brushed against my ear. "It's OK, Allen." She let go and started to sift through a pile of clothes on the floor.
I watched the waves on her spine expand and contract as she pulled free a pair of panties. "We're going to miss your flight you know, unless we leave soon."
I bent down and picked up my t-shirt from the day before. Wrinkled but good enough.
We walked down three flights of stairs before we reached the sidewalk of Bowery. The traffic signals at the end of the street were out, perhaps due to a brownout. An old Chinese woman pushed a low handcart straight down the middle, not minding for cars since it was too early to worry about cars.
One morning in early November, I found a wrapped parcel waiting for me on my classroom desk. I looked around the room; the students were chatting as usual, except for Hana, who was eying the package with anticipation.
"Open it Teacher!" shouted Joyce. "Hana love you now, not Andrew!" She giggled, and Hana smacked her on her arm.
"Present," Hana said, with a hint of a flush at the sides of her neck. "Andrew and I buy for you. But I picked out mochi. It is my favourite."
Andrew waved at me. "Yes. You gave us cookies. We give you mochi."
"Isn't mochi Japanese?" I asked, and Yoshiko nodded.
"Does not matter," dismissed Hana. "Chinese now."
Since I had given them Italian cookies from the US, it seemed fitting that I receive a Japanese sweet in Shanghai. I opened the box and unwrapped one of the round sticky rice cakes. They looked to be perfect specimens of mochi, not too soft, not too tough. There was only one problem.
I hated mochi.
Even the thought of mochi made me feel sick. When I was eight, my mother bought box upon box of various mochi during a Narita layover. At that age, I wasn't willing to eat anything strange, much less a powdery lump that felt more like silly putty than food, but we had five boxes, and mochi was perishable, and wasting food was not a possibility. My mother had made that clear enough with the iron wire of coat hangers.
My mother forced me to try one when we returned home. That gentle resistance and malleable texture was like eating my own flesh. When I reached the sweetness of the red bean, I imagined my teeth closing on sugar smeared lips, tearing them apart, ripping piece by piece, first the top of the mouth and then the bottom.
Before I could swallow, my stomach heaved, and I threw up all over myself. After I had wiped my mouth, my mother told me there was still the other half left.
With the entire class watching me, I picked up the mochi and felt my fingers sink into the corn starch covered surface. This version had an almost translucent skin, so that you could see the maroon centre of red bean. The students stood up to get a better look, though I couldn't fathom what was so interesting. I opened my mouth and took a large bite.
The image of cool lips, gliding down into my throat, contained within me.
I swallowed, trying not to chew. "Thank you Andrew, thank you Hana."
I shared the rest with the class, which they accepted with relish. Hana, though, was still watching me even after I had finished the entire mochi, as if she could tell.
In late October, Nook, a no-nonsense New Zealander who could drink any of the other foreign teachers under the table, ran away in the middle of the night. She discreetly packed her clothes in grocery bags from the local Trust-Mart, waited until the security guard left for a smoke break and scuttled out the Zhong Xing gate to the street, where she flagged down a cab to Pudong Airport. According to Peter, the head foreign teacher and a likely collaborator, she was back in New Zealand within twenty hours and blacklisted from ever returning to China. A meeting was called, and our headmaster cried while imploring the rest of us to be more open-hearted, a literal translation of the Mandarin phrase "to be happy." The other teachers sat and completed Soduku puzzles on their laps, while others graded papers. This was nothing new to them. All of us were transient in Shanghai.
"Teacher, will you run with me?"
I packed away my books. A chill came in from the opened windows; the Chinese believe it better to keep the air circulating, no matter the temperature outside. Despite the cold, Hana still ran in the mornings, just as fast, faster even.
"Well, I'm not very good," I replied. "Too slow."
She played with her pencil case, a soft white kitten with an elongated torso.
"What about Andrew? Or you can run with Yoshiko and Joyce after school."
She looked up at me, her oval eyes sceptical. "Yes. I know. But …" and her head wavered, which I knew by now meant that she was searching for the right words. She sighed. "I don't know how to say," she said finally.
With the trouble I was having sleeping, I wasn't even sure if I could run, but I found myself agreeing nonetheless. The words came out before I even realised it. "All right Hana. Tomorrow morning, then? If I collapse, feel free to leave me behind."
She laughed, "Teacher. Never."
That night I was too tired to travel far for a meal, so I tried the school cafeteria. I smelt the lingering scent of fried dumplings and streamed rice, and the light of the cafeteria was on, but when I tried to order, the cooks were already relaxing on stools by the side entrance. They had their aprons off and cigarettes lit. "Sorry," one of them said in a hoarse voice, "we're off-duty. The dining hall closes early during exam week."
I rode my bike outside to Baise Lu. By then, three months into Shanghai, I knew which places were easy and which weren't, which were willing to suffer Cantonese-inflected Mandarin—Are you from Singapore? Taiwan? English teacher, really?—and wouldn't treat me with too much suspicion or disdain for not being Chinese enough.
The sidewalk was covered with vendors selling fermented tofu and grilled chicken skewers, cutlery and pyjamas, pirated DVDs and vegetables. Each claimed a place with a makeshift blanket or bamboo mat. Massage parlours lined the alleyways. Some were darkened with shaded and opaque windows. Others were more obvious in their intentions, the red glows reaching out, women beckoning in stockings and lingerie. I walked my bicycle until I reached Gil Wanton, a cheap favourite of the teachers because it had an English menu, was quick and, according to a sign from the government food inspection agency, just clean enough to receive a middling grade, which was represented by a neutral face—not quite happy, not quite sad.
A young couple sat near the entrance on plastic benches. The guy wore a leather jacket and had spiked red-dyed hair, and the girl squirmed in a tight purple mini-dress with cutouts running down both sides. They kissed and fondled each other, oblivious to the setting or the cooling bowl of wontons in front of them. And, at the very back, there was one other customer, sitting by herself at the counter with oversized headphones. She kept her head down and stirred a listless chopstick through her noodles. Hana.
I hesitated and backpedalled, stepping right on the foot of the mini-dress girl. She screeched and cursed at me in Shanghainese. The guy snapped his head up.
"Duipuchi, duipuchi," I said. "I'm really, really sorry," I added in English. The guy paused, maybe confused by the English, and before he could respond, I hurried away to the counter, next to Hana, who was looking at me with disbelief.
"Um … hi." Behind me the couple seemed to be settling back down.
"Teacher, you are crazy."
"That's what they tell me. What are you listening to?" I tapped my ears.
"Shenme?" She took off her headphones. "Mr. Wong, what you doing here?"
"Eating dinner." I checked my watch. 9:15 p.m. "What are you doing here? Isn't it too late for you to be out?"
"Ah, it's OK."
"It's past curfew!"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Dorm mom not check when we test."
I sighed. I knew I should report her, but of course I wouldn't, and besides, I was hungry. "Well, you might as well help me order, since this lady never gets it right." I gestured behind me, "And maybe you can stop that guy from beating me up when I leave."
Hana's smile reached her eyes, and she shook her head.
"What? Fine, just the food, then."
She ordered me the spicy egg noodle with pork and mushroom wontons. We chatted a bit in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, switching whenever we needed to clarify or couldn't find a word. I told her about my search for pizza in Shanghai, and I asked her if the city felt like her home.
"Home but not home." She wouldn't elaborate beyond that.
Instead, she told me about her parents' villa in Hangzhou. "I love the water. It is so still and beautiful. I want to swim in that water, but it is not possible."
"It is not allowed."
My food came, and we spent some time looking at the noodles.
"Do you like Shanghai, Mr. Wong?"
The question took me by surprise, and I had to think for a few seconds before answering. "I don't think it matters if I like Shanghai or not. Living in Shanghai is like becoming a different person."
She nodded, though I wasn't sure if I was making any sense. Later on, while we walked back to campus, I found out that Hana was listening to a Japanese pop song, but she couldn't translate the title.
During the rest of exam week, I would meet Hana each night in Gil Wanton a few minutes past 9:00. Sometimes we stayed there, other times I would ride us to other restaurants on neighbouring streets. She would sit sideways at the back of my bicycle and clutch onto the metal platform above the rear wheel. Our favourite place was a European-style café hidden inside a shopping centre that housed kitchenware. Hana insisted on paying for her own food and even tried to pay my part once by snatching away the bill. She held the slip of paper above her head, waving it back and forth and smiling widely, daring me to take it away. After my disapproving teacher look failed, I lunged for the check and ended up grasping her hand.
Her grin disappeared, and the bill fell to the floor. I bent over and picked the check up. When I straightened up again, Hana was taking careful bites out of a scrap of baguette left on her plate, her attention focussed on the ceiling fan above us. There were a few crumbs on her lips.
The contact couldn't have been more than half a second, but for that instant, our palms felt like extensions of one another. Both the same temperature, though her fingers were much slimmer than mine.
When we sat together on my bicycle, I rode slowly and carefully, and she never had to hold on to me to keep balanced.
"C'mon, don't be such a prude. Come out with us." Peter slapped my back hard. The last exam had just ended, and a group of teachers were going bar-hopping in the French Concession to celebrate.
"I really should get started with my grading." But I had more than enough time before the deadline. That night was going to be my last chance to be with Hana until next semester. She had told me the previous day that she was going to visit the US during the break. Your home, she had said—a trek through the Grand Canyon with a Chinese tour group. It was a gift from her parents.
"I can't even drink alcohol, it's a genetic thing." But my excuses weren't working, they sounded weak even to my own ears.
The teachers closed in around me. "You're all right mate, we'll carry you home if we have to."
I thought about Hana waiting for me, a copy of her favourite comic open in front of her.
"Give me five minutes. I'll meet you by the front gate."
I pumped the pedals of my bicycle and rushed to Gil Wonton, where I slammed the door open. All the faces in the noodle shop turned to me, and none of them were Hana's.
We passed the bars one by one on Hengshan Lu: A Go Go, Bourbon Street, Narcissus Pub, Real Love, Q Bar. In the end, they settled on Dream, a bar/club hybrid, complete with multi-coloured light displays, unique cocktails, pulsing rave music and short-skirted bar girls. The teachers confiscated a corner of plush red couches. Two young female teachers began to dance together, heads and bodies rocking to the driving beat, their motion punctuated by a blinking strobe. Bar girls hooted and embraced them from behind, while other faces, white and Asian and in-between, combined into a shapeless grey on the dance floor. I wandered to the bar and ordered a cranberry juice with seltzer.
"Why are you with these foreigners?" the bartender said. Even though she didn't shout, I could hear her over the music. Something about the tenor of her voice. These laowais was the word she used. With her wide set eyes, delicate nose and uncertain lips, she could have been Hana's older sister by three or four years.
"I don't know," I said, because I didn't.
She leant into me, her breath smelling of mint. "These foreigners think they can do whatever they want. You know, the name on my shirt says I'm Angel but my mother called me Xiao Mei.
"I went to Shanghai Jiao Tong University for two years, learnt chemistry and could have travelled to England to study, but I stayed here even though I wanted to get out of Shanghai, all so I could be a dutiful daughter and marry a proper Chinese man."
"Think you'll find him here?"
"Sometimes I wish I could I fling myself across Huangpu River. Or at least leave the damn German I always end up fucking."
As she spoke, her features shifted, and I saw that she didn't look much like Hana at all. Her lips were fuller, her cheek bones set a bit higher, her hair too long. In fact, the bartender more closely resembled Juki.
"Hey," I said. "I'm going out for walk. If my friends ask, can you let them know?"
She pushed a tall glass with my drink towards me. "You'll want this to go, then?" Underneath the glass was the end of a napkin, and on the napkin were two Chinese characters and a phone number scrawled in blue ink. After I paid, I thanked her and took the scrap of paper. I didn't tell her that I couldn't read the characters.
Juki and I sat in the cab to JFK in silence, and the driver asked us first if we were brother and sister, and then husband and wife, and then foreign exchange students, and then teenage lovers, and then illegal immigrants, and if we needed help, because he knew a guy, because he was once like us, he could tell by our silence, by how we sat in his cab, the distance says everything, because of the chakra he said, he can see that shit, and ours was red, going back and forth, and his was, too, before it became white, before his wife disappeared in his hometown, gone without a word or whisper, but he won't let us get beaten and let our colour turn, he said, like what happened to him in Dominica, because we were the real deal he said, and he's seen a lot of shit in his backseat.
My legs burnt. I had ridden for over an hour and a half by then. The ends of my jeans were caked with dirt and kept catching onto the pedals. A steady rain continued to fall, and the Chinese characters on the storefronts began to mingle with the broken English underneath. I started to get confused. Bakery? Clothing store? Laundry? I couldn't tell anymore. I rode down an empty street, the first empty street I had ever been on in Shanghai, though further away I could still hear the sounds of motorbikes, horns and Shanghainese. Looking from right to left and then back, I kept my eyes on the stores, many of them now closing.
And then my arms started to tilt, and the stores flipped, along with everything else.
I hit the ground shoulder first, rolling once.
My body throbbed and a deep weariness filled me. I could just lay here, I thought, and forget about the street, forget about Shanghai, New York, the school, Student Dorm Four.
The rain began to taper off. When I opened my eyes, I saw my bicycle on the curb, between two trees. The handlebars were a few feet away, underneath a parked cab. I propped myself up, and tested each limb. When all of them seemed fine, I picked up my bicycle and began to push it forward. I could never forget anyway.
I reached Huahai Lu, and on the corner, there was a bakery still open. When I was closer, I saw that it wasn't a Japanese bakery but just an old nondescript Chinese shop, selling mostly traditional desserts and cookies with lotus seed, melon paste and nut fillings. A woman in the process of turning off the lights peered out at me. Completely wet, dirty and walking with a limp, I must have looked suspicious.
"Ma'am, excuse me, but do you have red bean mochi?"
She stared at me for a long second, looking me up and down. "Are you all right? Did something happen to you?"
"Please, do you still have any red bean mochi? I'll buy it all." I took out a couple of wet hundred kuai bills. "I don't care how much."
Her eyes narrowed, and she flipped the lights back on. One short arm reached across the counter, and the other motioned for me to come in. She pulled loose a rough towel and handed it to me. "Dry off first. I have plenty of mochi, this is a bakery, isn't it? And put away those 100 kuai bills, it won't cost you more then 20 RMB to buy all of them."
After I thanked the shopkeeper, I stepped back out onto the side road with my plastic bag filled with ten individually wrapped mochi. There was still a faint drizzle, which against the streetlight, created a blanket of mist. Without waiting, I tore open one of the delicate packages and consumed half of the mochi inside in one bite. The soft sticky rice cake yielded against my teeth and covered my tongue. The red bean mildly sweet. Skin against throat.
At JFK, on the day I left, Juki had given me a light kiss on the corner of my lips, at the last edge that can still be considered lips, as she pressed a small envelope into my hand. "Off you go," she said. Her brown hair, usually straightened, was tousled that morning. Her slim fingers cool. Her eyes focussed.
On the plane, after the seatbelt sign had been turned off, I opened the envelope, which contained a single four-by-two card. The card was made from a kind of paper I'd never seen before, delicate with a pattern of worn irregular impressions, like interlaced fingerprints, hands upon hands. Written on it was a list.
Outside the plane, the rolling turbulence and brief flashes of distant lightning forced all of the passengers back to their seats. In the same row, two seats to the left, a crying child poked at his stilled video screen, and further down the aisle, a labouring middle-aged Asian woman peeled back her face mask for a deep gasp. By then, we must have been hovering somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between groups of occasional islands. I twisted the nozzle above me and closed my eyes. With a hiss, the pressurised air blew onto my face.
Hana ran. Her arms and legs and hands and neck reaching out. The deep-set chill of unfamiliar air invading past flimsy jeans. Her ponytail bobbing, her eyes closed. Butterfly clip in the air, books in the air, a shout or a cry. Around the bend her eyes opened again, took stock of the position, but it was not the time to slow down. There were those behind her now, and those on the ground. Not Andrew, or Joyce, or Yoshiko, or even Mr. Wong. She was almost at the end now, and there wasn't any time left. None at all. And she was sorry; she thought she would always run.
I heard during Christmas break, first from the school headmaster, and then through frantic emails from Andrew, Joyce and Yoshiko. Though the emails were almost indecipherable, the messages combined to give me an overall picture.
Bus driver asleep.
Swerve across railing.
Later on, after I had read every news clip I could find, a quote from The Arizona Republic burnt into my mind. It was from a bystander that had witnessed the accident and then tried to help. He said that he had knelt by a young woman bleeding from a head injury, one of the thrown passengers. The girl was trying to tell him something, but he couldn't understand her, and before anyone else could get there, she was gone. It was the first time he had ever watched a person die.
For the first lap, I was able to keep up with Hana, though I was perhaps a step or two behind her. By the middle of the second, though, she began to pull further away. That morning, a gardener was watering the lawn in lazy splashes and flings. Slowly his head turned, as if he was wondering why there was this guy chasing a girl so early in the morning. The temperature had dropped the previous night, and wisps of evaporating dew rose from the tips of the frosted grass. It had been months since I'd run with any sort of purpose, and after struggling for half of a lap, I regained my stride. The knots in my knees smoothed out, breathing became regular, once every six paces.
Bit by bit, I pulled even with Hana again at the turn of the corner, when we reached the 100-metre straightaway of the fourth lap. As the finish line came into view, I wondered if maybe I wasn't going faster at all, that perhaps she was just slowing down for me. That made sense, since I had never been able to run a sub-six-minute mile, but my legs felt like they were moving quicker, propelling themselves forward now on pure momentum. I forgot my body, and the panting echoing in my ears seemed to come from some distant undefined point, from the other me maybe, the one still hunched over 23rd Street in New York.
I turned to look at Hana during the final seconds to try bring myself back to the moment, to the dirt kicking free from the track and the early cool humidity, but I couldn't feel the surroundings anymore. Only the space ahead existed, and Hana. The last ten metres, our strides coincided, and step-by-step, our bodies steadied in synchronisation.
Denis Wong was born in New York City and raised in Queens and New Jersey. His stories have been published or are forthcoming from Gemini Magazine
, Hyphen Magazine
, The Margins
, Drunken Boat
, and Wasafiri Magazine
, among others. He lives in Sai Kung, Hong Kong with his wife and son.