Josh Stenberg writes and translates fiction and poetry. Stints in Nanjing, Hong Kong and Taipei have led him to a job teaching Chinese literature, theatre, and language at The University of Sydney.
Let me introduce you to Caroline Miao just as she is becoming Miao Tingting once again, the customs uniform wordlessly waving for her to go through, to pass on, to proceed already. She picks up her luggage at the carousel, missing it on the first go-round because she is distracted by an urgent dingle from her phone, now she zips the big suitcase open to check that none of the LV packages are missing, she has seen online that sometimes they are purloined, and now she struggles out to wait for the bus that will take her from Pudong back to her home across the Yangtze, in Yangang. She will need to take two buses, actually, but for the moment she can only wait for the first of these. Thanks for your understanding.
Oh, we are already three days later, at one of the inescapable banquets. Which one, neither she nor I can properly remember—they run together, like similes in the rain. Her father is showing her off to other men of his approximate age and status; the fathers of the eligible; the peers. They are complementing her prettiness, they do not know or care that their compliments are, objectively, appalling; thankfully it does not occur to her that if she were a little poorer and a little prettier they would want her as a mistress. She sees through, but not too far.
On her earlobes, where else, she is wearing her French earrings, her hair is bobbed and highlighted, everyone is sipping a red wine she has lugged back with her, which privately everyone thinks is too sour but which cannot be openly criticized. The airport duty-free woman at Charles De Gaulle suggested it; it is known to be very popular in China; it bears the name and sketch of an imaginary chateau. If deception is being practiced, it is remote, almost generous.
Since her father is executive assistant to the vice-mayor, the abalone is free; and how she loathes, how she execrates, abalone! She tries, unsuccessfully, to deflect it, to humble it off, when the server, mumbly in her submissiveness, flourishes it. To no avail. It gleams in front of Tingting returned, obscene blob, tasteless, self-indulgent; she politely amputates a corner; it jiggles. In her mouth it is warm and tasteless like homecoming.
The restaurant manager enters and theatrically says “Bonjou” and she rises and says “Bonjou” and everybody raucously echoes Bonjou and what fun, what fun. And also, before I forget: what fun.
In her room, which thankfully her mother has not touched, except to clean, weekly and once especially thoroughly before her daughter’s return, Tingting texts her friends. She wants to be texting with France, or at least to be known in Yangang to be texting with France, but the people she knows there do not use WeChat and Facebook is of course blocked. With her gift of moderate foresight, she forced some of them download WeChat before she left but time has shown that none of them will ever check it, despite promises, despite friendship signals and parleys; Pauline had tried to explain her that WeChat was a mechanism of authoritarian control and therefore to be principled against in the desultory, relativistic European way. French people talked a great deal of nonsense about China—suspicious of WeChat but supportive of the Cultural Revolution.
Meanwhile, stretched out on her bed like a depilated cat, Tingting can feel her store of French words eroding, depleting, like a talent or an illness slowing being shed. Leaving a foreign country is like dementia, you know that you are forgetting, you are permitted to be conscious of the fact that you are losing it, there is a grace available somewhere. Forgiveness is a rearrangement of foreignness. Tingting memorises words like “memory” so that the next time she meets a French person she can talk about her affliction and by so talking to deny it. To have something, almost someone, to blame. Oh, beloved.
I should mention: everybody is at home from Shanghai or Beijing or Hong Kong and comparing, exchanging boredoms for the holidays. They do not go out and meet each other, everything is closed anyway, the staff is in its villages, but society is not totally eradicated, they send each other cartoon images indicating New Year’s celebrations. So raucous. In the real world, of course, firecrackers have been banned in the city centre for eleven years; it is a prosperous and a civilized city. Tingting’s district was named Jiangsu Province Class Two Civilised City only months ago. Older people speak of celebration as if it were a bygone era.
Around the bend, it will be the year of the Rooster: most often in her wish-messages Tingting deploys the picture of two red roosters, joined at the tail in an imitation of a paper-cutting, with lanterns dangling from their beaks with “Auspicious” printed upon them and the characters flowing together. Furthermore circulating are many videos of fat babies and stacks of gold ingots and memes that purport to show Justin Bieber wishing a happy year of the rooster, and these zip around between the youngish people with their phones on beds and their doors shut and the heating on. The laziest kids, the worst ones, or maybe the ones with secret lives in the real world, just answer every message with to you too.
She googles (well, since she cannot get on Google, she Baidus, but you knew what I meant) several horoscopes. She is going to have an outstanding a mediocre a lucky and/or a cautious year. She applies all these prognostications to Peng, because Peng is somehow still the point to which everything tends, the pivot around which meaning arranged, or else he is emphatically not the point; which amounts to the same thing, men being a question of emphasis, of stress on a syllable (in French) or of tonality (in Chinese). Peng is not back yet, he is working in Shanghai, and won’t come home until the day before New Year’s, he is said to claim it is on account of work, but she believes him to be designing to keep her waiting. She does not text him yet. She is very forbearing, self-abnegating. She wants him to believe that he does not occur to her. Both occur to one another constantly, and the courtship of silences and punishments is raising their respective temperature, like any bug, like any chronic, low-grade inflammation. Is love a parasite you host?
Every day she wonders whether, when he arrives, she will deign to see him or not, and decides the issue firmly one way; and then firmly the other way hours later. These twice-daily final resolutions give her a sense of accomplishment, of progress, of newness and rebirth that charms with the endless and endlessly delayed promise of the festival. And there is a joy, like opening a present, to start reconsidering the issue, the interminable nostalgia of Peng, the next morning, or after the lunchtime nap.
Once, thankfully, almost by sleight of hand, she escapes to the lake park with her friend Yuli. Tingting’s mother is subsumed with an aunt in the kitchen-cooking crackle and her father is at a banquet (her father has always been at a banquet; it is his habitat); she is not missed. Yuli rewards her with news.
Yuli has been recently engaged to be married to the manager of a factory that manufactures the machines that make sewage pipes. “No one makes them anywhere else, anymore” exclaims Yuli, proud-embarrassed-humble, “It’s practically a monopoly.” They are young and it seems like the market situation of sewage pipe manufacturing machines will continue unchanged forever. Tingting wishes Yuli luck and happiness. She will try to be there for the wedding. She does not inquire but Yuli volunteers that the factory town where she will live, where they make the machines, does not especially smell. Why would it?
Yuli’s forever future established, admired, and discarded, they round the manmade lake and sit on a bench of the concrete pavilion with the crude plastic dragons on the eaves, and Yuli extrudes the crumbly little haw roundlets that Tingting does not know she has been missing. As they fall to pieces in her mouth, Tingting realizes that she had thought them gone forever, one more feature snuffed out by progress, by development, by the march towards special characteristics, one does not quite know of what. She feels guilty for almost having missed them.
Meanwhile, Yuli shows Tingting some tricks about how not to breathe too deeply when outside. The air pollution is better than in the north, but still one has to be artful, one must take care if one has just arrived from abroad; she has read so online. A school of carp has been collecting nearby them, and against coins they grind feed from a machine and watch the carps nip one another for the treats. They stretch and move on; the girls try to keep talking, but any depth of conversation is rendered impossible by the spectacle of the cloud of hungry carp now following the girls along the riverbank. Tingting asks whether the carp would eat Yuli if she fell in and Yuli says it is more dangerous for Tingting because she is sweeter. Tingting answers that they will both taste of haw.
They do not talk about boys because it is only three days to New Year and everybody has come to air their children in stuffed jackets and so they could be too easily overheard. Yangang has a population of 1.1 million, but somehow everybody is a cousin, a classmate, or a hybrid of the two. The park children clamour for candied fruits; a migrant sells rooster with glowing green eyes that will, if you do not suppress it, crow for a full minute.
Already!— the round of New Year’s visits. The women cook all day and the men smoke and eat sunflower seeds and young people sit in the other room and play on their phones or watch replays of the patriotic highlights and homages to mothers and soldiers from the New Year’s Gala. Then they eat, always too much, religiously too much. The parents sit on the furniture, in the half-dark, and discuss the marriageability, job prospects, and weights of one another’s progeny. Tingting has been to France and come back, they think, with some kind of degree, or certificate; they grant her leeway. At least France is not a country that makes fat. But in a month of her two her immunity will wear off. One or two of the aunts is preparing a comment, perhaps for next year, about how the make-up can no longer quite mask the crow’s-eye, the droop. Twenty-six in autumn.
New Year’s brings the man. The first time she meets Peng again, they arrange to go to the bakery that Koreans have opened, with the stickers of the Eiffel tower on the coffee-bean wallpaper. He knows the chain from Shanghai; he has familiar objects to order. Tingting doesn’t bother saying that it is not like in France; it is understood. But it is the most Parisian thing Yangang has to offer, and Peng was polite to pay this homage.
Their conversation is awkward, tetchy. They ask about each other’s parents, but everybody is fine, there is so little say. Peng’s cousin is to be married. Yuli is to be married. Quiet girls in their class that they didn’t know or like are to be married.
But then, in a pinch, it turns out that Tingting’s aunt is sick; it is a serious disease, not as serious as cancer, but she has forgotten the name. Oh yes it is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Tingting has not forgotten after all. The aunt lives on the fifth floor, and wheezes on the stairs. Peng is surprised to learn from Tingting that French apartments on the fifth-floor might also have no elevator, or only a very small one. Tingting remarks, a little professionally, that is not clear whether the aunt will have to be moved. The air in the countryside is also no longer, etc.
Peng attempts a joke about everyone having to move, by which he means to hint at mortality, which ought to come back to age and therefore love, but Tingting understands him to mean that all the buildings are always being torn down and that he is alluding to his relative security in his Shanghai apartment, which is only seven years old. A three-legged dog passes the window and they agree that it is to be pitied.
They understand each other poorly, which is as it should be, but eventually, awkwardly, the opening generated by allusion, confusion, interpretation permits Tingting to ask him about girls, how his life with girls is progressing, but Peng murmuringly disavows girls, it is not clear whether as a subject or as the object. She presses; he begins to mumble about Shanghai girls, he stutters to a stop. This was perhaps the declaration; she cannot tell. Tingting says, in the name of freedom but accusingly, that she had told him not to think of her; not to miss her—she, in Paris, had not waited for him, or thought of him too much. She thought she had made this very clear. No missing was to be permitted; certainly none to be logged as virtue.
He agrees, meekly, meekly, that she made this very clear, but a man cannot help himself, which objectively speaking sounds like compulsive self-satisfaction but is interpreted by both, for reasons of decency, as romance.
For what it matters, she is not bluffing. Tingting, or at least Caroline, has a creditable experience of French men. Several kinds. Some of them had intruded, become memorable or at least nude. They were always telling her how something she was for a Chinese girl—elegant, tall, good at rolling the French r; they conceived of compliments as distinction among a gallery of Chinese girls, most of them fantastical, with whom she understood herself to be competing.
One such Frenchman, Christian, had of course claimed to be a Buddhist, she thought it was meant to explain his failure to text or show up on time, rudeness gussied up as transience. The world was changeable, Christian told her, especially the self. He expected her to understand and perhaps his reason for vanishing was that it was necessary for the illusion of Christian to dissolve once he was truly understood. In any event, there is something to be said for the dispersal of some men.
She tries now to explain to Peng how French people, for (at present she had digested them and they can be processed and generalized en masse) always seemed to have a chessboard in front of them, to have many chessboards in front of them, always making moves in a game which wavered between downright seduction, mere possibility and the faintest tinges of suggestion. Not everybody cared whether they won; often there were no stakes. But everybody played, constantly, as though this were the business of life, and this made them joyful, confused, incessantly talkative—it furnished their movies and their television and their songs and their imaginations. It was hopelessly complex and also perversely single-minded, but it lent a tension, not always unpleasant, to the act of buying a croque-monsieur from a baker, or sharing a seat on a bus—even with an older gentleman, or a teenage girl. Of course, Tingting opines, eroticism is being slowly criminalized and it promises to be a bad century for the French. But for now it is still in the air. Peng nods, trying to look grave.
And she has learnt things from them. Tristan, for instance, taught her to mix café nihilism with pleasure; how to skip classes with insouciance, even panache; how to make use of one another within the bounds of morality. If she had understood Tristan correctly, the self was incapable of truly apprehending the other—and for this reason one could only appear to solicit consent and mutuality from the other being, the beloved (there was something in here about virgins and prostitutes)—but it could not actually understand an alien humanity. Therefore humans had no choice but treat each other as tools to whom they attributed, intellectually, realization—but without access to the realization, without feedback from the other. When comprehensible she found his ideas idiotic, but she enjoyed the consequences, and the sense of perceiving the foolishness at the heart of all his lofty abstraction, and even the delicious pain she could inflict on him with the merest breath of mockery, perceived momentarily before his natural arrogance once again took him in hand.
On the earthly plane, she understood that with Tristan, too, there would be body and metaphor but very little, for instance, marriage. And all around her were Chinese women and their French boyfriends who refused to help them get status. It seemed that a fear of religion had destroyed the men’s sense of responsibility. Whereas Chineseness seemed to soldier blindly through, across belief. She was young enough to like it, to like them, to accept pleasure and friendship inconsequentially. She had known she was a bad girl, and a modern woman, and French men were apparently placed within reach for no better reason than to prove it.
Peng is listening politely. Purity is a laughable, faraway, television thing; and he quite agrees that European men, as Tingting is saying, do not partake of reality. He feigns concern at her exploits; that is the least he could do for her. They part with him telling her that he will have to think over all she has told him. He does concern, doubt, and disillusion rather well.
In good time the school will send her parents a letter of expulsion in French; she will have told them it was a commendation. Of course, by then, she will need no certificates.
It is the second time they meet, Peng and she, to which we now turn our attention. A week later, perhaps; actually six days, as either one could have told you instantly. It is a sushi restaurant, and none of their parents’ generation is likely to have their moles in here, so she allows herself a Kirin and imposes a Kirin on him too; and, do you know what?, she is imagining the ridge of his muscle, she has forgotten its name, the one that holds the thigh together. She applies a little bit of pressure under the table to his front toe, because otherwise he will continue to act too maidenly.
The toe pressure does its work, because she is able to take him, though he smells of that orange Japanese fish egg stuff, back to the traveller’s hotel, the one run by the train station. The same room—the same bank card that her father never queries and which fills up with money from some subterranean source—even the same discreet out-of-towner at the desk, aged more since last time than was reasonable. Poor people from the provinces are safe, they can be told anything, they are so hopelessly unconnected, and therefore have no access to the determinations of truth, even when they have the facts.
He wants the lights off but she has dispensed with this decorum, she tells him that this is a custom she has unlearnt in France. He makes no objection; he says very little anymore. He is not averse to experiments in style. If she insists on it, Tingting will be captured by means of what she calls her liberation.
Too late, in too deep, she grows concerned by the smile on his face, the beatitude, the triumph which is male bliss even when the woman has done all the work. Of course, she cannot be sure, because she is right up against him and half turned away from him, too close to see him and not at the kind of angle that allows expressions to be properly interpreted. But he is feverish with sleep and she can feel the smugness radiating off his bare skin.
Ah, but he takes her to the breakfast place they used to go to, he shows sign of a will reviving, and it is the congee with the pickled vegetables and the divine fried dough. The fried dough, he tells her, as he has told her on three previous occasions (one of them at this very table) is a reminder of the traitor to the Chinese people and his wife, who are bound together in this spiral and fried forever for opening the capital to the Mongol hordes.
Tingting says it looks like a spiral of DNA. She wants to be pleasant, but doesn’t know how to handle the fact that he is still too greatly pleased, too obviously satisfied. Defensively, she talks about going to France again, perhaps she will do another degree.
Although the congee looks very good, he looks suitably downcast at this. She remarks that perhaps China could use another Mongol horde. He laughs and tells her a story about a camel tour his colleagues made in Inner Mongolia and he shows her a picture they have sent him on WeChat with a yurt replica. With this distraction, with this dismissal of any last-ditch escape she might design, Peng has squelched Tristan and Christian—snuffed them out— has suffocated France.
She is driven to take him to the hotel a few more times; she is sure that it is not a revenge. Perhaps she can in some way break him? Or if it is a vengeance, it is not against him. In fact, she is very sure that it is carefree, and shows a healthy interest in life, and demonstrates that she is in control of her body and her destiny.
But she can glimpse it now, sometimes, before she wriggles out of his arms: every repetition of the act grants Peng another layer of security, she senses that he believes that things will turn out alright now, in the social sense, that she has come around, come back. It is that post-coital male satisfaction, that fantasy of taming, that illusion of ownership that the best of them cannot disguise. Surely this is how all the stories of werewolves come from—the revelations on the face, through the body, during the act, in the wake of it. And the guilty men, feeling their power, translate their own possession into fairy tales about snake-women and fox-girls.
And so on the seventh morning, when he comes up behind her to join her in admiring herself in the mirror, she says, you know that this is just for fun, right?
He smiles, bashful in his boxers, and assents to the fact of the fun.
She goes on: We’re both adults, right? It doesn’t mean anything. I mean it’s nice, but it’s not…enduring.
He asks whether she wants him to hold back for longer before—
No, what I mean is: all this, it doesn’t mean we’re back together. We both have our freedoms, right? I mean, I’m glad that China has progressed, in our generation. But we aren’t built for marriage. That goes without saying.
He gives the grunt which is reaction, acknowledgment, agreement, and dissent. He sits on the edge of the bed; then reaches for his phone. He begins to play Lost Planet: Devolution a game which has only recently come out for Androids, and which he downloaded yesterday when he went to the bathroom at 2 am. This sulky intentness is the expression she hates most about him, and it makes it easier for her to concentrate on delivering the message.
If I had known you were so immature, she murmurs. I would have.
But he laughs, not exactly at her. Nevertheless, she has figured it out.
It is in the order of things for Yuli to be the first to congratulate her; they arrange to have their weddings two weeks apart; close enough together that they can share and maybe disperse some of the planning stress.
Her father is not especially pleased with Peng—rumours have reached him— but the boy’s family will pay for the wedding and of course there is the Shanghai apartment; and so Peng is technically unexceptionable.
The invitation sits in Tristan’s WeChat forever, unread, because he drops his cell phone in the Rhone accidentally, when he and a girl and another couple take the Marne canal down to near Strasbourg. He is going through a technocratic phase, and never, until his death at 57 in a mountain-climbing accident, will he download WeChat again. Pauline sends her congratulations, three weeks after the message is sent, but does not mention coming. And Christian has reached anatta; understandably, since he no longer has any Self, he cannot be expected to reply to wedding invites.
And, unless I am mistaken, or lying, a mere seventy years later an engineering student in Padua is saying to her girlfriend—yeah, she even had a French guy, then, before the war, before she married my grandpa—with the lung disease, you remember? But she was herself always so healthy. She used to try to pull up the pictures on this old gadget she had, and I could never explain to her that they were all inconvertible now—you should have seen the phones then, they were as big as your hand. I never understood her much; she’d forgotten all her French, and my Chinese is hopeless. I would have liked to say goodbye, but she died right in the middle of exams, and you can’t even get a visa that quick.
Furthermore, it is my understanding that there are various man-made satellites which orbit the earth and then burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, on account of friction or speed or various astrophysical variables which you can look up if you so choose or which perhaps you know already. Sometimes they fail to burn up entirely and hit the earth. But since Earth is mostly water, desert, taiga and ice, very rarely is anyone harmed, and even if they were they would have to be very isolated, disconnected people to be hit individually, so if anyone actually were hurt or killed by a reentry likely we would never hear about it.