I see his smile everywhere. As if it’s super imposed onto everything that crosses into my line of vision. All the people at the airport have his face, everything I do, I pretend he’s watching me. Watching me and regretting letting me go. I’m in denial. I’ve been in denial for more than a month.
The bustling sounds of Beijing slip in through the semi-opened window. How come I’ve come so far, as far away as I can possibly get from the cruelty of New York City, and the memory of him still follows me? It rides on my shoulders, an impossibly heavy burden that I can’t shrug off. Before him, I had been used to having nobody. After him, I don’t think I can live. My throat is always impossibly tight, but I haven’t cried since the day he let me know. I don’t even know why.
I dig my fingernails into the white concrete walls and drag them downwards. I can’t stand the sound, the feeling and the texture, the screeching of grits underneath my fingernails and the disgusting grey tracks of four on the wall. I’m torturing myself for being unwanted by him. I’ve done this every day for the past week, ever since I arrived in this city, ever since I moved back into my mother’s house 2 weeks before I should have completed my requirements for summer term.
I’m practically a college drop out. I’m a fool. Only fools take breakups so hard.
“Valerie!” my mother’s piercing voice finds a way through the wood of my closed doors into my upset ear. I stop scratching the wall and a wave of frustration comes over me. Can’t a girl even suffer in peace? “What?!” I scream back. This has been our dynamic for a week now. Screaming at each other. We sure are a loving family. I can hear her footsteps stomping towards my door. She stops on the other side. I can hear the huffing and puffing of her breath resonating through the door.
“Can you do me a favour and please, please stop bumming around in your room? Can you please just pick yourself up and do something, for God’s sake?!” all those “please”s in her speech- that’s a passive aggressive technique. My mother doesn’t give a rat’s ass about being polite to me, but she figures if she uses this terminology, I might suddenly come to and realize what a horrible daughter I’ve been for exasperating my poor mother so, recover and beg her to ship me back to New York City.
Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. I open the door and stare at her. I haven’t combed my hair for a week and I know there are dark circles under my eyes. I probably look like I’ve been through every kind of natural disaster ever defined on Wikipedia. There’s wall grit under my fingernails. My mother is dressed in her “smart” business suit with her briefcase in hand. Her face is perfectly made up but her expression is twisted almost into a snarl. She grabs my arm with her right hand and shakes me. That’s right. She shakes me. It’s like a bad movie.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask in a monotone. I’m sick of fighting with my mother. She doesn't understand and she never will. She’s barely even home anyway, and at the most I see her for 1 to 2 hours a day. Why argue with the old woman? I’m just wasting my energy with her, energy I can put to better use by beating myself up over him.
“Val, I’m going to work now.” Her expression softens. She’s trying another technique now. The “I understand and I’m just trying to help you” technique. “Why don’t you go out and get us some breakfast for tomorrow, hmm? It will do you good. You haven't left the house for a week. Go out and explore Beijing! Or at least just get a breath of fresh air. There’s a bao-zi store right across from us.” She pauses, touches my hair, opens her eyes wide and looks at me. “I’m really worried about you, you know. You- you dropped out of summer term, for God’s sake. I wish you would just tell me what’s wrong.”
I knew she was going to bring up the summer term thing. And of course, I’ve already told her what’s wrong. She refuses to believe it’s just a break-up though. To her, break-ups are nothing. My mother would never sacrifice her studies or her career for a man. She divorced my father in two minutes when he refused to come back with her to China. I know she thinks I’m like her in that way. Well sorry mom. I’m not like you. I’m a fucking weakling.
“Ok ok.” I just want her to go away. “You go to work, I’ll go down and get us breakfast. Ok?” I make a motion to shut the door. “I’m getting dressed now”. My left hand picks up a crumpled shirt on my chair. I display it to her. “See?”
My mother nods a little bit and shuffles away, half-convinced. She won’t stay longer anyway, she’s going to be late for work. “Bye baby!” She shouts as the door closes. “I’ll be checking for that breakfast tonight!”
Oh for Christ’s sake. Now I actually have to go. I put on the nearest clothes available and run my hands through my hair twice. I’m just going to go downstairs and get it done. Fuck it. Stop her yelling at me at the least. I wait for 5 minutes until I’m sure she’s gone. Then I plod out my room, plod down the hall, and finally plod out the front door. I check that I have the keys and slam the door. This gives me satisfaction. I open the door and slam it again. Slam it a few more times. Then I go and press the little elevator “down” button.
There’s no one in the elevator when I get in. thank god. Like I’d want anyone seeing me like this. There are a few crumpled up yuan’s in my pocket. I bring them up to my eyes and study them. Chairman Mao smiles happily back at me. I dig my fingernails into his face. Stop smiling, bitch. Everything sucks, don’t you know?
The elevator door opens, and I plod through the lobby, ignoring the guard who is staring curiously at me in my flip-flops and tweety bird t-shirt. I push open the front door to the world outside.
What hits me first isn't the sunlight, or the sound of bird’s chirping, or anything else bullshit like that. What hits me is the smell of Beijing. I don’t recall it smelling like this one week ago when I was lugging my suitcase up to my condo, completely exhausted and pissed off. But then I suppose it was evening then. It’s morning now. Eight o’ clock and Beijing smells completely different. The odour is a mixture of dirt, gasoline pollution, dew and street vendor breakfasts. I have to take a few more steps to get used to it.
I look across the street; looking for the bao-zi dumpling store my mother had told me about. When I finally see it, it surprises me. It’s a tiny storefront with crumbling walls and a completely open store face. An old man stands beside a pile of steamers, reading the newspaper. He’s wearing an old military style jacket, grey pants and what looks like cotton shoes. Beside him is a shaky looking table, on which is propped a small makeshift blackboard, reading:
Pork & Bokchoy Filling
Ten for 2 yuan
I cross the street, approaching cautiously. Surely my mother didn’t mean this crappy old place? But I don’t see anywhere else around here. As I near, the man catches sight of me and grins. I come to the revelation that he isn’t as old as I thought, even though his face is mapped with wrinkles, his skin brown and rough looking. One tooth is missing and his other teeth are black and yellow. His military jacket looks old, the ends of the sleeves frayed and several buttons missing.
“Hello there!” he greets me, putting his newspapers down on the table. His voice is throaty and deep. “ Want to buy some dumplings, little lady?” I feel embarrassed. No one has called me the Chinese slang of “little lady” in a long time. My voice is suddenly stuck in my throat. Have I forgotten how to communicate with human beings? I can only nod slightly at him. Oh what the hell am I doing here? Why did I even listen to my mother? I feel a great urge to retreat right back into my room.
Catching my nod, he looks delighted, seeming to not notice my awkwardness. “Great!” he exclaims. “Business has been slow these few days.” He opens the top of one steamer and a great cloud of steam pours out, swirling around him. He grins and waves his hand in front of him, as if trying to wave the steam away. “How many? Ten?” I nod. I can only nod at this point. I’m not ready to talk to someone I don’t know yet. Only now do I realize how much my one week of isolation has affected me. I’ve been living like a hermit in a cave. I’m like that wolf-child who was raised by wolves; I’ve lost all my human instincts. One week!
He takes a small wooden steamer off the top of his pile and places it on the table. Ten small round, white dumplings sit in a circle at the bottom of the wooden steamer, their dumpling skin slightly translucent, tightly filled with savory broth and meat. I can’t help it. I am salivating. The old man gets a plastic bag from behind him, upsets the steamer’s contents into the bag.
“There you go,” he mumbles satisfactorily. “Ten little babies. A perfect ten.” He grins at me, his gap toothed grin I experienced in full glory before. “That’ll be two yuan. Only two yuan for ten perfect dumplings.”
I see his chest swell with pride. He’s damn proud of those dumplings. I can’t help inwardly smiling a little bit myself. I don’t expect it, however, when he exclaims, “There’s a pretty little smile!” as I finger in my pocket for my chairman Mao bills. When I hand them over, he accepts them and adds “now I was wondering why you looked so miserable.” He pats my shoulder and I step back, alarmed. “No reason to be miserable now. It’s 2008! The Olympics are coming in a few weeks! The Chinese people are standing up, little lady!” he chuckles and hands me the bag full of dumplings. “Do you live here, little lady?” I nod slightly, kind of wanting to leave now. The old man’s weird. Who knows what he’s going to do next? I point at my condominium across the street in case he asks where, specifically. I marvel at the fact that I still haven’t said a word to him since I approached him.
“That’s great!” the man exclaims joyously. “Come down often and get some dumplings! A girl can never have enough dumplings, you know!” he speaks as if he knows exactly what a girl can’t have enough of. “I’m Mr. Zhang, by the way. Your friendly neighborhood dumpling vendor.” He grins right at me, exposing his missing tooth, then suddenly leans in and looks at me closely. “I hope you don’t find it weird, me saying this, but you kind of remind me of my son.”
I remind him of his son? Ok sure… he’s definitely going bonkers. I turn to leave hastily, not wanting to get into a full-fledged one-sided conversation with this guy. Too weird. He seems nice enough though. I look back once. He’s waving at me. I can’t help grinning a little bit too.
When I near the condo, I reach into the steam filled bag and take out one of the small, round dumplings, then put it in my mouth. It explodes with juice and flavor. Some of the stew dribbles down my chin. I wipe it away, embarrassed, even though I know there’s no one around to see me. I feel almost ashamed as I close the bag and enter the lobby. It seems ridiculous, but I don’t feel like I deserve to be enjoying such a tasty dumpling. I press the elevator button, eager to get back upstairs into my room and wallow in my depression.
It’s strange, but I start going down to get dumplings a lot at Mr. Zhang’s. I suppose one reason is because his dumplings do taste exceptionally good, and the second is sometimes I do feel like a little bit of human contact. My mother is never around, leaving the house at 8 in the morning and coming back at 10 at night. When she is at home, she only either shouts at me or gives me worrying looks, grilling me about what I did that day and whether I’ve been “bumming around in the room doing nothing” again (Thank god she hasn’t seen those scratches on the wall yet).
But Mr. Zhang is different. Overlooking his weird behaviour the first time, he always has nice things to say to me, and since then he has never brought up how “miserable” I am again. Once, he tells me more about his son and the dreams he has for him. “He’s in high school now, in Beijing,” Mr. Zhang gushes, scooping up my ten usual dumplings for me into the bag. “Boarding school. He really likes math, you know. I think he’s going to become a –uh, whatchamacallit, those people who do math? … Mathematicians! That’s right, a mathematician! Now I don’t know for sure what those folks do but I’m sure they earn a lot of money right? I mean, people who do math; they have to earn a lot of money. That’s what my son’s going to go on to do. I’ve told him already- he’s a smart one for sure. Those math people are all smart ones!”
I’m starting to talk too. I can’t help but make a little effort if just to match a little bit of Mr. Zhang’s exuberant energy and optimism. Once, I tell him I’ve come from New York. I don’t know how it comes up; it just slips out of my mouth. I don’t mention the part about dropping out of summer term though. Or… or that. Of course I don’t mention that.
Mr. Zhang, however, is all interest. “New York City!” He exclaims. “That’s in America right? Wow, that’s something, little lady, that’s something!” he winks at me. “I know them Americans are all rich, are they not? But I feel bad for you now! The Chinese are going to surge past the Americans you know. You have Bush- now don’t you see me looking all stupid, I know Bush of course, and his antics. He’s a bad egg, that one. And then now we’re hosting the Olympics- well now we can’t be beat!” he grins his gap toothed grin. But then focuses in on me and says, “I know you won’t be offended right, little lady? Of course you won’t. You’re a Chinese one, you are. You’re one of us. You’ve lived with those foreigners but look at your yellow skin here!” Mr. Zhang’s words are marinated richly in a Dongbei regional accent. His simple sentiments expressed in the rich local dialect make me smile. “You’re one of us.” However cheesy it is, my heart warms a little with his words. He can’t possibly know how isolated I’ve been in the past few weeks, how I’ve so desperately felt like I’m not one of any group.
“Thanks, Mr. Zhang.” I say.
“No need to thank me!” Mr. Zhang says. “It’s who you are!” I already have the dumplings in my hand and have paid him, but I don’t leave yet, and he sees this. He looks round. “Now what do you say-” he starts, closing the lid of his dumpling steamer, “that in the spirit of the Olympics, we do some sports? Are you busy now, little lady?”
“What?” Mr. Zhang’s suggestion is so out of the blue I don’t know what to think. I’ve always been terrible at sports. Basketball, football, volleyball, tennis, they’re all one game to me- you could call it dodgeball. Just get the damn ball away from me, that’s my sport philosophy. “Wait here”. Mr. Zhang disappears into the backroom behind him. I lean forward, pressing into the edge of the table, curious. What can he possibly come up with? Doesn’t he have a dumpling vendor to run?
Soon enough, Mr. Zhang emerges with a beautiful multi-coloured kite in his hands. He lays it out on the table for me to look at. Golden threads are woven around a stunning phoenix outline, and the light kite fabric is saturated with rich warm colours. I am absolutely flabbergasted. “Wow.” I say. “This is beautiful.”
“Isn’t it?” Mr. Zhang’s face flushes with pride. “My son bought it for me for my birthday three years ago. He knows I’ve always been a kite flyer. I haven’t had a chance to fly it yet though. The wind is strong today. Want to watch me test it out?” I don't even like kite flying, but my heart leaps with excitement. Why am I so excited? I don’t even know. “Yeah!” I exclaim. “I’ll help you man the vendor. You have to fly it now, Mr. Zhang!”
Mr. Zhang grins his gap-toothed grin and comes out of his storefront. “If you say so, little lady,” he says. I can see that he’s even more excited than I am. He takes the kite out onto the wide street in front of our condo. A gust of wind blows past. Mr. Zhang throws the kite into the wind stream with his calloused hands. He uncoils his spool a little and runs a few steps forwards.
My breath is caught in my throat. I feel like I am watching the most thrilling event ever. Mr. Zhang is uncoiling the spool fast now. The kite is rising in the air. His hands work with such grace and natural instinct, I instantly know that he has been flying kites all his life. The phoenix lifts, twirls into the air. Mr. Zhang uncoils the spool. The phoenix flies higher and higher. It’s becoming a dot in the sky.
I can’t contain my excitement anymore. I run out of the storefront, completely forgetting the dumplings, the steamers, and everything else. I run to Mr. Zhang’s side, my eyes on the phoenix. “This is amazing!” I hear myself say. “Isn’t it?” Mr. Zhang is also squinting at the phoenix. The wrinkles around his eyes look even more prominent today as he raises his head and looks with me. But this moment I don’t feel his age at all. I feel like I’m standing with a friend.
It hits me, and I’m overwhelmed. I really do feel like I’m standing with a friend. He’s been my only friend since I came back here; back to Beijing, China, a place so familiar to me yet so strange. I feel a tear actually welling up in my eye- the first tear in more than a month. Not even a tear out of sadness.
“Now I’m not one of those literary types,” Mr. Zhang says, not noticing my tear. “But I can’t help thinking of my son when I look at this kite. Now if he’s the phoenix, there he is, up there, and I’m down here, but look at this string connecting us. Isn’t this kite like a lot of things in this world? Everything that’s connected, eh? What do you say, little lady?” He turns and looks at me, grinning his gap toothed grin.
I smile and nod, once again at a loss for words. We both watch the phoenix. “Mr. Zhang-” I start to say, suddenly overwhelmed by an urge to tell him everything. About why I’ve come back, about everything that happened, about how unhappy I am. But then we hear an irritated voice from behind us.
“Is there no one here or what?!” A 30 to 40 year old housewife, dressed in floral pajamas, is standing in front of the dumpling store front, her arms crossed over her chest looking annoyed. “A person just wants to get a few dumplings and no one is around to serve her…” she is mumbling. Mr. Zhang hurriedly starts to bring down the kite. “Sorry ma’am! I’ll be there in a minute!”
We’re both laughing, and my moment is lost. But just as well. Mr. Zhang is so full of joy; I don’t want to weigh him down with my trivial grievances. I’m thankful for the impatient woman now. “I’m going back then, Mr. Zhang!” I call at him as he brings down the kite with the woman staring on. “Ok!” he says, giving me the “ok’ sign with his fingers. I wave at him as I leave, but he’s too busy tending to the woman. I grin as I walk back.
I get a cold the next day. It’s just like me to get a cold in the summer, with the air conditioning on full blast during all those minutes spent wallowing in my room, mourning over my own misfortunes. My fever is so high that I cannot leave the room, and for the first time my mother comes home early every day to tend to me. Our relatives are coming too, moving into the house from all over China as the Olympics near, all extremely excited to share in the Olympic excitement, cluttering up the house like bees in a beehive.
Truth be told, I feel extremely apathetic about it all, and I am upset as I am too sick and cannot go down to do my daily dumpling run. The relatives avoid my room like the plague, even though they try to pretend they aren’t. Sometimes a head will pop in real quick and a relative will say hurriedly “Dear Val, how are you feeling???” and then pop right back out again in record speed, god forbid some of my germs should escape the room and infect them all.
I just concentrate my best on getting better. The more I lie in my bed, the more I think about what happened back in New York, about the breakup, about him. Strange, before I got sick, when I was going down to buy dumplings daily, I dwelt less on things like these, and after my conversations with Mr. Zhang I always felt better and stopped my moaning and groaning over the breakup, if only temporarily. It’s strange for me to come to terms with the fact that I need Mr. Zhang’s company now. I miss him, in my sickbed, like I miss a dear friend. Ironically, he’s the person who makes me feel better, but now I can’t see him because I am sick.
When I finally feel well enough to get out of bed and move around, the first thing I do is rush out of my room to go downstairs. The relatives are shocked as I scramble past them, all collected on the sofa to watch the much-hyped-about opening ceremony. “Where are you going?” exclaims my aunt Jia Yi. “Val, are you well enough?” “Come here and watch the opening ceremony with us!” says my uncle Zhong Hua. He pats an empty spot on the sofa beside him. I ignore them all as I make for the door.
My mother just comes in the door as I’m rushing out, and I bump right into her. “What are you doing? You’re not well! Where are you going?” she demands. “I’m going to get us some dumplings!” I call back at her as I go down the hall to press the elevator. I can just imagine her befuddled expression. “Val”- she tries to say something, but I’ve already gotten into the elevator and do not catch the rest.
Ugh. I’ve finally escaped. I arrive in the lobby, open the front door, and breathe in that familiar fragrance of Beijing. I feel strangely happy. I don’t even know what I’m going to say to Mr. Zhang when I see him. I just know I will be happy to. Mr. Zhang will surely be full of excitement, will want to give me a huge speech about the Olympics and how important they are and how proud he is to be Chinese on this day. Maybe he will take his kite out, maybe we will watch the opening ceremony together on the little TV in the back of his shop. He will talk about his son. Hell, maybe his son will be there to watch the opening ceremony too.
I eagerly rush along. But when Mr. Zhang’s shop comes into view, I stop dead in my tracks. Mr. Zhang isn’t there. The steamers aren’t there either. Neither is the shaky table, nor the makeshift blackboards. There is tape over the walls, a big painted “DECONSTRUCT” symbol slashed onto the crumbling concrete. I’m panicking. I look to the right and the left. All the shops on that little street are closed. They all have the same “DECONSTRUCT” symbol painted on them. They are all uniformly abandoned, their empty open storefronts taunting me.
I rush across the street, reach Mr. Zhang’s shop, bang on the windows, the walls, the tape, the paint. “Mr. Zhang!” I shout, again and again. There is no answer. Who am I kidding? I know he isn’t there. Where did he go? What is this? What’s going on?! Them I remember my mother, saying “Val”- did she know something about it? Why hadn’t I stayed long enough to listen? I run back to my house. I need to know the answer. There’s a burning urgency in my chest. I feel sick.
My door is open when I reach it, rushing out of the elevator. My mother is standing there looking worried, probably looking for me. I dash over to confront her. “What’s going on, mom?” My voice is asthmatic. “Why is Mr. Zhang’s shop closed? The dumpling shop- why is it closed?”
My mom sees my wide-eyed crazed worry and attempts to calm me down by putting her hand on my shoulder. I shake it off. “Val, I was trying to tell you this when you stampeded past me. They told everyone to leave a few days ago. They’re building a new shopping mall there, part of the new city industrialization project. Now what were you doing running so fast and-”
“What?” I cut her off, incredulous. “But where did they go? Where did Mr. Zhang go? They can’t just kick him out! That’s his shop!” My mother sighs. “They must have compensated him. I suppose he went back to his hometown.” She studies my panic with worry and curiosity. “I didn’t know you were so attached to his shop. We can get our dumplings somewhere-” I cut her off again. “But he can’t!” I’m mumbling more to myself now. “He wouldn’t go back to Dongbei! His son’s still in school here in Beijing…”
This time my mother really looks at me. “Val...” she says, her face sombre. “You’re talking about Mr. Zhang, the dumpling shop owner right? He doesn’t have a son anymore.”
“What?” an iron fist hits me in the guts as I process her words. I look at her with shock and disbelief. “That’s bullshit, mom. He told me himself about his son. He has a son!”
“Hey, watch your language, young lady.” My mother shakes her head. “The neighborhood nannies told me. He lost his son 2 years ago, back in Dongbei. I’m not sure how. When he first came and set up business here, they told me that’s all he’d talk about. How he missed his son. Then his business started booming. He stopped talking about it. Got happier. Never mentioned his son again. Something like that. I don’t know, it’s all neighborhood gossip. Not reliable maybe.” She turns to look at me. “You’re ok, right?”
“No.” I’m saying, shaking my head. “No.” tears are welling up in my eyes. You remind me of my son. I don’t want to believe what my mother is telling me, but deep down inside I know it’s true. There were things Mr. Zhang wasn’t telling me too. And I thought I kept all the secrets. I run back into my room, leaving my mom standing there, bewildered. I slam the door. Slam it a few more times. But it doesn’t feel good this time. It doesn’t feel good at all. It feels terrible.
“There he is, up there, and I’m down here”, Mr. Zhang had said as the golden lined phoenix soared in the air. I should have known. I should have known. But I’m too self-absorbed to care about anyone else’s problems. Mr. Zhang was betrayed by fate, betrayed by the country he loved so much, betrayed by the damn Olympics and the damn industrialization of this damn city. I dig my fingernails into the wall and scratch down. I do it again and again.
I don’t want to see anyone. I’m sobbing in this room. Sobbing, really, for the first time in 2 months. Sobbing out of sadness, out of hurt and out of anger. I’m sobbing for Mr. Zhang at first, and his son, his kite, his little dumpling shop. And then I’m sobbing for myself. I’m thinking of the breakup, of him. The way his words had hit me like a slap in the face, the way he said he didn’t love me anymore, just like that, like a phrase of conversation, like “the weather’s good today.” The way he had found someone new in less than a week, flaunting her in front of me, her blonde hair and shiny lips, her whore of a smile. I’m sobbing in anger, and then in shame, at how I had mourned two months for this asshole, at how I had let it get to me, how I had killed myself over it, replaying the same damn scene again and again, how I had been calling his phone and getting his voicemail, as if hoping he would take me back, as if I even wanted that motherfucker back.
I wipe my tears away. Well I don’t. He can go fuck himself for all I care. I feel like a selfish bitch now. The guilt weighs down on me like an avalanche. Hadn’t I been crying for Mr. Zhang? Why did I end up crying for myself? Go figure, Valerie. That’s just the kind of person you are.
But that’s also the kind of person you choose to be. I climb back into my bed, actually thinking now.
I miss Mr. Zhang. I want dumplings. I need to stop. I need to change.
I need to stop selfishly mourning.
The days of the Olympics pass by in a kind of blur. Ever since the day I bawled my eyes out, I’ve been successfully thinking less and less about what happened in New York City. But there’s still a heart wrenching pain in my gut when I remember Mr. Zhang. I just want to know where he is now, if he’s ok, if he’s enjoying the Olympics when he was so excited about them.
My relatives crowd around the couch for every event, shouting and whooping and cheering for the Chinese team. I stay in my room most of the time, not doing much. I don’t want to watch the Olympics. I’m not interested, and I feel deep down that the Olympics have betrayed me. I only wanted to watch the opening ceremony with Mr. Zhang, and ironically that day was the day I found out he had left my life, just like all the other people before.
There’s a big racket in the living room. Evidently another event is about to start. I can here my uncle’s booming voice musing over “China’s chances.” A knock sounds at my door. I open it. It’s my mother. “Val,” she says. Her face is excited. “Come out and watch this! It’s the 50 meter rifle event!”
I’m lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. “I don’t feel like it.” I say, like an obstinate teenager. My mom is not discouraged. “Come on, Val!” she urges. “It’s very hyped about! We’re all betting for the Chinese competitor to score full points! Stop-”
I wait for her to say “bumming around and doing nothing”, but she stops herself just in time and smiles. “All right, it’s up to you dearie”, she says, turns and walks back to the living room. I smile, grateful. “All right!” I shout after her. “I’ll check it out.”
Uncle Zhong Hua has a place for me on the couch, as usual. I sit down and watch the camera zoom in on the Chinese competitor’s face as he aims at his target. Uncle Zhong Hua’s elbow is poking into my side. It’s very crowded on the couch. This better be good, I think. I’m still waiting nonchalantly, when the camera pans to the crowd for a second.
Suddenly, I’m jolted. In the crowd is what looks like Mr. Zhang’s face, even though I know I must be imagining things. How could Mr. Zhang be there? But it looks like his face all the same. The wrinkly, smiling eyes, the gap toothed grin, the top of his military style jacket, even that button missing. I rub my eyes to see clearer. But the camera is panning back now. The competitor is about to shoot.
I can’t believe it. I’m not even concentrating. Why do I think I saw Mr. Zhang just now, sitting in the audience row of the Olympic green, grinning and watching the game intently just like everyone else? I must be going crazy.
Suddenly the room explodes. My relatives are jumping up. Uncle Zhong Hua is shouting: “A perfect ten a perfect ten! First time in history! A perfect ten! We’ve won gold!” everyone is cheering. I look back to the TV. Sure enough, the Chinese competitor has hit the target right on the bulls-eye. The TV screen flashes ten points, and I clamp my hand to my mouth as I remember something.
A perfect ten.
“Ten little babies. A perfect ten.” Ten baozi dumplings, sitting in a circle at the bottom of the steamer.
I’m remembering now the day Mr. Zhang flew his kite, his calloused hands hanging on tightly to the kite thread as we watched the phoenix fly high above us in the air. “Look at this string connecting us,” he had said about his son. And they are connected, like how I am connected to Mr. Zhang, his face in the crowd as the camera panned, grinning at me with his gap- toothed grin.
That kite thread is in my hand now.
“Isn’t this kite like a lot of things in this world? Everything that’s connected, eh?”
A perfect ten, those words are resonating in my head now, again and again, like the thread of the kite I grip them tightly.
And I am cheering like the rest of them now, I am jumping up, I am whooping and screaming and I am going crazy, and somewhere I know Mr. Zhang is remembering his son, and he is watching and screaming and jumping just like me for the Olympics, for that Chinese competitor who just won gold with his bulls-eye.