BY NANCY L. CONYERS
“Lisa, I must tell you, I don’t want to rent to a Chinese,” Helen said when she and Lisa were touring Helen’s apartment in the newly opened Tai Fu Residence. Tai Fu was a garish new high rise on the Pudong side of Shanghai, covered in fake gold leaf. Even when the sun wasn’t out, the gold leaf glistened under the pollution and made people shade their eyes.
Helen was showing an apartment to Lisa Downey, an American expat who was searching for another apartment, her third in three years of living in Shanghai. Lisa hoped that a new building wouldn’t have the problems that her other apartments in older buildings had. She also hoped that Helen would be a decent landlord.
Whenever Helen spoke, she began every sentence with Lisa’s name while lightly touching her forearm. This had the disarming effect of drawing Lisa into her, as if she were using some kind of centrifugal force, and established intimacy while allowing her to keep her distance.
“Lisa, please don’t think I’m being racist when I say that. It’s just that the Chinese think differently. Do you understand my meaning?”
Lisa searched Helen’s Chinese face and asked her, “Where are you from?”
“I’m a British person who was born in Shanghai.”
Helen’s porcelain skin was light and fluid, the kind of translucent Shanghainese skin every Chinese girl yearned for. From a distance, she appeared much younger than her 51 years. She dressed in a coquettish Shanghainese way — dark leggings that stopped at the ankle, potato sack dress, fancy flats with rounded toes, and circles of shiny beads on the top. Helen told Lisa she had lived in London for the past 40 years.
“Oh, so you were born here in Shanghai but got out before the Cultural Revolution?”
“Yes, Lisa, that’s right. Now I am a British citizen — China, of course, won’t let you have dual citizenship.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“Lisa, I find there are many things people don’t know about China.” Sometimes, when she was talking Helen forgot her practiced, British manners, and she hopped ever so slightly from side to side, mimicking girls all over China.
“Do you need a ride?” Lisa asked Helen outside after they were finished viewing the apartment and had walked to the main entrance. The Shanghai air was thick with hazy grey clouds that produced a mist the locals called bad weather. The expatriates called it pollution.
“Lisa,” Helen replied in her careful, quiet tone. “That is so very kind of you but it’s not necessary.”
“Really, it’s no problem at all. I’ve got my car right here.” She pointed to her silver grey Buick mini van, the typical Shanghai expat car. Her driver was slouched across the back of the van, in a hooded red sweatshirt with MOOKUS in gold lettering across the front he’d bought in Yu Yuan, sucking on a Golden Dragon cigarette. “We can drop you off.”
“Lisa, you are so nice but mei guanxi de, it’s ok, I have my friend’s car,” Helen said then gracefully extended her left hand, palm down, in the direction of a sparkling black Bentley Arnage in front of the van. The Bentley’s driver, in a black Armani suit, black shirt, thin black tie, and bright white gloves, stood at attention on the passenger side. Upon seeing Helen, he flawlessly opened the rear passenger door and Helen backed into the spacious seat. Powder blue velvet privacy curtains adorned the passenger windows and hung across the back window. As the Bentley pulled off, Helen, half covered by the curtain, nodded her head in Lisa’s direction, smiled ethereally, and like a mirage in the desert disappeared onto Puming Lu.
“I want to tell you something Lisa,” her driver, Stone, said breathlessly as soon as she got in the van. “You know that car, Bentley, it’s really expensive! Every year, only make 50 in whole world. In China, it’s only for top government official. I think maybe she’s wife of really big Party guy!”
This flair for the dramatic was something new for Stone and Lisa appreciated it.
“She’s lived in London for almost 40 years, Stone, and has a British ID card. Anyway, she said is not married.”
“Then, I feel she is the girl friend of big Party guy.”
“Stone, that’s funny.”
“I not tell joke, Lisa. In China, that car, only government guy can have.”
As he turned left onto Puming Lu, Stone narrowly missed running into a three-wheeled recycling bicycle, which Lisa didn’t appreciate.
“Stone, be careful!” she shrieked, knowing full well he would be bu hao yisi (apologetic) and ignore what she just said.
“Will you live in her place?”
“You know, I’m not sure. It’s expensive.”
“But if you live there you can get big guanxi (connections).“ Stone looked at her in the rearview mirror and held his gaze far too long for her comfort.
“Maybe you can get big guanxi too, Stone.” Lisa had come to like the sanctity of a quiet car and generally didn’t encourage conversation with him.
“Yes, yes, this is my feeling.” He was nodding his head up and down so vigorously Lisa was afraid he’d drive off the side of the road. This was the most animated she’d ever seen him.
“Did you talk to her driver while we were inside? Did he tell you whose car it is?”
“I try, but he not want to talk, not like other driver. That driver is army guy. That’s why I think she have famous boyfriend.”
“Army guy? He was wearing a suit, not a uniform.”
“I know, I know, but he’s army guy.”
“How do you know?”
“I know he’s army guy.”
“I just know.”
“What about the security guards? Did you talk to them?”
“They say they don’t know, but I don’t believe them.”
“Hmm, very interesting, Stone, very interesting,” Lisa said as she tapped out a text message to Sheila, hoping that her disinterest would deter him from talking anymore.
“Lisa, look, the Bentley, it’s that lady!”
“Bentley, where?’ She looked up from my text message.
“There!” Stone was pointing and waving his right arm wildly. “You see, they turn left on Hengshan Lu!”
Stone was agitated and excited and it was completely throwing Lisa off their firmly established routine inside the car. Was it the car, the fact that he was seeing a Bentley or something else? She knew everyone in China is car crazy, but this was way over the top. Or, was it that he knew which government official’s car it was. This was not like him and she felt as if she were seeing him for the first time.
“Stone, why are you so crazy about this car?” She stared at the back of his head. Both of his hands were on the wheel now and his neck was ramrod straight.
“I just want know who has that car,” he said without looking at her.
“You mean who owns that car?”
“Why? Why do you want to know that? Why does it matter?”
He looked at her in the mirror and didn’t say anything. Lisa was sure he was bu hao yisi (embarrassed) and didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to tell her, but he couldn’t lie either.
“It’s ok, Stone, I just want to know why. You’ve got me interested now,” she said and smiled. Stone was a good guy, very earnest and sincere. He worried about doing the right thing, about behaving properly with Westerners and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself. He watched mostly American movies, especially cowboy movies and given the choice, Stone would listen to country western music over any other kind. His dream was to someday go to Texas and when Lisa told him that she and Sheila had both lived in Dallas he practically swooned. That bound him to them tighter than a lasso wrapped around a calf’s hooves.
“So, Stone, about the car…”
They drove a couple blocks then he said sheepishly, “I never see this car before and I feel a famous person have this car, so I am interested. Bu hao yisi.”
At this point, Lisa really was interested too. Who was this Helen and whose car was it?
“Hey Stone, do you want to follow them and see where they’re going?” He looked at her in the rear view. “I’m serious,” she told him, “Let’s follow them. Go ahead turn around.”
“Really, let’s go!”
Without looking he jerked the steering wheel to the left and made a U-turn across double yellow lines. Usually Stone drove safely, as if he’d learned to drive in the United States, not China. He always used his outside rearview mirrors and his blinker when he was changing lanes, unlike other drivers on the streets of Shanghai. This time, though, he was crazed. It wasn’t even worth screaming at him. They didn’t hit anybody or anything, did they? Stone took a right on Hengshan Lu.
“Do you see it?” Lisa asked him.
“It’s ok, just keep driving. I’ll look on the right side, you look on the left, ok?”
Hengshan Lu was one of the wide avenues in the Jin Qiao, Pudong New Area. The local government prided itself on making Jin Qiao look like a Western town. Except for the fact that the street and shop signs were in Chinese characters, when you were driving down Hengshan Lu, you could almost think you were in the West.
“Stone, look, I see it!” Lisa was becoming as excited as he was. “Over there.” The Bentley was parked in front of a large building that looked like a Bavarian chalet.
“What is this building Stone?” Lisa asked him as they pulled into the parking lot.
“I don’t know. I never come here before.”
“Me either.” There was no sign out front identifying the chalet. Pasted on the front door was what looked like a laminated sign. “Stone, I’ll wait here in the car, you go see what that sign says.”
Lisa watched as Stone ran up to the front door, read the sign, and ran back to the car even faster. He got in the driver’s seat and just sat there, staring straight ahead.
“Stone?” He didn’t respond, continued to stare.
“Stone, what is this place?”
“It is li bai tang,” he mumbled.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Li bai tang.” He turned around in his seat and looked at her. “I don’t know how to say in English.”
“Li bai tang, li bai tang. I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s, you know, the place for the God.”
The place for the God? What was he talking about? “Oohh, you mean a church, right?”
“Church,” he touched his right index finger to his forehead. “Yes, church.”
“What kind of church? I thought your government didn’t allow churches here.”
“It’s a foreigner’s church.”
“A foreigner’s church?”
“Yes, only for foreigners. You know, in China we do not have the God.”
“What does that sign say on the door?” She did not want to get into a religious discussion with Stone.
“That is too hard say in English.”
She wasn’t sure if he meant he couldn’t translate it, or if it was something difficult to talk about. “Let’s go look.” Lisa opened the door and got out but Stone stayed put in the driver’s seat. She knocked on the passenger side window and motioned for him to roll it down. “Stone, let’s go. I want to see what it says.”
“I can’t.” He stared straight ahead and wouldn’t look at her.
“What do you mean, you can’t? Let’s go look at it.”
“I can not go inside.”
“What? What do you mean you can’t you go inside?”
“Because I Chinese.”
He must have misunderstood what the sign said, but he looked so pained Lisa didn’t want to force him to get out of the car and come with her. “Ok, Stone, you wait here. I’m going to go take a look at it.”
She walked up to the door and as she got closer she could see the sign with large Chinese characters written in red. Underneath written in English was: “Shanghai Community Fellowship Church. Due To Local Regulations Open To Foreign Passport Holders Only.” She wondered what the Chinese version said since Stone was so stricken and beyond bu hao yisi.
Even though Lisa was dying to go into the church, she could tell Stone was dying a little inside, and she just couldn’t bring herself to go in and leave him sitting alone outside. She climbed into the backseat of the car, leaned forward and put her hand on Stone’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you couldn’t go in there Stone.”
He exhaled heavily.
“It’s the life, Lisa. It’s the life.”
“No ocean is as deep as class thought,” Chairman Mao proclaimed in 1958 as he kicked off the Great Leap Forward. The interior life of the individual was over and Helen’s academic parents intuitively understood that somehow, someway, they needed to get their infant daughter, then called Hua Hua, out of China if she were ever to reach her potential. They could have left China in the late 1940’s when the seeds of Communist China were being sown, but they falsely had allowed themselves to be swept away by Mao’s persistent, seductive wooing. They knew now they had to find a way to get Hua Hua out of China and into the hands of someone who could give her a life. It took years for Hua Hua’s parents to cultivate a series of worthy smugglers, people on a route from Shanghai to Hong Kong, who could be trusted with their young and tender darling.
“We don’t want you to worry, you will come back,” Hua Hua’s mother told her eight year old daughter as she slipped a tin of 18 pork dumplings into Hua Hua’s satchel the evening she left China. “When you get to Uncle Zhang’s, put these dumplings in hot water and cook them. Cold dumplings are bad for your stomach.” The last thing her mother told her before she laid down in the cart and was covered by the dusty blanket was, “Hua Hua, you are our most valuable treasure, but do not try to contact us. It will be bad for us. And, if we contact you, do not answer…it may not be us, and it may be bad for you.”
Hua Hua obeyed her parent’s instructions and allowed herself to be shepherded from Shanghai to Canton to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Hua Hua’s care was entrusted to Dr. Wang Xiao Lu, a colleague of Hua Hua’s father from Fudan University, who had fled Shanghai in 1949 with the Kuomintang. Dr. Wang became Hua Hua’s de facto father until former his colleague, Dr. Peter Ware and his wife, Agnes, arrived from London to adopt a child they believed was clever, yet heathen.
Eight year olds have a way of being present, in the moment and of looking forward. Hua Hua was a clever girl, quick-brained and sure-footed, and the memory of her parents, while implanted in her heart, grew dimmer and dimmer with each passing month. Dr. Ware and Agnes took Hua Hua as their own, renamed her Helen and gave her everything they knew would never have been available to her in China — a finishing school education, Oxford, Cambridge, fine diamonds, proper scones and clotted cream with her tea — black tea, not the anaemic flower sort. The past was the past and they were giving her the future.
Helen had always maintained a sense of the present. She found it did her no good to look too far into the future or delve too far into the past so when the letter arrived, she would not open it. For weeks it lay in the silver Tiffany mail tray on the chifferobe in the entrance hall, dirty and crumpled, sullying the graceful entryway. Helen walked past it without so much as a glance. Then one evening as soon as the help had left and she had the house to herself, she poured a glass of sherry, sat in carefully cut open the tattered onion skin envelope with the silver Tiffany letter opener and read:
“Qing Ai de Hua Hua, Wo men hen xiang hen xiang ni. Ni hao ma? We miss you so much. How are you? Things are fine in China now. It is our deepest hope this letter finds you well, and that we may be reunited with the daughter we have never forgotten. Please come back to us. We are waiting for you. Your loving Mama & Baba.”
Helen folded the letter, laid it on her lap, and took a generous sip of sherry and stared at the grandfather clock.
I don’t know these people.
About the author
“Tender Darling” is adapted from a novel Nancy L. Conyers is writing entitled “A Walk in the Mist,” the story of an American expat lesbian couple whose lives are changed by the Chinese friends they make and the experiences they have while living in Shanghai. The novel’s title stems from Dōgen, the Japanese 13th century Buddhist monk who found enlightenment while studying in Zhèjiāng province. Of his time there, Dōgen said, “When you walk in the mist you get wet.”
Her stories and essays have been published in Tiferet, Alluvium, The Citron Review, Lunch Ticket, The Manifest-Station, and Role Reboot. She contributed the last chapter to Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child. Nancy has been an official and unofficial trailing spouse in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Italy, Sweden, and Singapore. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, LA, and is currently enrolled on the novel writing certificate program at Stanford University.
Her website is www.nancylconyers.com.