WEDNESDAY: Monica in Beijing


Copyright is held by the author.

MONICA STOOD, legs crossed in desperation, and stared at the two signs. Which one had Wu said was female? While she was standing there, she was saved when she saw a woman enter the door on the right. She raced in behind her and thanked her lucky stars that she had remembered to bring toilet paper.

Wu was waiting for her at the cafeteria table when she returned. “Ready?” he asked with a smile.

“Yup.” Monica smiled back. “Hey, I just realized I don’t have any money. Fork some over.”

“How much do you want?”

“I don’t know, maybe Y100.

“Don’t say anything to the vendors and be prepared to walk away,” Wu said, handing over Y100.

“I know, I know. You’ve told me. Your mother’s told me. Be quiet Monica. Don’t say anything, Monica. Don’t show that you like something, Monica.”

At that they entered consumer madness, jostled by international tourists who had come like Monica and Wu to find a deal in the Silk Market.

“Look lady, you want to buy a bag?”

Hands grabbed Monica’s arm, pulling her into booths. Wu just as quickly pulled her out.

“Look, look, North Face, Canada Goose. Buy jacket. Very good price.”

Monica and Wu exchanged glances and walked into the booth.

“I have your size. What colour you like?

Wu started speaking Mandarin with the salesclerk while Monica looked around.

The saleslady was in her face. “You want to try one. Here. I know your size. Try. Try.”

Monica tried it on. It was a good fit but Monica remembered Wu’s words and remained silent as the saleslady named a price.

“I’ll give you a very good price. Y500. This is my special price because you are Chinese.

Wu countered with Y100.

The saleslady screamed as if she were under attack. “You don’t want me to eat? I can’t make any money on that price, but I know you want a better price. I’ll give you Y480.

Wu responded with the same number, Y100.

“Oh, you really don’t like me. Why so little? Come on. Okay, okay. Y450. Wu implacably returned with his Y100. When the negotiations had reached Y200 the saleslady appeared to get angry and refused to lower her price any further. This was Monica’s cue to leave the booth and start walking away with Wu behind her. This was the final rule. If the saleslady wasn’t budging then you left and you left the momentary object of your heart’s desire behind.

As they walked away from the booth Monica complained to Wu.

“I really liked that jacket. Why didn’t you just give her Y200?”

“Because, it’s the principle of the thing. I wanted to get the jacket for 100Y.”

“But it’s worth more than that. It’s not a big different to us.”

“100 Y is a lot of money. It is a big difference.”

“Yes, okay, here it is. I know, but in Canada . . .”

“Well maybe, I guessed too low.” Wu finally conceded. “We’ll just go to another booth. They’re selling the same jacket everywhere.”

“God! What a lot of work! Time or money, it’s the same everywhere.”

Wu spent the next several hours haggling with the shop clerks while Monica stood on the sidelines.

They exited the centre onto a split avenue lined with exhausted looking trees covered in dust. Even in their dim shade the heat was intense, the pace frenetic. It took almost 15 minutes for them to hail a taxi. When they finally got one Monica and Wu collapsed onto the back seat.

Their two children, Connor, nine, and Marcus, seven, were happy to see them when they returned and were full of excitement about what they had done which involved a paddle boat on a lake in an imperial garden somewhere in Beijing.

They had dinner in a local restaurant with Wu’s parents. Dinner involved a fair bit of discussion between Wu’s mother and Wu. They flipped through the menu, Wu’s mother and Wu disagreeing over what to order until a fair number of dishes had arrived at the table, anyway. Monica felt slightly offended that she had not been asked what she would like to eat but then she reasoned with herself. Why would they bother asking? She knew she wasn’t that familiar with the dishes and it really didn’t matter if she ate this or that. She felt that almost everything she ate in China was delicious, anyway, but even so.

When the table was silent at one point Wu said, “Monica, remember how you wanted to go to the summer palace with the boys? Maybe you could go tomorrow. We have to see some relatives but we’re seeing them in the evening so you can go during the day.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Monica suddenly felt anxious.

“No, I was planning on visiting a friend of mine. Do you want me to come?”

“Well, I’m a bit nervous about taking a taxi by myself. What if the driver doesn’t know where we’re going and we get lost.”

“I know. That’s happened to you before. God, Monica, you really need to learn some Mandarin. It would be so much easier.”

At Wu’s words Monica shut down. It’s true she thought. I should learn more Mandarin. She had tried over the years but she felt so defeated by the tones, never getting any of them right, never finding anyone who was patient with her struggle, who would help her.

“Earth to Monica.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I was just saying that my mother could go with you to the Summer Palace.

“Oh. That would be nice.” Monica turned to her mother-in-law and said “xie, xie” using the best tones she could muster even though her mother-in-law spoke fluent English.

The next morning after Monica had finished getting herself and her two children ready, she found Wu’s mother was already waiting, elegant in sandals, a skirt, sunglasses and a fashion watch. Even when they went outside she seemed oblivious to the heat that surrounded them like swaths of moist, giant cotton batting.

The boys started arguing the minute they left the building. “It’s my turn at the door of the taxi.”

“No, it’s mine.”

Connor interrupted the argument to ask, “Are there going to be paddle boats there?”

“I don’t know Connor. I hope so,” Monica answered.

Wu’s mother was busy chatting to the taxi driver. Monica stared glumly out the window at the passing grey of the city. Buildings, bridges, roads, dusty grass, smog-laden sky; Beijing was an environmental disaster, more cars now than bicycles and people arriving from the farm daily. Rare glimpses of beauty would pass the window, a fashionable young woman in gay colours on a new bicycle , a newly restored traditional building with bright paint outlining detail that had been buried under grime for decades, glimpses of sky scrapers, each one more fantastical than the next. Monica had felt over her visits that it was the life inside that was interesting in Beijing, not the one outside in which it was so difficult to find serenity or charm or character. The taxi pulled up to the Summer Palace. As they climbed out of it they were hit by a wall of heat. Monica could feel the sweat pooling at her knees and running down her legs.

“Mommy,” asked Connor, “can we have an ice-cream” and without even waiting for an answer he turned to his grandmother,“Bingjiling, Nai-Nai?”

“It’s too early. Let’s wait. We can buy it anywhere.”

Marcus started: “I want some water. I’m thirsty.”

Monica couldn’t believe it but there was actually a line-up to buy a ticket which of course involved more waiting around in the heat. Her mother-in-law took a spot in the line, waiting patiently and then moved ahead to buy the tickets. After they had gone through the gates Monica asked her where she thought they should go.

Connor asked, “Have you been here before, Nai-Nai?”

“Oh yes, many times.”

“When you were a little girl?”

“Also then.”

“So, what’s your favourite place?”

“Why don’t I show all of you?”

“That would be nice,” said Monica thankful for the guidance and the decisive way her mother-in-law was taking charge of “her” adventure.

They wound their way over walkways covered by lacquered ceilings, past a lake with the boats the boys had asked about, continued up well-trodden paths, past countless tea houses until eventually they stopped at one of them. Luckily for the boys one of the ubiquitous ice-cream sellers was there and so finally that wish of theirs could be granted.

Monica and her mother-in-law sat in the shade of the tea house.

“Do you know why this is my favourite spot, not just in the Summer Palace but in Beijing?”

“No, why?”

“This is where my first husband, Lao Hou, proposed to me. It was not very fashionable at that time to come to these places but one day we rode out here on our bicycles and wandered around. When we finally stopped here for a rest Lao Hou proposed. Of course he had no ring or anything, he was very poor and it really wasn’t customary but he asked me and I said “Yes.”

“I didn’t know that you had been married before.”

“We were only married for a short time, one year, six months and three days and then,” she paused for dramatic effect, “he died.”

“Oh!” said Monica. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago, almost 50 years now but I still think of him as a young man even though he’d be as old as me by now.”

“So, what did you do?” Monica felt stricken by the image of her mother-in-law as a young, tearful widow and could only imagine herself without Wu.

“Oh, carried on,” said her mother-in-law matter of factly. “I finished university, got a job and a few years later I met Lao Wang and we had Wu and his sister, but I learned a very important lesson from all that.”

Just then they heard Marcus screaming and breaking into pitiful sobs.

Monica sighed. “It’s Marcus and Connor. Sorry. I want to hear the rest. Just give me a minute.”

She walked over to where Marcus’ ice-cream lay on the stone, liquefying.

“Connor knocked the ice-cream out of my hand when we were playing and then he knocked me over.”

Connor immediately jumped in, “It’s not my fault. He should have held onto his ice-cream and he pushed me first so I just pushed him back.”

Monica gave another exasperated sigh and walked to the ice-cream vendor to buy another ice-cream for Marcus. “This time, sit down and eat it. Don’t play while you’re holding it.”

“I’ll sit with you and Nai-Nai,” said Marcus catching Monica’s hand with his as they returned to the pavilion. Nai-Nai had pulled out a washcloth and was wiping her face as they approached.

“Is he all right?”

“Oh yeah. It’s just the usual brother stuff. Nothing serious. But go on with your story. You were telling me about the important lesson you learned.

“Well,” continued Wu’s mother. “I had to learn how to stand.”

Monica shook her head. “To stand?”

“You know. To stand, to be independent.”

“Oh, you mean to stand on your own two feet?”

“That’s right. I had to learn how to stand on my own two feet.”

“But how did you learn that? Weren’t you doing that already?”

“Oh, remember the times were different then. I had expected Lao Hou to take care of me, to look after me, to become like another father but then he died and I was no longer a girl to be looked after by a father nor did I have a husband. I had only me. So you see I had to learn how to be independent.”

“I get it. I think,” said Monica. “You didn’t grow up thinking you would be alone without someone to look after you. I guess I didn’t really think that either. First there was my father and now there’s Wu.”

“Yes, but the times are different,” said Wu’s mother a little impatiently.

“Oh,” said Monica, stung by her mother-in-law’s tone.

“Today it seems everyone is independent. No one needs anyone. I don’t think that’s good. We all need someone and we all want to be needed, but now it’s more of an equal partnership. Even with Lao Wang, I have my money and he has his and I like it that way.”

“Oh,” said Monica again. “Even when you were raising your kids?”

“Sure. I always worked. Enough of my past. Shall we take the boys to the boats?”

“The boats. The boats. We want the boats,” chanted the boys, for once agreeing.

Later that day when everyone had gone to bed and the hum of the air-conditioning drowned out their murmuring voices, Wu and Monica lay chatting.

“Did you know your mother was married before?”

“Oh, my god! She told you that story?”

“What do you mean?”

“About Lao Hou and how they got married while they were in university and then he ran off with another woman?”

“What? No! He died.”

Wu snorted. “He didn’t die. He took off.”

“Wow, your mother spoke of him with such sadness. I had the feeling he was the love of her life.”

“He certainly trashed her pride, but I don’t know about the love of her life.”

“Well, how do you know about the story? Did your mother tell you about him?”

“Oh no, of course not. I found out through other family members.”

“But why would she tell me such a revised version of the story?”
“Who knows?” said Wu. “It’s all ancient history. Anyway, I have to get some sleep now.”

As Wu turned his back Monica closed her eyes and tried to find a more comfortable position on the cushions. After she had found her position she could feel her body slowly relaxing, entering into the giant wave of sleep, feeling its long slow pull. As sleep was pulling her under she saw an image on the movie in her mind. It was a portrait in the new Chinese style of a perfect comrade whom she recognized as Wu. He was portrayed as a giant and there she was, hanging on to his left hand, so small that she barely reached his hips. She was completely clothed in acquisitions from their recent shopping expeditions down to her Dolce Gabbano knock off sunglasses and fake Rolex. Monica was so startled by the image that she woke up, dismissing it as an after effect of touring all the art galleries in the old industrial area earlier that week. But, as she was falling asleep again her brain threw up shui-jiao (sleep) and ming tien (tomorrow) — two words she hadn’t realized she knew until then.

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  1. A sweet story, Michele, but I’m a sucker for stories about Asians told by gaijin (foreigners). Wish your story had been a little tighter. A few descriptive words and a phrase of two is all it takes to set character and location.

  2. Walter: She set the location and the environment well: The market, restaurant and Summer Palace and particularly the dust and the steamy heat. But I do agree that the story could have been tighter. The characters didn’t seem like a fit. Wu came across as a man-child, a bit of a bully-boy really whose attitude came across as — my country, my rules. Other questions popped up: Is this her first trip to China? Have they moved there? Why do the boys have Anglo names? The writing was fine, we just needed some more exposition.

  3. Great story Michele, especially the ending. I totally felt the heat, the dust and the madness of Beijing. I did think Monica should have gone back and bought that jacket though.

  4. A excellent read! I agree that the story conjures Beijing in the heat of the summer very well. I felt an immediate connection to the characters especially the mother-in law. Thought the story flowed very nicely. The last paragraph I reread several times. So rich with imagery. Well done, Michelle.

  5. I liked this Michele, very enjoyable read. Lots of dialogue moves it forward. Enjoyed the mother-in-law and the tender and dignified story, then a surprising twist. Good finish!

  6. Lovely! Great voices! I felt like was there. It really moved along. What’s not to like about it? Nothing.

  7. […] we re-post a favourite story or poem from the CommuterLit archives. Today we present the story, “Monica in Beijing.” Click on the link to […]

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