BY CLEO QIAN
It was early fall when I arrived in Suzhou. The leaves were turning, the crowds at the classical gardens were getting thinner, and at the university language center, where I worked as a writing tutor, there was only one other fellow, a Princeton graduate named Marcus. He was a typical white-man-in-China, well-spoken, well-educated, well-read and well-intentioned. I automatically disliked him on principle, not least because his Mandarin was better than mine. The only other person we worked with, our boss, was in his mid-thirties, with a coarse bird’s nest of dark hair that spiraled away from his forehead in a most appealing way, and a clear treble voice which always sounded sad and somewhat distracted.
The university gave me an apartment, a long, bright studio within walking distance of the school. It had no gas burner to cook on. I stockpiled bread from the convenience store and drank tea by the floor-to-ceiling window in the mornings.
As far as Chinese cities go, Suzhou was considered new tier 1, which is a step below tier 1, the ranks of the biggest metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai. It was a city of whispering water and stone gardens, multi-level department stores, mopeds and convenience stores with faded signs. My view of the city was lazy and grey, with chain stores and clusters of orange bicycles and laundry airing on balconies underneath an always cloudy sky. Which was to say, it was not a familiar view, and I never forgot I was a stranger to this city.
Our first week at the job, my boss took us to a Korean fried chicken restaurant near campus. It was still warm enough to sit outside. He ordered beers and paid for the food, then leaned back in his chair, smoking a cigarette whose thin trail dissipated into the air. His conversation branched off rapidly. He was a prodigious reader of various ephemera: he talked about the restoration of Yi Pu Garden, the cloud forest conservatory in Singapore, the work with fiber optics one of the campus labs was doing, and all the while he barely touched his food. His English was energetic if not entirely fluid. The focus of his attention was intense when it landed, but distractible and erratic. Marcus joined him in smoking and I leaned away from the smell.
But in truth, I didn’t mind the smoking. I liked listening to that low flow of words and barely connected ideas under the nicotine haze perfuming the evening air, which I inhaled along with a glorious feeling of invisibility. As I listened to him speak, I thought of Melissa, in faraway Stockholm, who was also a great talker. Earlier, she’d posted an Instagram photo of a bright, leafy café lunch with the torso of someone I assumed was her boyfriend. She would have had much to say about everything, about my apartment, Marcus, my boss, the fact that I was actually in China, and I remembered that she had visited Suzhou when she was young. I thought of texting her, but even after the three of us parted ways after the meal, I didn’t.
Before I moved there, I often said I had a lot of thoughts about China. This was shorthand for covering up the truth that I had views on China which were contradictory and made me uncomfortable. Some of those thoughts were:
- China was the motherland. The ancestral home. It was the vast, sprawling, welcoming land where I, despite the facts of my birthplace, passport, education, and the country where I had spent the overwhelmingly large proportion of my life, was truly “from.”
- I did not understand China. I only half-understood the culture, and half-understood the language.
- But I loved China. I had to love China, because it was where I was from and where I automatically and naturally belonged, unlike America.
- Besides which, America was evil.
- Not only was America evil, America was deeply, incredibly uncool. I had always felt that to be singled out as an American was very embarrassing.
- However (this I also did not like to admit to myself) China might also be evil.
But I couldn’t bear to think that my country—and China was my country, despite everything—could be evil, and I exoticized it myself, polishing my dreams of my would-be life there like a fetish figurine to be worshipped and kept on a stone altar. I felt, no, I believed, that
- If I went there, that country both homeland and exotic, and understood it, then through this experience I would change and become a full person. I would nourish the half of me that had always been stunted, and by gaining the knowledge and full identity and sense of enoughness I had been denied the rest of my life, my full selfhood would be reclaimed.
The year I lived in China, Korean media was banned because of THAAD and Chinese military operations were advancing further into the South China Sea. For two months, I made no friends. I went to bars and restaurants alone, but I found it hard to talk to anyone. I looked the same as anyone else in the restaurants; there was nothing to indicate I was an outsider or different, and thus my presence incited no curiosity. This was a comforting change from the constant alienation of my life in America but it also worked against me.
Whenever I returned to my apartment, I sank into an unmovable lethargy. On social media, Melissa posted photos of cake in Vienna, train stations in Florence, the waterfront in Stockholm, always with the rangy shadow of Casper half in-frame. For the last two years of college, she and I had been best friends. The summer after graduation, while I was still in New York and she was just starting her new teaching job in Europe, we talked every day, we called each other all the time. Until Casper came along. They must be traveling Europe together, I deduced; he must be practically moved in with her by now. Meanwhile, the most exploring I did was walking along the fruit stalls and cheap electronics stores in the two blocks around my apartment. I started tutoring on weekends at a college prep company Marcus also part-timed at. Under the terms of the fellowship this wasn’t technically allowed, but the cash was hard to trace.
On days when I didn’t want to go back to my empty studio, I would stay late at the language center and listen to my boss talk. He was always able to fill the silence and never asked about my personal life. Once, I stayed late designing a set of flyers. It was just the two of us there. He brought me a cup of tea in a paper cup. When I finally got up to leave, he thanked me for staying late, and put a hand on top of my head. For a single moment, I thought about kissing him.
I fell in love often when I lived in Suzhou.
Not long after that, I went to a hair salon to get a cut and dye. The stylist was meticulous, a young man with fluffed-up dyed hair and a quiet demeanor. I closed my eyes as he shampooed my hair, running warm water over my head. When he pressed his fingers along my scalp, firmly but ever so lightly, my heart quivered. Gentleness, any gentleness, touched me so easily then.
Most evenings, I ordered fried chicken from the same student hot spot near campus and took the food back to my studio, where I streamed Korean TV dramas and celebrity interviews with my VPN or played Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom until two in the morning. These were things I had done as a high schooler and I was filled with the sickening and yet satisfying feeling of regression into immaturity.
The basic structure of Hakuoki, as with any otome game, is that you play a female character surrounded by five (or so) guys, and by the end of the game, one of them will be in love with you. The contexts differ—you could be playing a young woman captured by Shinsengumi samurai in the Edo period, a high school girl who time travels into the past at an archaeological dig, the first female student at a previously all-boys school, an older version of Alice in a Wonderland where the Mad Hatter, the Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat are all hot guys—but the male archetypes are pretty universal. There was the hyperactive younger boy type, the cool “prince” type, the cold intellectual type, the hard-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside tsundere and his inverse, soft-on-the-outside-mean-on-the-inside yandere.
Choosing the right thing to say from a menu of options gave you romance points. You play different routes depending on which character you want to fall in love with you, and you can replay the game over and over to get all the characters. Visually, I tended to go for the hot guy with glasses, especially if he had a touch of mischief to him. I was also weak for the tsundere type. The nice, gentle ones and the strong and silent ones didn’t interest me, which maybe said something about my attachment style. In Hakuoki, I restarted the Okita route: the best swordsman of the Shinsengumi, cocky, smart-mouthed, mischievous and cold-hearted. When I had accumulated enough romance points, he would say coded things like, “It’d be troubling if you were scared of me.”
Sometimes I also played the games where you were a male character surrounded by females of various types who fell in love with you. Those tended to have sex scenes.
It was my idea to go dancing with Tenten and Marcus on the night I met Zero-One. Tenten, a Chinese girl two years older than me who had studied at George Washington University, taught math at the same tutoring company. She had lustrous skin and rosy cheeks, and fine-boned hands perfectly suited for music, which she knew nothing of.
I was feeling suddenly, acutely, restless, aware of the fact that I was wasting my time, that I was boring, that I was alone, that I would only be twenty-two for so long. That morning, Melissa had texted me a photo. I opened the message and saw a picture of a table decked out with food. She’d written: How’s China? We had a work potluck, I made cookies!
She had posted the exact same photo on her Instagram the day before. At the club, I didn’t know how to move. I bobbed my head up and down and moved my shoulders a little bit and was embarrassed. Tenten plied me with drinks trying to get me to loosen up. Two Brazilian girls came over with mojitos. Under their long, loosely glimmering brown hair they had sweet, young faces and wore sequined tops the size of handkerchiefs, showing flat, beautiful stomachs.
“What are you doing in Suzhou?” I wanted to know. It wasn’t like this was a party city. People were looking at the two girls. They stuck out. Marcus, too, was singled out for his whiteness; I could see Chinese girls closing in on him at the bar. One of the Brazilian girls coughed, embarrassed, and said she’d been dating a guy in Shanghai but—
“He was an asshole,” the friend said.
I looked at them more closely. “Are you guys underage?”
They admitted yes, they were. “I’m Luna,” I introduced myself to them. The alcohol, three or four drinks in, was getting to me and the room was spinning. I had the beginnings of a headache. The two girls pulled me and Tenten out from the table to dance. Their hair fell sexily over their shoulders. They were good dancers, shimmying effortlessly, and they were also kind, putting their hands on my hips and trying to show me how to move. I tried, but my body wouldn’t obey. Tenten held onto my hands and tried to shake the beat down my arms. “Luna!” she tried to cheer. “Come on!”
For a moment I saw myself as others would see me: tight around the mouth, with a stiff, awkward expression, someone who was repressed, controlled, with a nervous, people-pleasing smile. A hard and uncomfortable person. Who would want to be friends with someone like that? Who would love someone like that?
The next morning, I woke up with a nauseating hangover. My phone had several messages. I tossed it away without reading them, boiled water to drink and washed my face in the sink. I looked in the mirror and felt like I could see what I’d look like when I got old.
It was Sunday. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do. After showering, I sat in front of the computer and played Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two, one of the dating simulations where you played male characters going after female love interests. I ordered delivery from the restaurant my boss had taken us to: Korean fried chicken. It was a taste I never got tired of, the crunch of the skin and give of the meat, the tang of the seasoning made from soy sauce and gochujang and ginger and sesame seeds—a taste that never failed to make me feel happy, whole, even loved.
But that morning, when the chicken came, when I started eating, the meal grew heavy in my mouth. My chewing slowed. I wiped my hands with a napkin and dabbed at my mouth; inexplicably, tears leapt to life at the corners of my eyes. I’d eaten this far too often, all by myself. Now it only reminded me of all the other solitary, messy meals I’d had before.
I went to go wash my face and hands again. My phone buzzed and I picked it up automatically, seeing a WeChat notification.
___01100101: Nice to meet you, America
The contact was unfamiliar. The profile picture was of a jellyfish, the user ID all zeroes and ones, a string that could almost have been binary code: ___01100101.
__01100101: You were very drunk
Do you feel O.K. ?
I couldn’t remember who he was, but we must have added each other at some point in the night, or how could he have my number?
I scrolled through my other texts. There was one from Marcus, one from Tenten, and then, below her name, Melissa’s. She was going back to Wisconsin to see her boyfriend for Christmas. Was I going home? She would “love”—her words—to catch up. Did I want to vidchat?
Her message was so casual, it made me angry.
What was I supposed to say to that?
I closed out of her window and texted the Zero-One guy back: I feel okay, thanks
His reply was quick.
___01100101: Have some water, eat something, don’t be hungry
I didn’t feel like I could ask his name when I didn’t know what I had told him. I had a dim memory of a man in a red shirt at the bar, then someone, maybe Marcus, maybe Tenten, pulling me away. Maybe he was one of those locals who wanted to practice English with me, which always made me feel slightly used. On the other hand, his messages were caring, even parental.
Me: I’m eating right now
On the computer, I clicked through a confession scene. The girl led the boy to the school rooftop and they started having sex. The video game zoomed in on her face. The girl was all flushed anime face with squeaky moans. Was that what desire sounded like?
I paused on an image of her wet, half-closed eyes. Sex had never been like that for me. The last time I had had sex, I’d gone into Shanghai to go on a date with an Australian being trained as a chef. I didn’t know if I was actually attracted to him and tried to make up my mind all afternoon. He brought me back to the single room he had in a dingy dorm.
Halfway through making out I decided I didn’t want to be there and told him I was on my period, which was true, but he had wanted to have sex anyway. So I lay on my back with my neck crooked and my head hitting against the headboard because I was too high up on the bed. The smell of menstrual blood rose between us when he was done.
___01100101: I’m playing basketball with some friends today
I put my phone away and didn’t respond. Some minutes later, it buzzed again.
___01100101: It’s Sunday, take it easy
After my next shift at the college prep center, Tenten and I went to Starbucks, where I paid my hard-earned tutoring dollars for an Americano that cost the same as it did in America, which was to say, very expensive for China. Tenten drank tea and wore a white blouse.
I showed her Melissa’s messages, which I had still not answered. I wasn’t sure what to reply, and so had said nothing. But why did I have to respond, when I had nothing to say to her except “I’m angry”?
Tenten threw her long hair behind her shoulder. “Well, this is normal,” she said. “You shouldn’t take it so personally. If you got a boyfriend, you would talk to your friends less, too.”
I looked at the window behind her neck. The smog was heavy outside, and I saw a lot of people wearing medical masks. Schoolgirls often seemed to go up and down with their arms linked. Tenten’s neck was very pretty, so soft I yearned to lean against it, and she sometimes liked to link arms or put a hand around me and pat the side of my head. “I don’t think I would,” I said. “It’s rude to dump a friend like that.”
Tenten frowned, impatient. “It doesn’t mean you’re not important. But you can’t blame people for living their lives. She fell in love. What doesn’t change in three years?”
In the weeks after the club, Zero-One had been texting me periodically. It was only short, easy messages, how are you, how was work. He still called me America. My answers were never long, but even so, I felt cared for, I looked forward to getting his check-ins. All I knew about him was that he worked in insurance, and mentioned James Bond movies. I imagined what kind of person he might be. Awkward? Tall? I got the feeling he was short. Maybe the kind of person that had been class president in school, good at taking care of others.
I didn’t go home for the holidays, instead spending New Year’s with my grandparents in Shanghai. Fireworks blasted the sky at midnight, and I stayed inside, watching them on the television while my grandmother cracked sunflower seeds. We called my parents in Long Beach, who said my Chinese had improved. Melissa posted her New Year’s resolutions on Facebook, and we didn’t wish each other a happy new year. In Hakuoki, I was working my way through the Saito route—purple-haired and handsome, cool, calm, serious and collected. Unlike Okita, Saito had no sense of humor and never spoke unnecessarily. When I had maneuvered my way into getting my first compliment from him, I grinned.
The semester ended near the close of January. Marcus and I found ourselves busy with students asking us to help revise their papers, which often meant just writing them wholesale. My boss began disappearing for long stretches of time, and I didn’t know what he was doing. In the new year, I grew more restless, anxious at the slow passage of hours. At work, I would get up to refill my teacup, sit down to work and drink from the cup, then get up again to find only five minutes had passed. Marcus was applying to other positions. He wanted to stay in China after our fellowship was over.
One night, we held an event and my boss and I were the last to leave the auditorium. I had stayed, though I didn’t have to, to help fold all the chairs. At the door, my boss put his hand on my head a second time and said “Good work, Luna,” so casually it was almost cruel.
Finally, I asked Zero-One to meet. His text messages had become a quiet rhythm in my life, though we had only progressed to what did you eat today? And Did you see the video with the little girl singing soprano? Still, it felt very natural for me to ask him, Do you want to do something this weekend? It felt equally natural when he said How’s Sunday?, and suggested Pingjiang Lu, one of the historic streets near two of the classical gardens. When I examined my feelings, I felt calm, not nervous. I finally told Tenten about him, the fact that I voiced his existence making him, at last, real. I bought new loafers, black, and a green wool skirt.
On Sunday, I went to Pingjiang Lu. The open-window storefronts sold steamed cakes, dried tea, ice cream, candied hawthorn. I was early, and stopped inside a small shop for a crepe, where I ate it slowly, listening to music.
___01100101: On my way!
We were meeting at a barbecue restaurant. When I arrived, I sat on the bench inside and checked my lipstick with the compact. Now I did feel nervous. I was wearing a white beanie and told him to look for it. What was he wearing? When I texted him asking, he didn’t reply.
There wasn’t much light in the restaurant, but it wasn’t crowded. I kept turning my face to the door and then turning it away, so it wouldn’t seem like I was watching for Zero-One when he arrived. The rich aroma of meat floated into the atrium and my stomach growled. The waitress, dressed in red, looked bored.
It took forty-five minutes and three unanswered text messages before I realized he wasn’t coming.
I got to my feet and started walking. It was cold; it was still winter. The street winded along a long river. On either side were lovely, classical houses strung with lights, casting subtle reflections into the water. Tendrils of tree leaves hung over white stone bridges.
Night darkened. I got hungrier and hungrier. My feet felt incredibly light. I walked back and forth along the long road, passing stores selling bird cages, postcards, English tea cups, jade. The sightseers and families thinned out. The stores shuttered. Then I was one of the last few people still on Pingjiang Lu, and I sat on a stone bench next to a short bridge by the river, looking at the calligraphic graffiti scrawled on the white wall across.
I had the same feeling of disbelieving reality as the first night I had sat in that Korean fried chicken restaurant with Marcus and my boss, the two of them blowing smoke up into the sky. I was not sad. I felt, very simply, that this was the most obvious, inevitable outcome. Of course Zero-One hadn’t shown up. What kind of person would have shown up? What kind of person would send texts every day to someone he had met once and knew nothing about, and what kind of person would answer?
I put my elbows on my knees and leaned my chin on my hands. I was aware that from the outside, my life looked pathetic. I stayed in with my games and my fantasies. I spent my time and emotions with people that were not real, literally or figuratively. I was embarrassed, yes, at the thought of how other people might perceive me if I admitted this. And yet it made me happy. No one knew the extent of my happiness, alone in my room, while I was building the romance points on one of the otome game routes, or when I was watching a video with a faraway actor or thinking about who the person might be behind Zero-One’s texts. Those moments, I was happier than real life ever made me.
I opened up the last, unanswered message from Melissa and scrolled up. Past her last two texts, there were the short, defensive replies I had made and terse inquiries as we’d drifted apart, and before that, swelling like a wave, the texts grew thicker and thicker, gales of conversation, long paragraphs and bursts of short intense sentences, records of hours-long phone calls.
We had talked so much, we were always talking. I thought of her familiar voice, her flat affect, the droll way she said “Hey.” I could summon all the evenings we spent in our regular place in K-Town, the Korean fried chicken restaurant she had taken me to on that first day we’d hung out.
In Stockholm, it would be late afternoon. I opened up our chat window and called her. The phone rang, and my memories fled downstream, flowing with the river. We’d met in a class on human rights, the only two Asians in the class. I vividly remembered the revelation of the meal we had together at the restaurant she’d chosen, the industrial lightbulbs, the wooden counters, the hard stools, the conversation, our fingers sticky with the chicken sauce. Of course I had loved her. We had spent so much time together, it couldn’t have meant nothing.
But when Melissa did pick up, when she did say “Hello?” sounding startled, and a little guarded, I knew we were already far gone from that old place. “Hey,” I said, curling my fingers over the phone. I’d walked halfway up the low bridge and leaned against a column. “Um. What are you doing right now?”
Below me, the river quivered as though suppressing tears.
What would we say to each other from where we were standing now? On either side of the phone line, what feelings were waiting to come greet us?