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《Fatal Weakness》CHAPTER TWO: Drug Scare

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热度1372票 时间:2011年3月24日 08:33
Maintaining my composure, I say goodbye to Director Zhou and try my best to walk like people in lobbies of five-star hotels do, holding my head high as I move towards the hotel front door. As I pass through the hotel's majestic pillars, I see a reflection of Director Zhou, still standing in the coffee shop, watching intently as I leave, and I suddenly feel both perplexed and uneasy. Sitting in the coffee shop, Director Zhou noticed the three times I looked at my watch, at each mention that he had phoned my parents. I really would have liked to stay with him a bit longer, but today is Sunday, and now it's almost dinnertime. I haven't been to see my parents for three weeks already.

Trotting out the hotel doors, I wave down a taxi, pulling open the door before the car even stops, and jump in. I tell the driver my parents' address, close my eyes and try to relax, but my mind won't stop racing. On my first Sunday in the police station, I thought about giving mom and dad a call, but then again I didn't know at the time how long I was going to be in for, and I wasn't about to lie to my parents in front of the police, not to mention that I had no phone number to give them, so I let that thought go. Then for the two weeks after that I didn't call either; at the time, I just thought that they'd have gotten over me not coming over for dinner the first week, so there was no reason they couldn't in the weeks after. At least that's what I thought at the time.

Dad's a retired high school teacher, mom's a retired doctor. Dad's already 77 this year, and mom just had her 75th birthday. In hopes they'd enjoy their old age, a few years ago I brought them down to Guangzhou from my home in Hubei and put them up in an apartment I'd bought on the south bank of the Pearl River, myself moving up to Huiqiao New City in the new development district in the north side of the city. Ever since, when I haven't been away on business, I go to my parents' place for dinner every Sunday night. Though even now my parents still don't understand a word of Cantonese, and their range of activity is limited to the few surrounding blocks and the boulevard next to the river, nor do they know many people, the climate is pleasant here, the city bustling; compared to the lifelessly cold winters and hot summers back in Hubei, here my parents are usually full of smiles, never letting people forget, exaggeratedly, just how filial and able a son they have. All in all, they are growing old gracefully; but even a more comfortable environment, a better climate or mood still won't take back the years. What is messed up, though, is that just when they started enjoying the good life, they became that much more aware that they don't have that much time left. And the more sentimental they get, the more alarmed they are. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if I've done the right thing; doing all I can to make them as comfortable and happy in their final few years has just made them all the more attached to life. Naturally, fear of death is growing in their hearts, but there's nothing else I can do. It's taken me years of struggle to even just get them out of the countryside.

The taxi stops at our community gate. I don't have change, so I hand the driver a fifty and tell him to keep the change. I dash into the building and step into the elevator. As it slowly climbs up to the tenth floor, I work out how I'm going to explain myself. I'll tell them I was out of the country, but with the time difference I could only phone them between six and seven at night, when I knew they'd be out walking on the riverbank. And the international lines were busy. Then I'll pretend to complain that they didn't answer my calls, or that they don't have an answering machine or something.

When mom opens the door to find me standing there, I see won’t need any of the excuses I’ve prepared. Mom just looks at me with a smile.

"Hurry, hurry, get in here," mom says in a thick, throaty Hubei accent, pulling it up into a wail.

"We've just finished cooking dinner," declares dad. He says this in Mandarin, which is strange, but after I enter the room, I understand. Someone else is here; she's in the kitchen, busy helping dad cook. I'm a bit surprised, this is the first time I've seen anything like this.

"Dad, mom, how've you been? I—"

"So good, so good," mom cuts me off, wailing into the kitchen, "Ah Hua, come out here, I want you to meet my son."

This woman called Ah Hua pokes her head out of the kitchen, takes a look at me and whips the towel off the stove, carelessly rubbing her face with. I almost laugh; her face was clean right up until she wiped it.

Dad comes out of the kitchen, rubbing his hands. In Mandarin, he introduces Ah Hua to me: "Ah Hua here is a youth ambassador from Pan's Nutritious Oral Tonic, she's been here showing us how to use Pan's Anti-aging Essence Formula for over two weeks already. So tell us, how do we look?"

Dad makes like he wants my opinion, but what can I say? This isn't the first time. Dad's always bringing home nutrition products; from honeybee extract to ginseng essence, they've tried them all. Yet every time, even though it annoys them, I always pour cold ideas on these ideas. But today they went and brought the product salesperson home—what did he call her? 'Youth Ambassador?'—with them, so of course I can't really say anything now. In any case, I'm lucky this "guest" is here; this way mom and dad won't ask where I disappeared to for over three weeks. If they knew I'd just spent three weeks in prison, for sure they'd break down.

Perhaps mistaking my hesitation for consideration, dad gets excited and mom presses close. "Doesn't your dad look so much better? He's only been taking it for two weeks."

Dad's color does definitely look good, but then I also know that you can tell dad anything is good for him—say, drinking hot water—and his face start giving off a healthy glow. I mumble in agreement and nod my head, then shift my vision towards Youth Ambassador Ah Hua as she carefully sets the table. "Miss Ah Hua, is your company well-known?"

"You can call me Ah Hua, and it is. Our company uses a recently developed American formula in our DNA and metabolism-configuring nutritional products," Ah Hua firmly answers my question, continuing to place down the bowls and chopsticks in her hands, keeping her head down as she does so, avoiding eye contact with me. I guess she doesn't know this old couple's son is a Peking University grad, otherwise she wouldn't dare come in here. But, watching Ah Hua's unnatural and uneasy movements, I can't help but feeling a bit of sympathy for her. Everyone's got to eat, no need to push the issue. Anyways, mom and dad have only been using it for two weeks, couldn't have put them back more than five hundred Yuan. Tomorrow I'll find a way to talk them out of this.

As we eat, mom and dad yak on about the healing effectiveness of new nutritive tonics, telling me all about each and every celebrity who has been rejuvenated by taking these things, making the old young and strong again and whatnot. Ah Hua sits silently off to the side, smiling from time to time, or cautiously throwing in a word or two, correcting mom and dad's exaggerations. You could say Ah Hua is acting generous and in good taste, not like one of those bloody pyramid scheme pushers you can spot from a mile off. This piques my interest, and I unconsciously keep glancing up at her eyes. She still hasn't wiped her face clean, but it's undeniable that she is one extremely enchanting woman. I reckon she's in her early thirties; she has a high forehead, a full face and loose clothes that still hardly conceal her finely detailed body when she moves. What's especially enchanting are her swollen breasts and, with her back to me, watching her stand up every time she bends down to scoop rice, her round, clearly-defined butt leaves me spaced out more than once. I put my head down and hurriedly gulp down my rice, blaming these things as the reason I've just spent nearly a month in prison.

Over dinner, Ah Hua keeps avoiding my gaze, but every time I even so much as see her in the corner of my eye, I feel my heart give a slight quiver. Her hair is disheveled and her face isn't clean, but I can clearly sense a kind of seductiveness coming from her, the kind of seduction that I can usually forget, but right now she's sitting across from me. That, and I've just spent over three weeks in prison. A kind of lust and desire makes me decide, for the moment, not to expose this pyramid scheme lady as a fraud. Either that, or I'm hoping I'll be able to see her again when I get back from the States.

After dinner, when Ah Hua stands up to leave, my eyes follow her to the door, and I surprise myself by thanking her: "Ah Hua, thank you for introducing my dad to your nutrition tonic, and thank you for taking care of them. I'll be going the US soon for a business trip, but I hope you'll stay on looking after them."

Ah Hua looks back at me, her face flushed red, which puzzles me. This woman must be at least thirty, and her skin is so fair; how can a man as mediocre-looking as I am turn her face a bright red with just a 'thank you'? She might have seen that I have ulterior motives, which is good. These thoughts, they flash through my mind. With the look in her eyes that I've just seen, I once again feel ill at ease.

Dad's probably afraid I'm going to start lecturing them, now that Ah Hua is gone, so he rushes to say, "Ah Hua is a good girl. She used to work in a state-owned factory in Changsha[1], but lost her job after the factory was privatized. She came by herself to Guangzhou to look for work, and now she's got this pyramid scheme job. But you know, she doesn't seem like most pyramid schemers, she's not out to deceive anyone, she's just promoting a product she herself believes in. We ran into her in Liberation Park, and she kindly invited us to a sales exhibition at their company. The director of the Guangdong Province Health Department was even there, and lots of reporters. Everyone got treated to a buffet meal, to try their tonic.

Mom throws in a line too, "Ah Hua sure is a good person, so worried that we wouldn't understand the instructions or that we might not know how much to take, that she comes to our house everyday to serve us for free. Like a daughter, she's so filial and smart, and she's as pretty as a painting..."

Mom and dad go on listing all of Ah Hua's good points, and I start to get the picture. Everything they're saying is word-for-word the lines crooks around the streets of Guangzhou have been using lately. I just silently think about leaving soon for a month-long business trip, and calculate that mom and dad's losses won't come to more than two thousand Yuan, still within a range that I can handle. So I decide to keep quiet and not expose this fraudster's game.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The plane slides as it takes down the runway at Hong Kong airport. As it slowly rises into the air, my fear of flying begins to torment me again. My hands tightly grip the arm rests on both sides, my eyes are squinted shut, my teeth clenched, and a minute later, my clothes are soaked with sweat. About twenty minutes later, after I feel the airplane steady, I slowly open my eyes, only to see a man beside me with a sneer still on his face. There's nothing much I can do, but if I find a chance during the twelve hour flight, I'll explain to him, I have to let him know, I'm actually not scared of dying, that fear of flying is a kind of disease. Even if we are just strangers who met by chance on a flight, I still don't want to leave people with a bad impression. I think back to when I used to fly around a lot, when this thing Westerners call fear of flying used to torment me to no end, which brought me to my knees in front of many an unknown flight passenger. Later, at an American friend's introduction, I went to see a doctor, wanting to find out the reason, but also hoping for some kind of sedative or sleeping pill miracle drug that will keep me as calm as water when I board airplanes, or else knock me out cold. In the end the doctor told me that while fear of flying is a disease, it's not within his field to treat. From there it was suggested I go see one renowned psychologist in New York.

The psychologist charges by the minute, not wholly unlike the triple combo[2] girls we have in Guangzhou. Except that massage misses rely on their own hands and other body parts to rub your whole body down and, finally, if the price is right, they'll even make all the foul things exit your body, leaving you in physical and mental ease. But psychologists rely on their words and eyes to help clean your spirit up which, if successful, clears all the hidden shadowy recesses out from your soul, leaving you feeling relaxed. Of course, New York psychologists are a lot more expensive than Guangzhou massage ladies, not to mention that I hadn't been to this clinic before, and the first visit requires "the full service," so as to say starting with my birth, all through growing up into adulthood. Thinking back now, at the time it felt a bit like how I felt up in the Guangzhou police station. It felt different in that at the police station there wasn't ever any hurry, time was on my side, different from being at the psychologist's, where I had to be fast, where I had to answer questions whether I wanted to or not, questions that the psychologist deliberately asked slowly, all while sneaking frequent looks at the clock hung on the wall. My misgivings were later proved right when I got the bill, which showed that every minute of those three hours at the psychologist's office that day cost me five American dollars. I remember when I was answering questions like what I liked most when I was a kid, what I hated, what my hopes were, a few dozen like that, and when I cautiously declared to the doctor that I'm not afraid to die. I told the psychologist that I've always known that motorbikes are the least safe mode of transportation in the world, that I know this to be fact. I also told him that I ride a motorbike to work every day, to save time, and that sometimes even the police can't keep up with me. I wanted to know how it is that people like me, who don't fear death, the second they get on board a plane start sweating like their lives depend on it, cold sweat that just doesn't stop.

Several times during my statements, that blue-eyed, Caucasian psychologist would take off his glasses, then put them back on again, like he wanted to use different lens angles to examine my inner being. In the end, he said, "you say you have no desires or needs, and that you have no personal belongings, no money in the bank, and no women you long for in your life, no hate or grudges to settle up, nothing in your heart that keeps you clinging onto life, no grand ambitions or ideals to realize. None of these mean that you're not afraid to die. Saying you don't fear death only goes to show that you haven't yet had a chance to properly consider death, because in your life there don't exist very many life or death scenes, and that being on a plane is the only time when you can actually consider death, because, deep in your heart, you feel that being on airplanes is as close to death as you get in your life. Am I right?"

The psychologist's conclusion slowly spewed out from his mouth, like he was deliberating on every word; as I listened I began to shake and sweat, worried at how long this conclusion was going to take, eating into my living money for the month. He must have misread this, thinking he'd just hit the bull’s-eye, and seemed all the more confident in his conclusion, talking all the more non-stop. He admired how uneasy I seemed, sitting on the edge of the chair, with pins and needles, gripped in a cold sweat, at the same time making slices through my soul, deep and with ease. "This just shows how far down your extreme fear of death is buried. That this fear only bursts to the surface when you're on an airplane goes to show how straight-laced a person you are. You don't just calculate your own life, but an appropriate time for your own death as well. This is why any chance of an accidental death is unthinkable for you, and going down on an airplane is one of the most unpredictable kinds of death there is. There's another reason, and that's your rather strong sense of individual responsibility. For your age, you still don't have the spare cash to just go hop on a plane and fly around; when you do fly, it's always for some company trip or task or something, so there's the subconscious feeling of doing something mischievous. Before your task's even complete you've already resigned yourself to plummeting to your death..."

The psychologist kept rambling on, but I didn't say much. I just remembered he was right on one thing, my deeply buried fear of death. Then his talk took a different turn, with him encouraging me to be brave and face down death, to reflect on death. He said that only the greatest of thinkers ponder death, and only the confused masses see humans as in control of everything in life, or death as just an instantaneous ending, when in fact it's much more. Death is not only just the end to all life, it's also the beginning of all life, and from birth to death it's death that rules over everything. The psychologist patiently looked at me and said, "think about it. The only thing that keeps this kind of life reproducing is the human fear of extinction, of complete perdition. The little lives we give birth to are so frail and delicate, and from the time they're born to the day they die, their lives will be spent in escaping death, an endless struggle against starvation, disease and adversity. Is human society's establishment of nations and laws anything more than the result of fear of death? If you imagine for a moment that there were no threat of death, be it modern medicine, science or technology, none of these would have been seen the light of day, and, especially, would never have reached the level they have today. In the absence of the oppressive shadow of death, humans would surely have remained idle and ignorant, no different from pigs. There would be progressive daily degeneration. Even literature and philosophy are born of consideration of the human fear of death. One only need look to the great philosophers to see how thinking about death began to reveal to us the mysteries of things like life."

I guess he saw from the look on my face that I wasn't totally keeping up with his train of thought, and the doctor stopped and sighed, "I'll tell you what, let's not drag this out any longer. Let's take you as an example."

He took a sip of coffee and asked, "tell me, when you're up in the air, so nervous that you start dripping in sweat, what is it that you think about?"

I thought seriously about this. I think many things at times like that, but mostly just ask myself how it is that I might die then and there. There are so many books I've yet to read, so many things I'd be leaving half done or not started at all, so many friends I want to get in touch with but have no time to do so and...and...I didn't let my parents know where I was going when I left. Does that sound like enough thinking to you? I can't die now!

"Right, it's precisely this unreadiness to confront death, this idea that you're not prepared to die that leaves you fearing death, but at the same time makes you think. I'd even go so far as to bet that this is the only time that you do think about death. I'd now like you to tell me, when you find yourself in life-and-death situations, when the state of terror of being up in the air has passed, when once again the plane unexpectedly arrives safely at the airport, when you see that you're still alive, what is it that you think about then?"

Again I think, and tell the doctor, "every time the plane lands, it gives me a sense of renewal, almost like I've become a new person. In the days that follow, I hurry to come up with a life plan, to actively set out on a future life. Of course, this drive doesn't take me very far; a month or two later and I'm just back to my old self."

"That I can understand," the psychologist says, his face covered with a smile. "You probably know what I'm trying to get at now, right? It's precisely the appearance of your dread of death when you board airplanes that leads you to begin considering the value of life, which in turn makes you think of the life you've wasted, and all the things you should have done with it but didn't. And it's this that leaves you feeling like a new person. Just think, if it didn't take you getting on an airplane in order to start thinking more about your own death, imagine how much richer a life you'd live, and how much sooner you could have realized the goals you have which until now remain mere fantasies. Wouldn't you agree?"

That was my one and only time visiting a psychologist, and thinking back to it now, I'm still just as unable to deal with these things as I was then. My fear of death is just buried too far down in my soul, and this has become the cause of my fear of flying disease. The doctor's interpretations might not have helped reduce my fears, but I have to admit, there was some gain from listening to the doctor's philosophical speech on life and death.

I'm relieved that the plane steadies as it flies out over the black expanse of the Pacific, and I ask the passenger sitting next to me to let me up to go to the washroom as an excuse to strike up a conversation, and waste no time announcing to him new discoveries from modern medicine, particularly modern Western medical science's discovery that fear of plane travel is a disease, and not a manifestation of fear of death. He watches me in amazement, putting on a look of sudden understanding, and one of feeling very sorry for me, but this does nothing to ease my mood. As we talk, I learn that though just in his early forties, he's already opened two processing plants, one in Dongguan and one in Shenzhen[3]. Several years ago he sent his wife and two kids to live in Los Angeles, and has flown to the States almost every month since. This trip, he says, he wants to find a bigger house. "The kids are almost ten, they need their own space; not just their own bedrooms, they want their own game room, study and activity room too." He shakes his head as he speaks, "turns out six rooms isn't enough, so this time I've decided to buy something bigger, which in L.A. means you're looking at like two million dollars." Having said this, he scowls, but then it looks like he's just thought of something. "At least business is going well, but I'm gonna have to push back plans for opening the third plant."

I half-attempt a smile as I listen to his story, but I've got plenty on my mind. I make some quick calculations of how much this business trip is going to cost in hopes of saving some of the allowance Director Zhou gave me, then start wondering what kind of house two million American dollars can buy. Looking around at the passengers on all sides of me, though we are in Economy, they're almost all rather unsightly. As it strikes me how similar so many of them are to this factory-owning mini-boss beside me, financially successful, with homes and families, puzzling over things like life and death suddenly seems a bit silly.

And so my thoughts meander, and then the airplane is gently descending upon Los Angeles International Airport. Although I know that forty percent of airplane accidents take place during descent, this time I haven't just kept from breaking into a cold sweat, but after an entirely sleepless night, I'm still full of energy as I step off the plane.

I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. Not so bad, breathing in the smell of America. Just like everyone's body has its own unique smell, every country does too. If people's smells are concentrated in their armpits, then you could say a country's smells are concentrated in its international airports. That's not to say the smells there are especially strong, it's that you've just arrived, you're stepping into this land for the first time and can vividly sense the smells of a different place.

I purposely take my time walking, letting the indescribable American smells work their way deep into my mind. On the twelve-hour flight over, except for chat all I did was mull esoteric philosophy over in my mind, keeping it from going idle up in the sky thirty-thousand feet above the Pacific. That's why, at this moment, as my body touches down on American soil, my mind is still back in China.

I need these few minutes as we move from the plane to Customs to let my mind make the switch, at least let it get used to the smells here. In any case, I know that both Customs and Immigration tend to go easy when checking the travelers in the midst of the pack. At Immigration, a black Immigration officer pats me down thoroughly from my head to my feet, and seems unsatisfied with my reason of "coming back to see my old Alma Mater, and pick up my diploma while I’m at it"; I hear the sound of keys on a keyboard being struck, and then I pass through. I pull my small suitcase down off the luggage conveyor and head towards Customs. Possibly from spending a little too much time with the Immigration official, I'm feeling a bit tense.

"Please open your suitcase." This time it's a white officer.

I open my suitcase, and the white officer carefully searches through it with his hands, which are enclosed in white gloves. As he sticks his hands inside, I suddenly notice a strange look on his face, and as he raises his hands, he pretends to look calmly at me. I notice one hand of his has already pressed the red button below the counter. Sure enough, the two armed Customs officials standing on both sides of the corridor immediately rush over. Presumably because both my hands are where their eyes can see, they only rest their hands on their holsters, but do they ever look grim. The travelers around me appear more nervous than I am. As I'm taken into the small Customs room, I see the guy who owns two plants that I'd just been sitting beside staring at me with his mouth open, and another exaggerated look of sudden understanding on his face.

In the small Customs room, the other Customs officers one by one start to leave. The two armed officers, right behind me to my left and right, stand in position as the officer who first opened my suitcase, along with another officer of seemingly higher rank and more experience, begins picking things out of my luggage, item by item. It's a good thing, I'm thinking, that I buy two to three new pairs of underwear each time I go away on business; having foreigners check through my underwear and find stains would be more embarrassing than having them find drugs in there. As they carefully pick through everything I spent an hour packing, one plainclothes dressed in a business suit quietly walks in. I guess he must be the FBI agent stationed in the airport, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

And now I suddenly feel the two burly men to my left and right twitch as the younger Customs officer slowly pulls a transparent plastic bag filled with a white powder out from the bottom of my suitcase. I see the FBI agent's expression tense up, and the two armed officers on each side automatically take a step closer.

"What is this?" The Customs officer looks at me with sharp blue eyes, picking up the small knife at his side and making a light tear in the bag, using the tip to scoop some out, lifting it, sticking out his thick tongue and taking a lick.

"Drugs! And very high purity." He lets his hand drop, acting relaxed, "Sir, I think..."

"Officer, I think before you say anything you should hear me out first," I cut him off without the least bit of courtesy. "That's laundry detergent, it smells almost identical to high-grade mixed heroin!"

The Customs officer is briefly taken aback, and he looks to the suit for help. The suit walks over and takes a taste, but it seems he can't tell either. The suit and the two Customs officers step into the neighboring small room, and the two armed officers at my side motion for me to sit down. I don't know which of the two it is whose body smells, but it's so bad that I can't sit still.

A few minutes later, the three come out, and one of them explains that they need to carry out some further tests. Then the FBI agent and another officer go out with my laundry detergent, leaving just the officer old enough to be a school headmaster, who takes a chair and sits down across from me, asking me some simple questions. What he's most interested in is why I would want to bring laundry detergent with me. I say it's the same reason I brought several packs of instant noodles, for convenience and to save money. He presses on with his questions, asking why I put the laundry detergent into a different bag. I tell him that laundry detergent bags in China aren't that strong and that they're not made for taking on business trips, that's why I packed it in a secure plastic bag. In any case, I didn't need the whole bag. Eventually he stops asking questions, and goes next door to take care of other work, though the two guards on each side dutifully remain to stand guard over me.

Following forty full tormenting minutes, they finally speak up, apologize for having taken up my time, and let me leave. As I exit Customs, I see my old classmate Wang Xiaohai waiting with anticipation. He seems oblivious to the fact that he's standing on the yellow line around the restricted area, and seeing him like this moves me. I don't keep that many friends, so when I go to other countries, if I have any old university classmates in the area, I always get in touch with them first. It's been almost twenty years since we graduated, so we're always looking for chances to get together. This kind of wish to keep in touch with old school friends is usually strongest around ten years after graduation, the reason not being hard to understand. As the years fly by, you and the things around you can't help but change, and every time you look into the mirror, the harder it gets to remember what you looked like back then. Then, one day, you suddenly feel the need to see some old school friend or another. Meeting them, though, typically happens under two kinds of circumstances. Either they've kept themselves in good shape, all the angles and edges look the same, and you say, "you're still so young, you haven't changed at all!" Or else you meet and that old friend you used to be so close with looks nothing like they used to and, shocked, you think to yourself, "damn, he's gotten so mature!" Though, no matter how these meetings turn out, the only thing you'll be wondering is how your friends think you've changed, or not.

Seeing Wang Xiaohai standing there like that makes me think. He came to America in the early nineties, then disappeared from contact with everyone he'd gone to college with. They say he only got in touch again after he'd gotten his green card. He's not that tall, he wears glasses, carries himself with a rather refined sort of elegance. At least that's how he was more than ten years ago when we were still in school. The Wang Xiaohai I see walking towards me now looks a little rough. He looks like he could be fifty already. It might just be the light here in the airport, because from where I'm standing he looks a bit hunched over. We don't hug; the two of us just shake hands and stare at each other carefully in the eyes; we each see excitement, and a tinge of regret, then we both start laughing freely.

Sitting in Wang Xiaohai's recently-purchased second-hand Honda Accord on the way to his house, he tells me what he's been doing over the past few years—more than a few mouthfuls of complaints and grievances which, being his old college friend, gets me right worked up. I've found that for the most part, friends of mine who've gone abroad, especially those who get green cards, when old school friends like me roll around, they tend to put on a happy face despite anything which might be worrying them, trying to one-up us any way they can. But not Xiaohai. He whines all the way, starting first with having left the country two years too late, missing his chance at a 'Tiananmen' green card[4], all the way to when he made the decision to major in politics, ending up unable to find work after graduation and how he settled for a job at a diner, or how hard it was getting a green card with forged documents, then struggling to save up even the tiniest bit of money, only to one day notice his youth having passed him by. And how, when he began to have the time and mind to be around old acquaintances out from China again, be they his former college buddies or friends, how they all looked to be getting by a whole lot more sweetly than he was, and how hard that was for him to see. So then Xiaohai solemnly asks, has China, these last few years, really been growing as fast as they say? Are there really that many people making money now? How could things be so different from what government statistics say? He says he's just bought himself a small condo, that he put up fifty thousand for the down-payment and it'll take twenty years to pay off the other two hundred and fifty thousand, that this is why he really has no desire to come back to China to see things clearly for himself, but that he hopes I might help him with this.

I don't know how I ought to answer. "You know, you already have your own car and your own place, even if you only have paid off fifty thousand so far, that’s a little more than pocket change back in China. Besides, the old friends you're still able to see from here aren't doing so bad either.

"Ha. You're not doing too bad either, eh bud?" Xiaohai chuckles. "You didn't just come to get your diploma, did you? If that were case, you could've just got the school to send it to you. What other missions are you on?

"What are you talking about. Mission? It's not like you don't know I already left the Ministry. I also came partly for old time's sake, to see if post-911 New York looks like it used to. I also want to see Guo Qingqing, and if I can, I’ll stop by Washington to see Liu Mingwei."

"Just seems strange. You and Guo Qingqing were on and off for so many years over in New York, and the whole time you never hit it off. Now the two of you have been split up for so long and you come halfway across the world just for a visit? Yeah, you must be feeling pretty nostalgic." Suddenly, Xiaohai looks a bit lonely. We drive on for a while, then he lets out a drawn-out sigh: "there's only just a few of us still here; Haipeng went back, so did you. A class of forty, there's just three of us here now, and you can see how much use I turned out to be. Of everyone who went into science and tech back then, at least twenty people from each year would come to the States; now whenever they have science or tech alumnus get-togethers at Peking University or Tsinghua[5], there's always more of them here in the States than back in China. Not us, though, the miserable few who are left. Just because we chose to major in bullshit politics and international relations, we've been pretty much good for nothing since the day we graduated."

He stops, then mumbles, "not totally useless, though, if you're willing to forget everything you learned. I hear Liu Mingwei's been doing pretty well over in Washington."

From the airport to Xiaohai's new place it's about a two-hour drive. The whole way, we laugh and we yell, going quiet from time to time; just as old friends are when they meet, we're both relaxed. I reach over and turn on the car stereo, only to find out there's no tape inside. Then I remember the tapes Xiaohai had asked me to bring over with me. I open my bag and pull them out, sort of a gift for Xiaohai. Most of the tapes are full of clanging revolutionary songs that were popular in China back in the seventies and eighties, from 'The Red Sun' series to 'Song of the Prairies,' from 'Up on the Gold Mountain of Beijing' to 'Free Yourself, Slaves, and Sing!,' with the newest album being of songs that were popular on campus at Peking University during the early eighties. I want to put one tape on, so I flip through them.

"I guess you never really liked any of these songs, hey?" Xiaohai sees that I can't find anything that I think will sound good.

I say I don't really care, it's just that I think these songs are too old. They stopped selling most of them around the time we graduated. As I say this, I realize that I don't know the names of any songs that have come out since then.

"I don't know why, but I just can't seem to get into popular music these days," Xiaohai says, "but the songs we had when I was a kid and at school, I could listen to them a hundred times and still never get sick of them."

"Well if you put it like that, I'd have to agree. I used to think that was the reason I stopped listening to music after college, but now that I think about it, I can't name a single song that's come out in the more than ten years since we finished college."

"Go back a generation, and people just hummed the same few songs their whole lives; at least we had a few more. But now, you see new songs and singers popping up every day, and the pop charts change from week to week."

"Seems like now, there's a pop song for any mood anyone might ever be in. If you're feeling annoyed, there's 'Today I'm a bit Annoyed,' and if you've just broken up with someone, well, there's at least a hundred songs to match that, songs that almost make you feel like they were written just for you. If you're feeling elated or you've had a bit to drink, there's more songs that talk about flying high up in the sky than there are drops of rain."

"Yeah, a lot of pop songs are written to match your mood; when you're sad they make you sadder, or if you're happy, happier." I nod in agreement.

"The thing is with songs from back in our day, though there weren't so many, just hearing any of them was enough to set your heart afire, so uplifting they were," Xiaohai says with excitement.

I smile and nod, pulling a tape out and sticking in the second-hand car's stereo. I think of another advantage to meeting up with old friends: nobody feels like they're old-fashioned or obsolete.

From here on we just enjoy these songs we used to sing back in our college days, talking and laughing as the car rips down the freeway towards Xiaohai's home.




[1] Capital of Hunan province

[2] The 三陪, or three accompaniments: eating, drinking and sleeping.

[3] Dongguan and Shenzhen, two cities just North of Hong Kong, within mainland China.

[4] American citizenship granted to those having fled China after the June, 1989 Tiananmen square massacre.

[5] One of the top universities in China.


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