There are the little blessings.
On the stretch of road between my grandparents’ apartment and the city garden, I buy a jar of suannai – Beijing yogurt – from a wayward street vendor for only a handful of mao.
“Visiting from America?” the vendor asks. Plumes of fog expand on the cold surface of the glass jar. Condensation drips down my wrists.
“Yes,” I say.
I meet my grandparents and my sister at the garden entrance. My sister immediately disapproves. “You shouldn’t buy stuff from vendors,” she chides me, even though I’m one and a half years older and lots more familiar with Chinese culture. “You never know what they put in there.”
“It tastes good,” I say, shrugging. “That’s the important thing.”
She scoffs and rolls her eyes. “Don’t blame me if you end up getting food poisoning.”
My grandmother pushes my grandfather along in his wheelchair; his legs have gotten so weak that he can no longer use a cane. He smiles as I approach, and I want to say something to him, something meaningful, but I can’t find the right words in Mandarin, can hardly find them even in English.
I say to my grandmother, “I’m ready to go.” The words feel heavy in my mouth, like stones.
She leads us through the garden, past lilies marinating in a pool of water, ducks huddling on the water surface. She recites the names of the flowers and trees in a language I don’t understand. I nod and smile when appropriate. It’s only polite.
My sister is unusually quiet as we tour the park, sneaking peaks at her phone when she thinks we’re not looking. Not that anyone blames her. Ever since we were children my sister has stumbled over her words when speaking to our grandparents. Her Mandarin is coarse and accented, clumsy and childlike. Waiguoren, our Chinese teacher would say disdainfully. Foreigner. It’s no wonder that she’s silent, that she listens to our grandmother so listlessly. She couldn’t understand even if she wanted to.
I was different. When I was a child I was as good at Mandarin as I was at English. Back before my grandfather’s legs got too bad we all lived in New York City, and they walked me to and from school every single day and took me to ice cream parlors on Saturdays. We could talk about anything, school or friends or parents. But I haven’t spoken Mandarin in so long, and I’ve forgotten all the words. If you ask my grandparents, nothing has changed. But everything has.
My suannai has gone stale and flavorless, and I throw it into the nearest trash can.
From my grandparents’ apartment, the city is a distant hum. Like a TV muffled in woolen blankets. Makes it easier to sleep at night, when the white noise of the cicadas bleeds into the plaster walls. The first day, I slept until noon – jet-lag and all. My sister sat by and read a novel while she waited for me to wake up. I can picture her now: perched at the foot of her bed, one ruby-toed foot crossed over the other. Fan at full power, curling the pages at their corners. Pen going tap-tap-tap against the mattress. Her palms flat against the pages of the book, keeping the curled corners in place. She could never stand the sound of paper brushing against paper. Said it sent shivers down her spine. Just one of her many little quirks. Later, I asked what the book was about, and she said, forbidden love. Typical. My sister has only two criteria for a good novel: romance and a happy ending. You’d be surprised at how few satisfy both. So, on the first day, I slept while my sister read about forbidden love.
When I wake up, she is at the dinner table, a mug of milk at her side. Our grandparents are still asleep. Siesta. It is a Chinese thing, or at least an Asian thing. They sleep quietly for old people. Don’t snore or anything, almost as if they were dead.
“Milk’s on the counter,” my sister says without looking up. Her hands settle on the table awkwardly; she doesn’t know what to do with them with her book gone.
I rip open the packet. “It’s powder.” The substance is like chalk, staining my fingertips white. I can’t remember the last time I played with chalk. Not since I was in grade school, scribbling obscenities on the cement during recess. How many years ago was that? Eight? Nine? Probably even more.
“Mix it with water and heat it in the microwave for one minute. Like hot chocolate.” She begins to drum her fingers on the tabletop. Nervous habit brought on by years of piano lessons.
“Funny way of keeping milk.”
“Imagine the kids here thinking their whole life that milk comes from a powder. Isn’t that crazy?”
She shrugs. “It’s China.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
I microwave a mug of milk and take the seat next to her, swirling the powder-water mixture with a stray chopstick. The powder has vanished, has dissolved like sugar in coffee. No longer chalky. I take an experimental sip.
“How is it?” my sister asks, watching.
“Not bad. Almost tastes like real milk, you know?”
A peal of surprised laughter escapes her. She quiets down before she wakes our grandparents. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she says, “Idiot. It is real milk.”
I grin against the mug.
And that’s how they find us later: side by side at the dinner table, twin mugs with milk swirling at the bottom. Me with a half-empty mug at my lips. Her with her naked piano hands sprawled on the table surface. Almost like New York City. Almost like home.
The restaurant radiates superiority. Superior air-conditioning. Superior marble tables with sleek black chairs. Superior tall glasses of frothy watermelon juice, water droplets leaving slippage on the rim.
I sip from it. Yes, even the watermelon juice here is superior.
My cousin has reserved an entire room. The table is packed with distant cousins and aunts and uncles, sipping tea and making small talk. No one really knows anyone else – earlier, they went around introducing themselves. They tried to talk to my sister and I, too, but drifted away when it became clear that we couldn’t exactly speak their language. It’s expected. In a room full of strangers, we are still the outsiders.
My cousin, I’ve heard tons about. Peking University graduate. Wife of a respected salesman. Has a steady job at a marketing company. A picture-perfect life. The subject of envy, no doubt. She’s all right, though. Not nearly as pretentious or obnoxious as my mother made her out to be. When my sister and I arrived, the first thing she did was grasp our hands and beam, saying, “You must be Xiaobai and Xiaoyu. I’ve been wanting to meet you two for so long.” She introduced herself as Qiu, but encouraged us to call her Autumn.
My sister and I take seats next to each other. Drink a few cups of tea and wait for the food to arrive. As Qiu passes by me on the way to the restroom, she suddenly stoops down and squeezes my shoulder. “You have a sweetheart I can meet?”
“Oh – no. Not really.”
“Not really?” She laughs and lets go. “Don’t all boys your age do?”
I’m the quiet one for most of lunch. Beside me, Qiu converses in stilted, broken English with my sister. A bit painful, but sweet all in all. It’s nice that she’s making an effort to get to know us, that she’s reaching out, even after all these years. As we leave, Qiu slips eight hundred yuan into my coat pocket. When I reach for the money, she pulls my hand away. “A gift,” she says firmly, as if that explains everything. As if we weren’t just strangers who happen to share a bit of common blood. As if we were family.
She smiles and disappears into the crowd.
In the beginning, I searched for the differences: a metallic tang to the air, a wider, whiter sky, a sun that shone brighter or perhaps not at all. The rhythm of the taxi driver’s voice: intonations foreign, syntax mismatched. The rumble of the cab skimming past schoolgirls with book bags slung over their shoulders, woman pushing toddlers in strollers across the street. My sister, still and silent. Her hands limp and lifeless, like a doll’s, falling to her lap. Me, talking talking talking to my grandmother, because it would disappoint her otherwise – she was the one who wanted to spend the summer with us before I was off to university. She asked if I had a girlfriend yet, and I said no. She asked if my coursework was difficult, and I said no.
When the questions became too complex, I told her that I was tired from the flight and needed rest, so she struck up a conversation with the taxi driver. They found out that the driver’s brother went to the same university as my grandmother had. Not the same year of course, but it was a connection. It was something. A little twist of fate that brought strangers together.
Head against the window, I fooled myself into thinking I was still in New York City, on the way to the movies or the park or home. Because in the end, there was nothing. Still the same air. Still the same sky, still the same sun.
We take the metro to Tiananmen Square. At the station, a man in grime leans against the plaster wall. He wheezes, cigarette smoke thrust from his throat, curling like a page lit on fire. Skin so dark he’s past sunburns. Fissures etched onto his face. Camouflaged despite the white walls.
No one stops.
No one notices.
When the taxi cab starts to move, my sister squeezes her eyes shut. Clenches her hands so hard that the skin turns white. Just like she used to do in New York City, when we drove on highways. Apparently it’s less nerve-wracking that way.
But in Beijing, it really is best to just close your eyes. Detach yourself. There is no swish of plastic as you shift in your seat. There is no hum of the cold air blasting through the A/C. You do not see the near-misses the taxi cab makes: the schoolgirl the cab misses by a millimeter, the truck that swerves a little too close.
There is nothing. Nothing but you and a couple hundred yuan crumpled in your fist. And your brother, shaking you awake. “Hey, we’re here,” he says.
I find her by the back door of the balcony one evening. Novel abandoned. Staring out the screen window. Ice-hands clenching the counter.
“Something the matter?” I say, because something always is. Always always always. My father used to say she was a glass-child. A rain child. Xiaoyu – Little Rain. Small and delicate and transparent. Just like a ghost. Just like one of those glass sculptures that they sell at gift shops. So malleable. So fragile. She used to wear glasses, too, before this girl in middle school smashed the lenses with the heel of her foot right in front of her. Now, she wears contacts, and it still feels like I’m looking through a glass wall every time we make eye contact.
She answers. “No. Just thinking of home. There’s nothing to do here, you know?”
“What about your book?”
Silence bridges us. Her hands are clenched so tightly her veins pop out, threading from her ruby-tipped fingers all the way down to the knobs of her wrists. Skin so clear and so pale, like china.
For as long as I could remember, my sister was always so scared. This one time, on a family outing, we were on the observation deck of the Empire State building. As soon as we got there, she freaked out. Pressed herself against the door – as far away to the edge as she could get – and begged my parents to let her go inside. She was crying into the collar of the parka our parents had bought just the day before. Faux furs soggy and mussed with tears and snot. My parents tried to calm her down and distract her with the beautiful view and all, but nothing worked. Eventually, people were beginning to stare, so we just went home.
She said later that she had been afraid she was going to jump. Not that she wanted to, of course, but she thought that if she lost control of herself for even a second, she’d go over the railing. My parents wrote it off as a fear of heights, but it was something more. I think they knew that, too.
When we were kids – I was fifteen and she was fourteen – she wouldn’t touch the kitchen knives. Whenever our mother made brownies or pumpkin pie I had to cut her slice for her. She told me she was scared that she would stab me if she ever got hold of one. Not that she wanted to; she wasn’t even angry at me. But she was still afraid. Afraid of how easy it would be. Afraid that she would even think about it.
And then she made me keep it all a secret. She said our parents would send her to a mental asylum if they knew. She said they’d find out about how she was really a psychopath, and that she’d been subconsciously fooling them otherwise all these years.
But she wasn’t a psychopath, I remember thinking. If she was she would had killed me already with that knife. She wouldn’t had worried about it. She was just a scared little girl. She was just my sister.
So I did. All these years, I’ve kept her secret.
I wake up early. Sky still hazy with pink. The creak of footsteps in the apartment above ours. The hum of the refrigerator. My sister asleep on the futon. I pad down to the kitchen and microwave a mug of powder-milk. The warmth of the drink thaws my fingers like a cup of coffee in the brisk winter of New York. Except this is not winter. Except this is not New York.
I settle into the chair. I check my phone: two missed calls from my mother. She must be worried; I haven’t called her since we arrived. I settle my phone back onto the table anyway, because these things, you need to be awake for. These things, you need to prepare for.
On the back of a spare napkin, I write “gone for a walk.” I search through my memories for a Mandarin equivalent, but I can’t find anything. Eighteen years old and I can’t even tell my grandparents that I’m going for a walk. I give up, leaving the napkin on the dinner table.
When I come back, it is my grandmother that I meet. She jumps to her feet. “Sit down, sit down,” she gushes in Mandarin. “I’ve made breakfast for you.” She speaks slowly and uses only the simplest of expressions. Just like my third-grade teacher used to, even though I understood him perfectly.
“Thank you,” I say. I drink from the glass of milk she reheated for me. “Is Xiaoyu still asleep?”
“Yes. I tried waking her but she wouldn’t budge. She must be tired.”
“So we’re just waiting for her?” The milk is bland. Tasteless, like water. How could I ever think this was real milk? I take a bite of a red bean bun to mask the staleness of the drink. My grandmother bought an entire box of them yesterday as a good-bye gift.
“That’s right,” my grandmother says. When the silence becomes too unbearable, she continues. “Isn’t it nice like this? All of us spending time together. Next summer, you two can come again. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I say without any real conviction.
Before we leave, my grandmother leaves twin watches on top of our packed suitcases.
It still rains in the evening. Not a falling, exactly, but a melting, a sinking into the asphalt, sliding down my temple like sweat. It’s familiar – the sensation of sweat trickling down my face. I’ve been doing a lot of that these past few weeks.
The plane leaves tonight. When I’m home, what will I remember first when I think of Beijing? Suannai in glass jars for a couple of mao apiece, lunch with Qiu at the classy air-conditioned restaurant, early morning walks while the sky’s still pink. So many sides of Beijing to pick. So much to remember. I don’t know how I keep it all inside of me.
No, this is what I’ll think of: my sister in my grandparents’ apartment, curled up with her romance novel, blanket wrapped around her like a cocoon. Fan whirling by the propped open window. Hands flat against the pages of her book. Yeah, that’ll be something to remember. Something nice to look back on, after all is said and done.
I stop at the convenience store for one those cheap contractible umbrellas. The spare change in my pocket is just enough to pay for it.
“On vacation?” the cashier asks as he sorts the coins.
“That’s right,” I say.
It is already seven o’clock. Time to get going. Opening my umbrella, I trudge along, still a long ways off from home.