As a fading Chinese-American aristocrat meets the mainland’s nouveau riche, they discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same
Author: Lynn Zhao 密斯赵
A native of Beijing, Lynn Zhao moved to Hong Kong at the age of 18 and later to New York. She writes two personal columns on Douban, where she has also published novellas and short-story collections. Her essays have appeared in Sanlian Life Weekly and The Feminist Voice. Her English-language non-fiction has appeared in the Shanghai Literary Review. She is an art professional at Christie’s auction house.
Since she took the call for the interview, Zhenzhen had been imagining all kinds of crazy things about Mrs. Wong’s residence. It was in Manhattan, after all—no matter how luxurious it was, even if it was a penthouse on Central Park, she’d have seen something like it on TV.
“It’s not like I haven’t seen the world! There’s nothing I can’t handle!” Zhenzhen was pumping herself up.
She felt discouraged the next second—this was the closest she’d ever come to a “socialite” like those in China’s Republic era. Ever since she was little, becoming a socialite had been her only dream.
These days, “socialite” was a common term that had taken on rather unsavory connotations, but Zhenzhen wanted to be the real thing, like Mrs. Wong. Mrs. Wong wasn’t like those nouveau riche on the mainland, who got to boss their underlings around, but bowed and scraped without dignity in front of Zhenzhen’s father and treated her like a princess. When those people tried to buy her a designer purse without knowing her wishes, they would tell her: “If you don’t like this one, Zhenzhen, it’s fine, just take the receipt and exchange it for something else.” Nor was Mrs. Wong like those kids she met in Hong Kong, the second-generation rich without talent or skill, who studied at English schools and put on London accents that they could only keep up for three sentences at most.
Mrs. Wong was a true daughter of an eminent family, the last aristocrat, the descendant of people in the history books, just like those ladies in The Last Nobles, Shanghai Princess, Life and Death in Shanghai, or even Taipei People and The New Yorker, whose grandfathers had been important ministers in the Qing dynasty; their fathers scholars, intellectuals, merchants, or diplomats; and themselves studied at American universities, opening their eyes a century before other Chinese.
At heart, Zhenzhen believed she was good enough to be a belle. After all, there were not many ladies like Mrs. Wong left today. After the rough times of the Republic, the socialite disappeared for a few generations. It wasn’t until Zhenzhen’s time, on a wave of economic development, that her family was able to send her abroad, to give her the best of everything so that she could take her place among a new generation of refined ladies.
A precocious child, Zhenzhen was born and raised in a state-owned compound. Outside of her sphere, she learned to differentiate between Beijing and “elsewhere,” the compound and the “public.” The sights and people outside never put her at ease. When she went out with her father as a child, as soon as they disembarked at the train station or airport, there were officials or businessmen there to welcome them warmly. Beijing was the “center,” and when she went “elsewhere,” they stayed in the best places and ate the best food. Her standards rose, so did the wings of her eyeliner.
Hong Kong was another level up. Her friends were either the heiresses of property magnates or daughters of high-ranking officials. Their fluttering dresses were omnipresent in the lobby of the Peninsula, as they sipped Earl Grey and nibbled delicately (as was only proper) on imported macarons from France. Nights were spent prowling Central—but definitely not Lan Kwai Fong, which was too trashy. She’d go to these girls’ homes; they’d purchased residency through investment schemes, and bought huge places at Repulse Bay. She’d take a taxi from Central to Stanley, leaving behind the island’s crowded streets. Far off, she could see the sea out of the car’s right window, and to the left, the verdant slopes of the mountains. All the tycoons had houses built on the mountains, one at every switchback, with wide-open views of the sea.
Zhenzhen didn’t have a villa on a switchback road, but she had a toy none of her friends had—a white boyfriend. Among her group, she’d always been seen as low-key, plain, and inconspicuous. However, she would always remember the time she showed up with her blond-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy to a party at her friend’s house; how they all fastened their eyeballs on this “artist,” and how this made him preen like a peacock.
The day she received her admission letter to the American graduate program, she dumped that pretty, crying boyfriend without a second thought, and sauntered onboard the flight to New York.
Auntie Wu woke up at 5 every morning and, after having breakfast at home, took the Line 7 train from Flushing to Mrs. Wong’s apartment on the Upper East Side. She’d start making breakfast at 7. Unlike the bowl of congee and vegetables Auntie Wu ate at her own home, Mrs. Wong always had a Western-style breakfast: egg whites, ham, and whole-wheat toast, or cereal, always accompanied by seasonal fruits, orange or grapefruit juice, and a cup of black coffee.
Mrs. Wong breakfasted at 7:30 on the dot. By the time Auntie Wu finished busying herself in the kitchen, Mrs. Wong was already dressed neatly and sitting at the table. Although she ate alone, she never made Auntie Wu wait. Every day at 7:30, she would say “Good morning, auntie,” and Auntie Wu would reply, “Why, good morning, Mrs. Wong.” Mrs. Wong would eat for about half an hour, and then tell Auntie Wu “thank you” in Shanghainese before she went into her office to begin the day’s work. After Auntie Wu finished cleaning the dining room and kitchen, she’d walk around the house, dusting, sometimes helping Julia, until lunch.
The past two days, though, had been much more hectic than usual. Julia was leaving, and Mrs. Wong was interviewing one or two young women each day. Auntie Wu found it fascinating, and it made the time pass more quickly. Out of all the young women who had come, though, none were as bright and beautiful as the one today.
First, her skin was extremely fair. Not just her face; her legs and arms were also quite pale. One could see faint outlines of blue veins under her skin, which made her look even fairer, completely different from those girls that had grown up in America. Those girls tanned their perfectly good skin into coal. If any girls in her hometown in Jiangsu had looked like that, her parents would cry. This young woman also had beautiful phoenix eyes; when she looked at her, they shone like light rippling on the water of a lake, as if a small rowboat had stirred the lotuses.
The young woman came early for her interview; her posture was very straight. Sitting alone on the living room sofa, she looked a little pitiable. However, her slender form, flanked by two Chinese screens, looked very nice; much better than when Mrs. Wong and her family sat there—they were good looking, but old and overweight; it looked comical. The grandchildren were tall and thin but boisterous, all of them resembling Americans, running about and not knowing how to sit properly.
Auntie Wu couldn’t help but walk over and ask the young woman if she wanted some water to drink.
“Yes, thank you.” The woman spoke with the proper pronunciation. She was the genuine article.
Auntie Wu poured a cup of water and brought it over, “It’s warm water, is that OK? Would you like some ice cubes?” The young woman shook her head, smiling. Auntie Wu added, “You know, all those kids who grew up in America, they won’t drink it without ice.”
“Are you from Shanghai?” the young woman asked.
Auntie Wu hesitated for a second. Did she count as Shanghainese? Although she’d worked there for many years, “I’m from Jiangsu,” she said. “And you?”
“I’m from Beijing.” No wonder she spoke so formally.
“How long have you been in the States?”
“More than three years. And you, Auntie?”
“Oh, me? More than a decade.”
She was startled by her own response; had it really been so long? It was a next-door neighbor who had encouraged her to come, who told her that working as a maid in Shanghai wasn’t as good as coming to the States, where she could earn more, and become an American. It must be a good thing to be an American, she thought, or else why would so many people work so hard to immigrate and get green cards? But did having a green card make you American? She didn’t understand; she was clearly Chinese.
Ten years ago, she hadn’t really wanted to come; she simply wanted to have a look and see what it was like to work for the Chinese in America. They seemed to be more decent and of a higher class; at least, they didn’t treat their employees like dirt. Whatever she did, they’d always say “thank you.” After a while, she genuinely didn’t want to return. Her husband heard that the money was good, and came over too, working as a laborer in Flushing.
She was later recommended by her previous employer to Mrs. Wong, because she was a good cook.
Drunk chicken, smoked fish, steamed bran, wontons, Shanghai vegetable rice…it was always the same few dishes, but Auntie Wu cooked with precision. It wasn’t like the restaurants; there was less oil and smoke, and more of a home-cooked flavor. Auntie Wu had thought that a lady who could taste such a difference must have just arrived from Shanghai, but after she started her job, she found out that Mrs. Wong had settled in the States before she turned 20. She had attended the best women’s colleges in America and later became a higher-up at a large firm. Mrs. Wong wasn’t accustomed to speaking Chinese, and when she occasionally did, she almost seemed embarrassed.
Mrs. Wong always had Shanghai cuisine for dinner. She didn’t eat much, and after half an hour Auntie Wu could clean up. By the time she finished cleaning the kitchen, it would be about 7. Auntie Wu would dim all the lights in the house and leave. Julia got off work at 6, so after Auntie Wu left, it was just Mrs. Wong alone in the apartment. Auntie Wu took the Line 7 train back to Flushing. As soon as she exited the subway, she’d see a sea of bobbing heads. At the New World Supermarket there were bread, barbecue, and vegetable vendors; the flavors all mingling together. After she passed them, Auntie Wu would get home, where her husband already had food on the table. It was also Shanghai cuisine. Aside from the fact that her son worked on the West Coast and she didn’t get to see him very often, she was very satisfied in life.
Who knew people would be lining up for this job?
“Julia!” Jackie was calling her.
“Yes?” She quickly walked from the reading room to the door of Mrs. Wong’s room.
“Send an email to Mr. Weinberg and tell him I will go to Paris next month,” Jackie instructed.
Paris again, Julia mumbled. Jackie Wong was almost 80, and over the past two years, there had been fewer trips outside of the States. She still flew to Paris and Shanghai two or three times a year, though. Whenever this happened, Jackie’s son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and son-in-law would call, asking if Julia could go with her. Paris was alright, but just thinking about Shanghai made Julia’s head ache. Last year, before the plane had even landed, she saw the dark gray cloud of pollution under the blue sky. She couldn’t describe that color in words. It was a shade she’d never seen in the States.
Anyway, she was going to quit. She didn’t want to do this trivial yet exacting administrative work anymore. Panicking over every email and phone call broke a person down after a while. She couldn’t even see herself anymore, to say nothing of her future. When she first took the job, she was hesitating over whether or not to pursue a PhD. Now she’d finally made up her mind—no more time to waste. It wasn’t until she submitted the ad that she saw how popular the position was. Of the resumes she pulled out from the hundreds submitted, all were beautiful, and in their cover letters, they all wrote that they’d be “honored.”
Which part of this was an honor? Julia knew that Mrs. Wong came from a family that was once prominent back in China. Who cared?
To her, Chinese aristocrats only existed in Zhang Yimou films, and were perhaps a few hundred years old; if still alive, they’d have to be zombies. Julia was 5 when she came to the States with her parents. They moved to Atlanta and started a “Mongolian BBQ” restaurant. It was hard work, but she never had to worry about not being clothed or fed, nor did it feel like her family was very different from others. Racial discrimination was an issue, but her parents quickly moved to a middle-class white neighborhood, where people were friendly, and everyone got along.
She knew, however, that owning a restaurant wasn’t her father’s dream. Her father was an intellectual, as was her mother. She vaguely remembered her mother had been a doctor in China, and her father a scholar, but he never told her what his field of research was. When she started college, finished her Masters, or considered doctoral studies, her father would always wrinkle his brow, wave his hand, and tell her, in English: “Not a good idea.” Why was it not a good idea? Her father had clearly been an academic himself.
“Daddy doesn’t know anything.” Julia had liked to say this since she was young, based on the limited time that her father spent with her at home. From Disney to football, her father didn’t have a clue. He’d always sit at the desk, zoning out over a book full of Chinese characters. Sometimes the whole afternoon would go by without him turning the page. She asked her father what it was, and why she couldn’t understand it. Her father would tell her, as long as she continued to study, one day she would be able to understand it, and realize that Chinese stories were a thousand times more exciting than TV.
What kind of stories? Julia looked at this beautiful, well-dressed young candidate, and couldn’t help but fantasize.
The China she understood from her college education was one in which girls were second-class, subsisting under the dual pressures of capitalism and chauvinism. While still in their mothers’ wombs, they were in danger of being destroyed. They faced all kinds of gender-based discrimination during their studies and at work. Eventually, they were forced to marry and have children early, and take on the traditional role of the female. She heard even their sex education was practically non-existent. This girl named “Zhenzhen,” though, didn’t look like she’d experienced any of the oppression described in the books; when she took her shoes off at the door, Julia saw the Tod’s mark on the sole—more than 500 dollars a pair! Julia couldn’t even imagine.
Mrs. Wong bought the Upper East Side apartment 30 years ago, fixed it up, and never moved again.
Entering, the first thing one saw was a bronze Buddha from Nepal, a gift from her father to her Buddhist mother. Behind it was an abstract piece she bought in her 40s, its reds and purples offsetting the soft bronze light of the Buddha. The sitting room had been designed by her older half-sister. The highlights were two Northern Song dynasty screens, which her mother had originally brought from Shanghai. Painted with pines and red-crowned cranes, symbolizing longevity, they had survived the caprices of history. The main piece of furniture was a wooden dresser from the late Ming carved with flowers, and a glass-topped coffee-table with stone legs. Pink crystal on the coffee table improved the feng shui. To the side of the coffee table were an early Qing-period wooden chair and bamboo basket collected by her brother-in-law. The piano was one that she had played for decades; the sound was still pure. When her granddaughter was young, she’d always sit at Mrs. Wong’s knee, asking her to play Bach, but that had come to an end when the girl grew older.
The black-and-white photograph by the sofa showed her and her parents in front of their old house on Shanghai’s Avenue Pétain; she was a young girl then. The picture next to it was from her son’s wedding in Central Park. Her daughter-in-law, who was from a wealthy Jewish family, stood with her parents amid the Asian faces. The couple looked naturally sweet together, whereas the two families, trying too hard to appear friendly, ended up looking like strangers. The picture after this one was of Mrs. Wong’s mother’s 100th birthday celebration. All the women in the family dressed in qipao they’d brought from Shanghai, in beautiful teal, emerald, crimson, and ivory. The banquet was held at the Waldorf-Astoria. The old woman was very happy, and joked with all the guests. Later, she whispered to her youngest daughter, Mrs. Wong, “My baby girl, you look the prettiest, and the happiest.”
Mrs. Wong had greatly enjoyed helping her mother with the party. Time flowed backwards as the wine was poured, and she felt like a young girl again: The wooden floorboards at their house in Shanghai had creaked; a symphony was made by the leather shoes of female guests. She had been very small, and even if she made an effort to look up, she could only just make out the corded buttons on the qipao, and the embroidered butterflies, plum blossoms and ruyi 1. After she arrived in the States, time passed extremely quickly: English, books, high school, university, work, general manager, CEO. Her children often said that she should write a memoir, and the Chinese media expressed interest, but it seemed to her that the days had slipped past like pages ripped from a calendar. At night, when she closed her eyes, what she’d see were those qipao, draped over powdered legs like lotus roots, fluttering as the ladies turned.
It has been four decades since China opened up. After Mrs. Wong retired from her corporate job, she came in contact with people in Chinese-language media in New York. Their soft Taiwanese accents had gradually given way over the years into bold, precise northern Mandarin, differently flavored from her Shanghai-tinged accent. Mrs. Wong loved music and art. At first, she helped a few promising young students studying at Juilliard. As the work increased, she set up a foundation for Sino-American cultural exchange. Somehow, she became busier than before she retired. Now that Julia was leaving to pursue a PhD, she’d interviewed almost a dozen bright young women in order to find a new assistant. All of them had grown up in the USA, were confident and capable, but almost recklessly so. To be her left and right hands, to interact with philanthropists and world-class performance troupes every day, one had to have restraint. She remembered a word her mother had taught her: “demure.”
This girl, Zhenzhen, was the first Chinese. Because her English was good, she’d been recommended by Julia. She was pretty, dignified, and studied only at prestigious schools. She asked the girl a few questions, found her well-spoken, and—except for the fact that she didn’t have an American accent—able to assist her. She was only a little wary of the fact that the girl was from the mainland—her eyes were too bright, and it was hard to tell if this was a good or bad thing.
People’s spirits are high when they are happy. Auntie Wu’s face was full of color. Her beloved son had finally moved back from the West Coast to New York.
Her son was her greatest source of pride. David excelled from a young age, and was accepted to an accelerated class, meaning he could have entered university at 16. She only kept him behind because she couldn’t bear to have him leave home at such a young age to be with much older kids. He went from Shanghai’s best secondary school to Shanghai’s best university, got a scholarship to the best PhD program in the States, and became the envy of the neighborhood.
The only thing that worried Auntie Wu is that David never had a girlfriend. Still, she wasn’t too worried; with such an excellent resume, he could get any girl he wanted. She thought it over, and fixed her sights on Zhenzhen, who seemed more suitable the more she thought about it. She could almost picture them toasting her with tea at their wedding; she could almost see their beautiful sons and daughters growing up.
Back home, Auntie Wu had been renowned for her efficiency. At this point, she upgraded her treatment of Zhenzhen, making her nicer lunches, even sneaking portions of afternoon tea to save for her.
The Chinese girl was obedient and polite. After half a month of this game, she suggested a date to Zhenzhen, and realized that her worries were unfounded. The young lady generously agreed to go to a concert in the park with David—things were looking up.
Since then, Auntie Wu came to Mrs. Wong’s not just to work, but to see her daughter-in-law. What other potential mother-in-law was so lucky? She could observe her future daughter at close range, and the more she saw, the more she was pleased. Aside from her looks, Zhenzhen dressed appropriately and could talk about complex topics and important affairs. Auntie Wu couldn’t help but grin whenever she thought about Zhenzhen. She frequently hinted to her husband that there was good news on the way.
After a few months, though, she hadn’t seen any progress. With David so busy with work, Auntie Wu didn’t want to bring it up, but finally made a cryptic reference one night at dinner. Her son mumbled some reply, but didn’t go into detail. Auntie Wu was unhappy. Her son was still young and wanted to play around. But if he let this one go, how would he find another? Thinking about this, Auntie Wu, who had never been angry with her son, pounded the table and opened her mouth to scold. He looked up from his rice bowl mid-shovel.
“Mom, forget it. Look at Zhenzhen’s family background. You think she’d be interested in us?”
Auntie Wu was at a loss for words.
Zhenzhen found the job increasingly boring.
From childhood to adulthood, Zhenzhen had never had to put up with any hardship; when one has countless advantages, one stops seeing them as such. She wasn’t enterprising; she liked being independent simply because it was fun. Her first job had been in a gallery where she’d dealt with modern art. Her second was at luxury brand store dealing with bags and apparel that would drop in value the following season. They involved serving women from wealthy families, young and old. They were not very different from women she’d met through friends of friends, over afternoon tea maybe, so Zhenzhen never felt inferior. It felt more like cosplay; if she was the maid, it was just to pass the time.
This job was even more strange. Aside from arranging a few large-scale events, Zhenzhen wasn’t very busy. Every day, she’d come from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side; it was called a job, but to Zhenzhen it felt more like being a companion to a distant relative, a declining aristocrat of the noble blood she’d always craved. She didn’t know what was up with Auntie Wu, who’d become more and more attentive to her, as if she wasn’t a mere assistant, but a daughter of the house.
In her free time, Zhenzhen usually just stared at Mrs. Wong and zoned out, thinking about how her life might have been during its 80-year course; did she have a carefree 20s like herself? Did she have a foreign boyfriend? Was she pressured by her family to “choose” a Chinese man of similar social standing to marry? Was her wedding a big noisy event, or a bespoken and elegant affair? How many of her own decisions had she made in her life? Now, in her old age, after her dashing husband had passed away, living alone in this exquisite apartment—was Mrs. Wong happy? Did she ever regret anything?
She couldn’t read Mrs. Wong’s thoughts, much less understand them. She was someone from another era, Zhenzhen thought. Slowly, she lost interest in conjecturing about Mrs. Wong’s life, and turned her attention to the décor of the apartment, how all the art from different eras were coordinated; how the colors matched. She thought about her future wedding, her future family. Thus, making plans, the days slipped by.
She was amused when Auntie Wu timidly took out her son’s picture. To give face to her elder, she took the initiative to call David and set up a date at Central Park.
David was tall and good-looking; more importantly, he’d been in the States for a long time and acquired a casual air, yet maintained some aspects of a traditional Chinese man. The two of them looked great together. Zhenzhen could tell only after a few interactions that he was different from the obedient son in Auntie Wu’s tales. While he didn’t have a girlfriend, she had no idea how many bedmates he’d had.
Once they saw through one another, things got more relaxed. Dates at concerts turned to bars and clubs, then—one thing leading to another—each other’s beds. They also confided in one another, especially when both were tipsy. David told Zhenzhen stories. Once, he told her about the only girl he’d seriously dated, an Asian-American heiress, who said to him approvingly in English: “You’re my first mainlander.” Zhenzhen sensed that David had received a blow to his self-confidence, so she raised her glass, playfully, “To my first mainlander.” He came over to kiss her. They had sex.
Things just stalled there. They were satisfied with the way things were, and didn’t want to take it further. Auntie Wu started giving her dirty looks, her lunches became meager, and there was no more sharing of the afternoon tea. Zhenzhen’s mind was nimble, and she immediately understood. It was depressing to face Auntie Wu, which made her even less motivated to go to Mrs. Wong’s.
Her father was getting pushy too; there was no more wiggle room. The day before, she suddenly received a message from him:
“Uncle Wang’s son is back from Wall Street. He works at China International Capital. I’ve given him your WeChat; please make contact.”
Zhenzhen didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Her father had been an official for so long, he talked to his own daughter like he was assigning work. Not long after, a friend request from “Uncle” Wang’s son arrived on her phone.
Her father was right: China was so much fun! No wonder so many “foreigners” like herself elected to stay, even though the air was so polluted. After she’d quit her job, she had bought a one-way ticket to Beijing, originally intending to study Chinese. Before she knew it, six months had passed.
Julia studied at Peking University every day, starting with pinyin. The last time she’d studied Chinese so systematically, her adult teeth were still coming in, and she only remembered her teacher telling her to put her hands behind her back and sit still. Because of this, she hadn’t wanted to go to Chinese school anymore. But it was different now. She’d never seen so many people of her race before. Growing up in a white society had given her “face blindness,” and she was frequently startled to see people that looked like her in all manner of occupations: a teacher who looked like her, a cook who looked like her, a waiter who looked like her, a driver who looked like her…
In the afternoon, after finishing her homework, Julia would go tutor the children of middle-class families. This job took her all around the city, and she came to know the wealthy areas. These new compounds and houses formed a new world before her eyes; her textbooks had never covered this prosperous China. All she had to do was play with these children for an hour, and earned 60 USD for her time. She doubted she could earn such money in the States. The children were mostly polite, fond of studying, and full of curiosity and longing about her and the America she represented.
Weekends, Julia would go out with Americans around Houhai, Gulou, Wudaoying, Sanlitun. Some were like her, fresh off the boat; others had been in China or Beijing for a decade or even two—photographers, musicians, filmmakers, DJs, boutique owners…it felt like an Oriental New York. Even a bartending license she’d obtained on a whim in college proved useful. Not only did it bring her income beyond her wildest imagination, it also allowed her to find a boyfriend, a “foreigner” who spoke fluent Chinese. After he graduated from Yale, he’d come to PKU to study Chinese, planning to return to the States after getting his Master’s, but he hadn’t counted on falling in love with Beijing. Now he owned two bars, and enjoyed minor fame in Beijing’s expat circles.
They lived together in a hutong near Gulou. Although the area was packed day and night, if one took a turn off the most well-known alleys, towards ones like hers, it was almost as quiet as the American suburb where her parents lived. The bathroom in the ancient house had been renovated by the previous Swedish occupant, so she didn’t need to use the public toilet down the lane, like the old men and women who were her neighbors. Through her boyfriend, she came to know the owners of almost all the trendy stores nearby. Most of them didn’t come from Beijing, and some weren’t even from China, so they formed a friendly group of their own. Somehow, in this Chinese city where even her own parents had never lived, Julia felt she had her own community for the first time in her life.
Of all the jobs that she’d had, the most profitable was temping as a bartender at big hotels. For these Beijing families with traditional parents and Westernized children, every hour of the day was filled with compromise. At the wedding banquets, the children insisted on an open bar, but some tatted-up white dude wasn’t going to fly. At times like this, Julia’s race and sex reassured the parents.
This weekend, she was going to a newly opened luxury hotel in the city center to tend at a wedding; she’d heard it was another marriage of officialdom and commerce.
Mrs. Wong realized that she was old, especially after Zhenzhen left.
She almost wasn’t sure if she had the energy to interview girl after girl for the position. When Zhenzhen was there, everything was handled very competently. However, after she left, Mrs. Wong realized she didn’t know Zhenzhen at all. She wasn’t like Julia, frank and honest, sharing her youthful ambitions and dreams with an 80-year-old woman. She would just quietly complete the tasks given to her, and say, “It’s all taken care of; please don’t worry.” Occasionally, she would hear Zhenzhen and Auntie Wu chatting, intimate yet tactful. She hadn’t seen Auntie Wu become so enamored with any of her previous assistants, but after Zhenzhen left, Auntie Wu never spoke of her again. Mrs. Wong knew there must have been something left unsaid.
To promote her mother’s autobiography, Mrs. Wong boarded yet another flight to Beijing. It felt odd not to have an assistant beside her. The plans forwarded by the Beijing organizers showed a full schedule each day. She didn’t want to participate in some of the activities, namely those “face-giving” banquets. She was old, and had bowed to convention and rules her whole life; maybe it was time to relax, to try to get out of whatever events she could.
The organizers respected her feelings, and removed some items from the itinerary, but there was a wedding they left in. The family of the bride had helped tremendously with the publication of her mother’s book.
It was a very luxurious ceremony, representing everything that China’s new aristocracy could desire. As soon as Mrs. Wong arrived at the banquet hall, a girl in a Western-style suit greeted her, showed her to her seat, exchanged pleasantries, and introduced her to the other VIPs. The groom’s father was the head of a state-owned enterprise; the bride’s father was a bureaucrat in China’s ministry of culture. It was a match made in heaven.
The door opened, and six bridesmaids entered in single file, followed by the handsome young groom in a tuxedo. Tall and upright, he made Mrs. Wong think of the frat boys she’d seen in America. Last to enter was the cultural minister with his progeny. The bride’s head was covered with a white veil; her train was three meters long. She walked with swaying steps up to a stage that had been built the night before. Mrs. Wong thought her own mother’s wedding must have been like this, held at the swankiest place in Shanghai, crowded with guests in gorgeous clothes and perfumed hair. By her generation, everything had been simplified, showing not much difference from the children of the ordinary middle class. She tried to pick out some flaws in these nouveau riche of low birth: The flowers were white peonies and buttercups; the banquet started with cocktails and tapas; there were three main courses and a vegetarian option; and there was cake, as well as Cantonese sweet water. The party favors were Wing Wah wedding biscuits imported from Hong Kong; there was no melodrama, no campy performances. It was an East-West fusion without pretension, demonstrating the thoughtfulness of the bride.
As she was thinking this, the groom lifted the veil, and the hall erupted in thunderous cheering and applause. She couldn’t help but be curious, wanting to see if this girl was as beautiful as she was tasteful. She looked at the oval-shaped face, beautiful eyes, perfect teeth…the makeup covered up her youth to an extent, but Mrs. Wong recognized her instantly: It was Zhenzhen.
The bride’s gaze floated down to the stage. As their eyes met, Mrs. Wong could see that, in her youth, she couldn’t hide that glint of triumph in her eyes. She was nodding faintly, no longer that obedient little assistant; she had suddenly transformed into a noblewoman.
Perhaps, Mrs. Wong thought, I have come to China for the last time.
– Translated by Moy Hau (梅皓)
Author’s Note: This story explores shifts in fortune among the overseas Chinese communities. When I first went to study in Hong Kong, mainlanders were considered unsophisticated and behind the times. Now, mainland elites are decked out in designer-brand clothing, purchase luxury apartments, and send their children to study in Ivy League universities. Meanwhile, mainland women (like myself), born in the post-1980s period of rapid economic growth, received the best opportunities that money could buy, and were treated like their male counterparts perhaps for the first time in Chinese history. How have the different generations of overseas Chinese negotiated these new power dynamics? And has this second coming of the “new woman” phenomenon allowed women to choose a path that is different from what was prescribed by tradition?
Fiction: The Socialite is a story from our issue, “Curiosities and Quests.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.