Li Zi Ning walks into my office, puts the paper on my desk, and leaves without saying a word. I study the ten characters he has written across the top of the otherwise empty page. At a glance, the phrase means nothing to me; I can’t easily read Mandarin. But after looking for a moment, my mind relaxes, and I see that I can pronounce these characters. I say the words aloud under my breath, and through hearing the sounds, I understand that this is the chengyu, the proverb that Zi Ning taught me yesterday at lunch. Ma shan bei ren qi, ren shan bei ren qi. As the gentle horse will be ridden, so the gentle person will be bullied. But in Mandarin the words for ridden and bullied are homonyms, giving the phrase a cadence that doesn’t carry into English.
I know that this is a pointed message, not merely one of Zi Ning’s occasional language lessons. His belief in my innocence pains me. My head bent down, eyes fixed on the wooden table in front of me, I take the paper and crumple it in my hand.
The call with headquarters in Chicago didn’t go well. Zi Ning looked across the table at me over the conference phone and said, “You didn’t tell them.” I looked down at the newspaper clippings that he gave me a week before with his English translation typed out and paper-clipped to the top. The headline read, Cement Company Uses Untreated Sea Sand in Construction Projects.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t.” The article was from a newspaper in the south, known for pushing the boundaries of what was printable. The salt in the sea sand corrodes the structure’s steel over time. It also reduces the compressive strength of the concrete it is used in. But of course it is cheaper than river sand. What I hadn’t told headquarters was that the company featured in the article was one of the suppliers for our bridge project—our only project—in the west of China. They may or may not have sold our project bad cement. We just didn’t know.
I didn’t tell headquarters any of this on the call. Things were already not going well. Chicago was upset with us because we had no new business, no business at all beyond the one bridge project that we were brought in on by a development bank. Zi Ning and I were both engineers, not salesmen. Business development wasn’t our thing. I had been brought out to manage the project and expand the office. Headquarters hired Zi Ning before I arrived, with the expectation that he would be able to do business development in China just by dint of his being Chinese. As if speaking fluent Mandarin were enough to understand and do everything in the whole country. Their ignorance was all the more embarrassing to me because I shared it when I first showed up; it was hard to admit to myself how long it took me to see the flaw in their thinking. When it came to business development, Zi Ning’s problem wasn’t diffidence, but indifference. I sympathized with his priorities, even if I couldn’t afford them myself anymore, having been promoted into management.
But I couldn’t share with Zi Ning what I knew—that headquarters wouldn’t care much about the integrity of the bridge. We had been subcontracted to a development bank to provide structural engineering services to the project but not to oversee implementation. Under Chinese law we weren’t even allowed on the site. We also weren’t liable for any problems. I put my hands on my forehead and leaned back in my chair, looking up at the ceiling. “I wish we could just do an inspection.” I wasn’t used to working like this. I was used to being able to see and have a say in the results of our designs.
Zi Ning nodded. “But in China . . .” He shrugged, “Mei banfa.” There is nothing that can be done. He was talking about us, but the phrase was used so pervasively in Chinese that each use seemed also to refer to a universal condition.
“Legally speaking, this isn’t our problem.” This anyway was how the company felt, but I thought it was better that Li Zi Ning hear it from me. I couldn’t change the reality we were both stuck in, but I could try to make it better for him. It was one more problem of a list I was already keeping from him.
But my words just seemed out of character to him. He looked puzzled and said, “So, you just follow suit, according to the law?” I knew he had learned “follow suit” as a standalone idiom, but not yet mastered the context. I got the point anyway.
“No,” I said. “I feel responsible.”
He nodded, “Yes.” He was silent for a moment before repeating, “You didn’t tell them.”
I said, “We don’t know if they’re using the bad cement or not. It is better to wait until we know.” I knew right then I had crossed a line from hiding reality to changing it, that it was a sign of how much I was struggling to keep control. I was under pressure from headquarters to replace Zi Ning. They wouldn’t care about cement in the bridge, but they might see this information as useful, even though the problem had nothing to do with him. I knew their capacity to look at any data and see only what they wanted to.
I couldn’t afford their meddling. I trusted Zi Ning and relied on his judgment. It was their fault that he had been hired to do the wrong thing. They didn’t understand our situation, and their ideas about how we should manage it weren’t helpful. Also, I had no idea how to replace Zi Ning even if I wanted to. I said to him, “Maybe they wouldn’t dare to use this cement on a foreign-invested project?”
He spread his hands, “Bu zhidao.” And then in English, “I don’t know.” He grimaced.
“You’ve heard nothing from the development bank?” He shook his head. When we notified the bank of the problem, they had responded without alarm, or really any indication that they planned to do anything about it.
“Okay.” I said. I wondered how long I had with Chicago before my head was on the block too. I knew that Zi Ning was expecting more from me, and from the bank, and also from headquarters, and the burden of his many expectations weighed on my mind more than any dangers from weak cement.
I met Wang Mei Ling a month after I arrived in Beijing at an industry trade show held in the ugly north of the city where there were few trees, and the dust from the Gobi and construction of the nearby Olympic stadiums blew unimpeded down the wide, bare avenues. I remember that in just the short dash from the cab to the door of the exhibition hall, I had so much grit in my clothes that I had to stand in the entryway, brushing it out of the folds of the fabric.
Mei Ling and I were the only two women at the show, but she was singular in her Gucci sunglasses and her leather jacket with its collar and sleeves trimmed in mink. She was obviously relieved to see me. She came straight over and said something in Mandarin. By then, I was used to being mistaken for Chinese. I shook my head, “Wo bu hui zhong wen.”
“Ah,” she said, “okay.” From the beginning, the fact that her English was atrocious never kept her from speaking it. She introduced herself with her English name, “Miranda,” and extended a fish hand from the fur sleeve of her coat, like a 1950s movie star.
Later, when my Mandarin had improved, I asked her about that fur coat in all of that blowing sand. She looked at me expressively, as if glad at last to find someone who understood her experience. It was terrible, she said, but I should have seen Beijing ten years ago because it used to be much worse.
I knew this to be wrong. In the past ten years, the Gobi Desert had moved closer to Beijing, and the work of rebuilding the low brick city into towering steel and concrete structures had clouded the air with dust. But without language, there was no way for me to clarify. I assumed that, if not factually correct, the story contained a metaphor that had meaning for her. It anyway revealed a real quality of hers that I never again saw in any other person—her way of acting as if she had emerged from the womb swaddled in mink, even though she had been born during the Cultural Revolution.
She was the wife of the CEO of a major construction company called New Century. Her father had been someone important in the army. It made no sense to me that she was at the conference, and I never expected to see her again. But she called me a week later when I was leaving the office. It was a hot August day, and I remember my disgust at how the close smog left my sweat unctuous on my skin. I was standing under the Third Ring Road, just to the right of the place where the CCTV towers would go up—and in one case burn down—a few years later. Then, it was an old, Communist-style housing block marked for demolition, its outer walls spray-painted with the white characters, Chai diao: tear down. I could hardly hear her over the reverberations off the elevated freeway overhead, the car horns echoing from every direction. “Sorry.” I said, “wrong number.” No one ever called me. Standing on the corner, I was getting shoved by the throngs of commuters crossing the street as the light turned, and I almost fell off the curb into an onslaught of bicycles. I could hear the person on the other end still had not hung up. “Goodbye!” I said, and it was then that she howled, “Julie, wo shi Mei Ling!” which I also didn’t understand, but I recognized my own name, which kept me from hanging up. I met up with her because she asked me to, and because I had nothing else to do. In those early days, it was never in my mind that she might be able to help me.
It must have been six months later that I met Jon at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club at a talk on the Chinese construction industry where he was the main speaker—he covered the topic for an American paper. By then he had been in Beijing for ten years, which meant he arrived just after Tiananmen.
“Why then?” I asked him. I meant to talk to him about New Century. He had mentioned it briefly in his talk. But this question just flew out when he told me he came right after ’89. I hated these expat networking events. I had gulped my drink while waiting in line to talk to him and now was forced to make conversation without any reserve in my glass, which I twirled in my fingers as I spoke.
Looking over my head at the room, with its pressed tablecloths and wine-drinking Westerners, he said, “It was a much better time to be here than now.”
I knew his kind; I had encountered it many times before. I would have bet money that he had the best Mandarin you’d ever heard on a white guy and an apartment full of Communist kitsch. “Do you know the people at New Century? You mentioned them in your talk.”
He shook his head. “No. I’d love to. I don’t have any connections there. Hard to get access.” He didn’t ask me anything else.
“I know Lou Zheng Da’s wife, Wang Mei Ling.” I watched him closely to see what this meant to him and felt vindicated by his reaction.
He frowned, seemed to focus on me in a new way—maybe wondering how this rapacious capitalist blow-in had made a connection that he couldn’t. “How do you know her?” he asked.
“Oh,” I looked longingly over my shoulder at the table where they were serving the wine, “we play golf sometimes.”
She practiced her swing at a driving range in the east of the city. I don’t play golf, so I just sat and watched. It was strange to me that she played. Almost no one in China did, even though golf courses were being planned across the country.
“Oh, I got into golf years ago when I was in Hong Kong,” she told me when I finally could manage the language enough to ask. We sat side by side sipping tea out of paper cups while she was on a break. The range was mostly empty, and when she stopped speaking, apart from the distant jackhammering, the only sound was the occasional pop of a ball down the range. We watched them take flight, rising up against the huge nets that stopped them short of the dense gardens of high-rise cement buildings beyond.
I did not know how to respond to this. I often felt myself silenced when she divulged any detail of her exceptional life, as if I were permitted her confidences only because she trusted that I had the good manners never to comment. Very few Chinese people could get a visa to go to Hong Kong even then, let alone in the era she referred to, almost twenty years before, and the statement begged a question even before she said, “I was in Hong Kong because I was fleeing army service.” It seemed to me that in her pause that she was waiting for me to react. But I said nothing. She continued. “My father, as you know, was a general. I joined to please him. It was expected, you know, he was . . . so angry”—this she said in English—“with me when I left.” She sat back and sighed, looking out at the range.
I struggled mentally to enter into her world, a place where she lived high and afloat on money and connections and yet was still so exposed to her bad choices that she sometimes had to flee the country to escape them. I wondered why she spent time with me, wondered if it was because my foreignness allowed her to speak freely about her life. I felt like a child when we were together, with my restricted language and grasp of her reality. And because she spoke no other languages, I think that at times she took this childlike aspect as a true reflection of myself, a mistake that added to her sense of safety. I tolerated this faint and persistent humiliation in our friendship because, though strange, hers was a more candid view of the country than I got from anyone else, and this understanding felt like progress in a way that was eluding me professionally.
But it was a limited kind of progress. As I looked over at her, I also realized I had no idea if that intense look on her face was because she was lost in the memory and experience of her proscribed circumstances, or if this story was incidental to her, and she had already gone back to thinking about how to perfect her swing.
“Did you ever feel bad that you left the army?” I meant the family obligation, not the way of life. The question came out crudely because I didn’t know the word for regret, and also because I felt I was breaking a taboo in asking.
She laughed harshly and shook her head. No. She said. No. She stood abruptly, picked up the club, thrust it over at me and said, “Shi y shi.” Try.
I shook my head. I hated golf. She rolled her eyes and landed the club in my palms so hard that it hurt. She then repeated—this time in her approximation of English, “Try!” So I picked up the club, not because I wanted to, but because I simply lacked the language to object.
She had no official job, but to say she was just Lou Zheng Da’s wife belied her influence. I remember her taking a phone call from him once when we were out shopping in one of the narrow alleyways alongside the Sanlitun Silk Market. A moment before, she was lecturing the shopkeeper on the poor quality of her brand-name fakes, but when she answered the phone, her tone changed. “Sorry,” she said to me, “my husband.” On the phone, she switched to Mandarin. “No,” was all she said, “no, no, no no, no.” Silence. And then, “Just a minute.” She looked sharply at me and said, “Julie, you wait here for a minute.” Without waiting for a response, she walked out the open front of the shop and across the street to stand under a cottonwood poplar that was filling the narrow alleyway with a flurry of white fluffy seeds. She shielded her mouth with her hand as she spoke.
Later that night, when we were in a cab on our way to a restaurant, we passed a development in the northeast of the city. She tapped her finger on the window, manicured nail clicking against the glass, and said with irritation, “This is ours.”
“Those apartments?” I asked. I was confused. It didn’t look like their type of development.
She shook her head, “No, no. The land. This garbage will come down.” She waved her hand expansively at the apartment building. She didn’t explain further.
A week later when I took a cab past that section of the city, the apartments were gone. In those days, there also was an illusory quality to the built environment, which was being remade at a pace that overwhelmed the senses. Buildings came and went at such speed that landmarks lost their meaning; you couldn’t fix on them in trying to learn the city because the next day they might be gone. It was sometimes hard to know if, in going back to a place, a whole city block had vanished, or if you had never seen it at all. But the image of what came before the rubble of those apartment buildings was fixed in my mind. Their demolition gave me a sense of unease that all the rest of the wreckage in the city failed to because I had seen the will that lay behind their fall.
When I asked Zi Ning about New Century Construction, he looked up from his work and said, “Xin Shi Jie?” I nodded. He looked away and said, “Zhidaole.” Yes, he knew them. He held my eyes, and I had the sense of him looking though me to the root of my question. Then he looked back at his computer and continued with his work. My inquiry had been assessed and dismissed. I felt confused by his response, even as I realized that I had been expecting it.
I can still see in my mind that first time that he met her—the way she walked through the door and demanded something from him before blowing right past him into my office. I hadn’t known that it was possible to address a person directly while ignoring him entirely until I saw her do it to Zi Ning. Though in truth, Zi Ning wasn’t the first person I ever saw her do this to. It was just the first time I really noticed.
But he saw her. She wasn’t even dressed outrageously, none of the Ferragamo shoes or fur that I sometimes saw her out in, though never out in the general public. The tu hao, with their ostentatious displays of wealth, came later. This was before all of that, when her kind of wealth was still extremely rare. She knew better. But Zi Ning also knew better and saw her straightaway for what she was.
Later he said to me, “Your Mandarin has improved since you came to know her.” That was the only opinion about anything to do with her that he ever offered. I think it was after her visit that I first started to be aware of something hard and unspoken between us. I assumed that it was her, but it wasn’t just her. He had watched me continue to do nothing to get to the bottom of the bad cement in our construction project. I think he started to feel that my distress was only lip service, and after being confronted too often with my evasive responses, he replaced his questions with reproachful silence. I didn’t blame him; I reproached myself as well but kept silent about it. My feelings didn’t mean anything. But I didn’t know what to do about the cement, so I accepted his disapproval. Mei banfa.
“Ju Li.” Wang Mei Ling said to me, putting down her golf club and taking a seat beside me. “I asked some friends of mine about your company, and they had never heard of you.” I looked at her. She took a sip of her tea and said, “Maybe I know some people in the government that you should meet.”
“It’s not her company,” I snapped, and then looked down at the table, embarrassed.
Jon looked at me over the top of his beer before he said, “Yeah, okay.” We were in the popular pizza restaurant in the back alley of Sanlitun where we usually met. He had just dropped that “her” company had hired a gang to beat up a bunch of hutong residents who were refusing to leave their homes, which were located on a site that was meant to be cleared for the construction of one of her shopping malls.
“How do you know about this?”
“I heard about it through a friend of mine at Beijing News. I can’t find it printed anywhere, and of course it’s not going to be.” He annoyed me. His indignation seemed like a pastime that he wouldn’t enjoy so much if he were actually subjected to the violence and censorship that so offended him. But at least he wasn’t defensive like me. I put my elbows on the table, lowered my head, and placed my palms over my eyes.
I saw the city as it must have been in the years before I arrived, its streets that branched into thousands of unique alleys, cooled by the shade of overhanging trees, full of life and humming with people and bicycles. It was easy to build these images by working backwards from the progress I had seen advance with every year since I arrived: public spaces devoured to make way for anonymous buildings, giant and enclosed. Lifting my head from my hands, I looked over at Jon, who sat with a cigarette in one hand, the other folded across his thin body. He appeared not to notice, or to feel the need to comment on my crestfallen posture, as though for him this was an ordinary response to the everyday course of existence. He took a drag on his cigarette and asked, “What about the cement in your bridge?”
“What? Oh. Nothing.” I gulped my beer. “Nothing with that.” There was a cold draft of air as the door to the restaurant opened. I looked up and recognized the group that was entering. They waved at Jon. He waved back, and they seemed to start toward us, but they spotted me and moved away, taking a different table.
He raised his eyebrows, “They’re not using the sea salt cement on your projects?”
“Right. Yeah,” I said, and then, “She must be very well connected. Or they must be—New Century.”
“Yes,” he said flatly and looked at me, puzzled. He started to say something and then stopped, perhaps recalibrating. It is hard for me to believe now that I wasn’t feigning innocence then, but I wasn’t. Then, I still saw military, politics and money as categorically different, rather than as just subcategories of power. Still, I sensed my stupidity and squirmed as I stared down into my beer.
Lying in my bed at night, I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the thirty-seventh story into the Beijing sky. I used to think that everything was chained to its place on the Earth, but I left that idea in Las Vegas years ago. I remember I was looking out at a view like this, twenty stories up, through the unclad skeleton of a skyscraper. I saw the welder even in the faded, dusky light of the shadowing mountains, his herky-jerky movements as he struck and missed the arc, the blue light of his torch flaring, flickering, and vanishing. Then he struck and missed again.
Unhooking my radio from my belt, I called down to the superintendent and told him that he had a hopped-up welder that he needed to get down off the building. I then hung my head and waited, looking down at my boots, planted at the center on the thirty-six-inch span of the flange, with a two-hundred-foot drop on either side down to the exposed foundation of the building below. High up, with no barriers and low wind, the sound carried, and I could hear the crackle in the welder’s radio as his supervisor called over to him. I waited to see that he was moving, and then I walked, harnesses dragging, back along the I-beam to the cage of the construction elevator and rode down facing west toward the heliolithic city, its buildings all turned gold with the reflected glow of the setting sun.
“Don’t push this, Julie. It’s not appropriate to do this now,” my supervisor told me when I wrote a report to get the welder suspended. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the words coming from his mouth. A month before, a new building in Nevada had collapsed because the county inspector had failed to do his job and missed some poorly installed rebar. I understood that heroin use was a frequent problem with welders, that welders were hard to find and replace, and that removing this man would delay the project and increase costs. All of these things I already understood. What was new to me was the way he eviscerated the word appropriate when he spoke, carving out the meaning and employing only its empty, shame-eliciting sounds to ferry his backward vision out into the world.
It was then that I started to understand how lightly we are set down, unanchored by truth. At the time, I felt myself worse off for knowing it, but as I lay still in bed, my eyes tracking the constant motion of the city’s neon lights in the smoggy Beijing sky, I was grateful that I had been prepared before I came here, or else this reality might have overmastered me.
Several weeks later, Zi Ning and I went to a meeting that Mei Ling set up at the development and planning commission with a group in charge of the bids for the redevelopment of the central business district. Then, the commission’s offices were still housed in the 1960s concrete-block building to the west of Tiananmen. It was November. The weather had just turned, and the thousands of coal-fired stoves in the city had heated up for the first time that year, heaving all the settled ash out of their bellies into the fall air. The office windows were cracked open, admitting the cold, sulphurous wind. I was the unprepared party, dressed in only one layer rather than the requisite three. I sat shivering.
Zi Ning had finished giving his presentation, and we all sat in silence. I looked back and forth between the three business cards on the table in front of me, lined up in the order of the three officials who sat across the table. I didn’t know who the principal was, but the man who sat in the center, Hong Jun, did the talking. Zi Ning and I had decided ahead of time that I would not speak, as neither my Mandarin nor my cultural acumen was up to the task.
Still, my language was good enough for me to follow most of the presentation. What I could not catch the meaning of was this long silence, either from our counterparts or from Zi Ning. I had no idea if he knew what he was doing, or if he had utterly blown it, and I regretted that I had agreed to be gagged. In China, the person who speaks the least is often in charge. But I felt hamstrung, not powerful, and I questioned whether the aura of silent authority really translated in practice onto me, an Asian woman. If I had been a white man, Hong Jun might have believed it, but surely I was just a secretary to him.
I’d had enough. I turned to Zi Ning, “Can you ask them when the bid requirements will be announced and what they will want from us?” In response to this request, Zi Ning nodded his head and said nothing. No one said anything. I counted slowly to fifteen before saying, “Are you going to ask?”
Zi Ning nodded, “Wait one little moment.” In my head, I could hear the Chinese for this—xiao deng yi huar—and knew that he intended to ignore my request. The space between my shoulders tightened.
Meanwhile, Hong Jun took out a box of cigarettes, lit one, and pushed the carton in Zi Ning’s direction. Zi Ning stopped the carton short by waving his palm back and forth in a “no” gesture, and Hong Jun, looking impish, nudged the carton toward me and then looked startled when I reached out my hand and nodded. I had taken up smoking since coming to Beijing as a means of inoculating myself against the city’s acrid air.
He hesitated, looked at Zi Ning—as though asking permission from my father—and then he looked back at me and said, “Zhen de?” Really?
I made little “gimme” motions with the fingers of my extended hand. Yes, really. He actually giggled and then, almost shouting, pointed at the cigarettes and said, “Zhong Nan Hai,”—that was their brand—“okay le ma?” Wang Mei Ling spoke to me like I was a child, but he also spoke to me like I was an idiot, enunciating each word to the point of deforming it. Before I had a chance to respond, he turned to Zi Ning and said, “Can she speak any Chinese?”
I was getting ready to say I could speak some Chinese, but Zi Ning beat me to it. “Yi diar dou bu hui.”—Not even a word. I took a lighter from my jacket pocket, took a long inhale on the cigarette as I lit it, and looked at Zi Ning out of the corner of my eye. I knew he didn’t trust Mei Ling, but this wasn’t called for.
Hong Jun said to Zi Ning, “Normally foreigners don’t like Zhongnan Hai.” They were foul, that’s why. I knew this to be Hong Jun’s way of suggesting that our collective foreign flesh was weak. Exhaling extravagantly, I gave him the thumbs up. I didn’t like asserting myself in this way, through monkey tricks. But it was what I had.
Hong Jun laughed and narrowed his eyes, looking back at Zi Ning, “She isn’t American Chinese?” This was his second time around with this question.
Zi Ning again seemed annoyed. I was well-practiced in fielding that question in Mandarin and this time was determined to answer for myself. But Zi Ning had the advantage of confidence in the language and also now was anticipating my intentions. He responded forcefully, leaning in front of me as he spoke, partially blocking my view of Hong Jun and cutting off the hesitant sounds I was making. Giving up, I crossed my arms and listened to him explain that I was a Korean adoptee, and in no way Chinese. The explanation was true, and also a betrayal. It saved me the worst judgment of being a Chinese person who couldn’t speak her own language, but left open questions about what my other defects were that my parents would abandon me. Permitted to speak for myself, I would have only said I was Korean. I had been suspicious of Zi Ning, but now I was just angry.
When we stood up to leave, Hong Jun asked if we would join them for dinner. This time, I answered before Zi Ning could, saying in Mandarin that we would be delighted to come. I could feel him beside me, shrinking back in shock. I don’t think he anticipated that I would be willing to let him lose face by making a clear lie of what he had said about my language abilities just a moment before.
Even Hong Jun seemed shocked. In the awkward silence that ensued, I started to review the grammar and syntax of what I had just said. I knew that wasn’t the problem, but confronted with the possible failure of my gambit, I started mentally to bargain down my overt rudeness to a misunderstanding of the language.
But then Hong Jun gurgled in laughter and wagged his finger at Zi Ning, who was looking down at his feet, “The foreigner does speak Chinese!” Hong Jun looked at me and said, “’kay, let’s go together to eat, Ms. Zhu Ai Li.” I never called Zi Ning or Mei Ling by their English names—to do so felt weirdly colonial, or at best plain ignorant. And yet, I liked hearing Hong Jun call me Zhu Ai Li, as though he were invoking a savvier incarnation of myself.
It was just three days after that that Zi Ning walked over to my door, knocked lightly, and barely waited for my response before entering. He came around the back of my chair and pointed at my computer. “I wanted to show you something.” I rolled back my chair, giving him access to the keyboard. Leaning over, he briefly searched the Internet before pulling up a video on the screen and saying to me, “Ni kan.” Watch.
The footage, taken by a handheld camera across a busy street, was of a construction site; the building in it was just a concrete frame with dust rising off the top of it, and there was a commotion on the street. Zi Ning pointed at the screen and said, “Wudaokou,” indicating the site was in the north of Beijing. After a moment, I understood that the dust was from a part of the top floor that had collapsed. I watched as the rest of the floor folded in on itself, breaking through to the two floors below it. The people on the street were screaming, and as the dust started to settle, I could see that there was a person crushed beneath the rubble.
“Oh God,” I said, covering my face. There were lots of reports of construction collapses in China. I tried to keep abreast of them, of why they happened. But this was just before the time when video cameras were ubiquitous in cell phones, and footage of the disasters was rare. There were rumors, but it was hard to know, let alone watch what was really happening. Though of course it is hard now too, for different reasons. I grimaced up at Li Zi Ning by way of asking him why on earth he had shown me this.
Crossing his arms, he looked down at me and asked, “Why do you think it happened?” Without a proper forensic investigation of the collapse, my guess was as good as his. There were plenty of bad practices going on around China in those days that could have made a building fall like that—poorly balanced or incorrectly selected rebar, poor supervision, poorly trained workers, badly mixed cement—anything. But I knew Zi Ning was not asking me about proximate causes.
“Wo bu zhidao,” I said to him. I don’t know. And then I said, “You can’t tell from watching this.” Which he knew already. His response was to lean down over my shoulder and press play again. I tensed up, not wanting to watch the whole horrible scene repeated, not understanding his cruel determination to replay it. But this time he stopped it just two seconds in, before the video zoomed in on the building, and the barrier wall that separated the construction site from the street was still in the frame. “There.” He pointed at the frozen picture, to the characters written along the bottom of the construction wall. “Look.” The characters were blurry, but I could still make them out just from their shape. I felt a pit in my stomach. It said Xin Shi Jie Jian Shi. New Century Construction, Wang Mei Ling’s company.
Even in the silence of my mind, the speed of my justifications shocked me. I turned to look at Zi Ning and said, “I see.” He nodded. “Thank you for showing me this.” I wanted to tell him that I would ask her about it, but I couldn’t stand to hear myself speak the lie aloud. We both knew that I wouldn’t ask, that I wouldn’t dare.
In my apartment, I couldn’t sleep for the jackhammering going on late into the night. I got out of bed and walked into my study that faced the interior courtyard. I sat for a while in silence, looking into the darkness of the other apartments before turning on my computer and searching for the video of the collapse. I couldn’t find it. At first I thought the problem was that I didn’t know how to search very well in Mandarin, but when I went back in my browser history and found the same link that Zi Ning used, I could see that the video had been removed.
Dropping my hands into my lap, I swiveled my chair away from the computer and looked back out the arrow-slit windows of my study. Zi Ning believed that I was too simple to understand what I was involved with. He was right and wrong. If I had known, I knew without believing it, or without wanting to understand. I refreshed the browser, but it was still only the error message that appeared on the screen.
Sitting in the taxi on the way back from work, I rested my head against the window and tried to empty my mind; but before I could even half empty it, it filled up again. The collapsed building, the crushed person. I was angry with Zi Ning for accusing me of something I had no hand in, for his timing in doing this just as I was finally getting somewhere. I was angry with myself for the cowardice of these feelings, but then the indignity of being confronted with my own cowardice made me angry at Zi Ning all over again.
The driver dropped me at the gateway of my development, which I passed through into a henge of high-rises, enclosing what was once meant to be a landscaped area. In the late evening, you could tell from the darkness of the buildings’ windows that half of the apartments weren’t lived in. Cranes loomed behind the inner ring of towers, standing in the site where the second stage of the complex was being built. I walked over to the empty pool, which had been finished, filled, drained, had the plumbing dug up, and now stood empty, with its pipes exposed, for almost a year. Slime was collecting in the bottom around the broken tiles.
Putting down my bag, I looked up around me. I was the only person in the courtyard save for the bizarre statuary that lined the pool—twenty-foot-tall goddesses of some kind of Greco-Balinese pastiche—their faces cracking just two years after their creation, presumably because they, too, were formed out of some inferior aggregate. I put my hands over my eyes, listened to my breathing and realized as I did that my bag was humming with my ringing phone. I bent down and took it out, “Wei?” It was Wang Mei Ling.
“Mei Ling, hello.” The building in my mind collapsed again. I wondered if she had seen the video, if she and her husband had discussed it over dinner, or if they didn’t bother talking about these things.
“You did not call me to tell me about your meeting.”
“I didn’t want to disturb you with it.” This was true. But also a part of me was afraid of her realization that she had overextended her confidence in a clueless American.
She said, “This person Zi Ning . . . I worry he doesn’t understand things.”
In Mandarin, the word for “things” has a completeness to it that doesn’t invite further questions in the way it does in English. I felt comforted by the totality of the meaning that allowed me not to seek clarification, but merely to respond, “I know.” I had no idea what I knew. She was silent for a long time. I don’t know if she was waiting for my response, or if, like me, she was trying to get the measure of the silence between us. My only aim was to see what could happen next.
She said, “I can find someone better than Zi Ning to do your translation.” I said nothing. “Only if you feel it would be convenient. It’s your choice.” I told her I needed to think on it, and I meant it. But I hung up the phone, overcome with relief that at last someone was going to tell me what to do.
“Oh a translation company,” Jon says to me. We have just finished drinks and are wandering through the hutongs that will take us back to the main road where all the cabs line up in front of the bars. Ahead, the dark alleyway is lit by strands of tiny white Christmas lights strung in the locust trees that break up through the cracked ground, and by the neon glow of a kiosk stuck into the side of an old grey brick house. “Yes,” Jon continues, “they will help you traverse not just any linguist, but also any legal—or moral—barriers that otherwise might be difficult for your company to cross. Very handy.”
“Yeah.” I want him to say more before I let my own thoughts solidify. I have spent the whole time at drinks debating whether or not to say anything to him about the collapse. Now, when we are leaving, telling him about Wang Mei Ling’s offer to find me a fixer is the closest that I can come. I also just want to hear for myself how the whole thing sounds when I say it aloud in English.
Jon shrugs. “I’m kind of surprised you’re not using one already. Most companies here do.” I look over at him, but he is looking ahead at the kiosk. “It’s the way the Chinese do it. It’s a relationship-based culture.” I expect him to detect my mood, but he doesn’t. There is evidently no line in his mind between abuses that so outrage him in the evictions from the hutongs and the ordinary corruptions that he considers distinctive to the culture. Maybe if I tell him about the collapse he will get it, but the very fact of his needing an explanation makes me reticent and distrusting of his advice.
He points at the kiosk that we are approaching and asks, “Mind if I pop in for some cigarettes?” I shake my head.
Waiting outside, I stand with my back to the kiosk and look out across the street. It’s an unusually warm evening for the winter, and a group of men have taken advantage of the freak weather for an outdoor game of wuzi qi. They sit huddled on stools around low card tables, empty beer bottles lined up at their feet. The two players look down at the board while the others lean in behind them, smoking and raucously judging their strategies. I wonder that Jon can live here for so many years and still say, “the Chinese.”
Zi Ning is from Shanxi, a central western province. Both of his parents had been schoolteachers. He went to Qinghua University, the country’s best school for science and engineering. To go there when you were from a far province and family with no connections meant that he had to have done better on his exams than almost anyone. He was probably one of the better structural engineers in China. Yet the qualities that created this distinction, his intelligence, diligence, and humility, had served to inform his disgust at the practices around him, but afforded him no influence over what he hated, or outlet for protest. I wonder what it must be like to be him, to watch from below as every single day the infrastructure of his society crushes its citizens in its jaws.
Jon emerges from the kiosk with a box of cigarettes in his hand. He takes one out, lights it, and then offers me one. We stand in silence for a moment, taking slow drags and then exhaling smoke into the air before we resume walking. I decide to tell him the truth. No need for me to be precious over his inferior sensitivities, as it is really only the act of confession that I am looking for. If anything, his insensibility makes him the ideal confessor. We emerge onto Sanlitun, jammed with red cabs that are lining up in front of the bars. As I lift my eyes to look at Jon, I see him scrutinizing the three prostitutes who are standing on the street corner.
Seeing me observe him, he says, “As low as three hundred kaui for a prostitute in Beijing, at least the ones on the street. Ridiculous.” As if it were mere commercial curiosity that causes him to look at them that way. I don’t know why he bothers to pretend. It’s not like it is the first time I’ve heard him—or any other number of men in Beijing—talk about prostitutes without any consideration that I might identify with the goods in question and object to their casual treatment. But I would feel out of step for protesting. Killing my cigarette on the street, I say good night to him and duck into one of the many waiting cabs. My need to unburden myself is gone, and I feel at last allied with my blackened heart.