April 4, 2016 by The Citron Review
by Nancy L. Conyers
“How long you have been in China?” Miss Tang, the young pimply-faced interrogator asked Lisa in English, taking a notebook from a thick folder on her desk. The unheated room was small and windowless, the metal desk, chair and tattered filing cabinet were industrial grey. Lisa shivered slightly, as much from the actual temperature in the room as from its dreariness.
This was not the China Lisa knew, not the thrilling, exhilarating, and intoxicating Shanghai she had come to love. When her partner Sheila’s company asked Sheila to take a job in Shanghai, they jumped at the chance to experience living in another country, especially China. Sheila was an ABC, or American born Chinese, whose mother was from Shanghai. They made a vow not to live in the expat bubble, to try as much as was possible to experience real life. The experience of getting hauled into the immigration police was not part of that plan, though. Neither was being questioned in a separate room from Hong Mei, the human resources director from Sheila’s company who came with her.
“About four years time,” Lisa answered in Mandarin.
Had it really been four years already, she wondered? People say that one year in China is like four years in the US. If that were true, then Lisa and Sheila had been in Shanghai the equivalent of sixteen years, as long as they’d been together before moving to Shanghai. The time had gone too quickly and Lisa wasn’t ready to give it all up, to leave Shanghai, the place where she felt most at home and alive in the world.
She thought about her Chinese friends who would never be able to get visas to get out of the country, friends who she’d never see again if she were kicked out, friends who had become her de facto family and had fed her, taught her the language, invited her to their homes for the Spring Festival, assuaged her loneliness, and, most importantly, told her their stories, the stories they’d never told anyone. She thought about the xiaolongbao only Shanghainese know how to make properly, the sound of the clock tower on the Customs House on the Bund ringing “The East is Red” every hour, how she first learned to text message in Shanghai.
Mostly, Lisa thought about how Shanghai had taken Sheila and her already strong relationship and made it so impenetrable, secure, and fulfilling that they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. This was all despite the fact that, unlike in the U.S., they had to be closeted here. It was bizarre to be back in the closet after being together for sixteen years, but mei banfa, there was no way they could be out. There were no laws that protected gay people in China, and Sheila’s company had explicitly told them not to say anything to anyone about their relationship.
“Four years? This is a long time.” Miss Tang looked up from the notebook she was writing in and asked, “Where do you learn to speak Chinese?”
“Here, in Shanghai,” Lisa told her. She felt like she was getting somewhere now, establishing rapport with Miss Tang. Speaking Mandarin always helped Lisa make connections more quickly with people and always came easier when she was scared or mad.
“You study in Shanghai? Which university?”
“I didn’t study at a university.” This is going well, Lisa thought. She thinks I studied at a university.
“Where do you study?”
“At a small school.”
“What is the name of this school?” Miss Tang leaned forward.
“It’s called Perfect Putonghua,” Lisa answered in English. She couldn’t remember the name of the school in Chinese. Maybe her synapses weren’t working so flawlessly.
“Where do you stay?”
“I am not sure I understand your meaning.”
“I mean where do you live?” Miss Tang asked her, then leaned back slightly in her chair.
“I live in America.” Those four words sounded strange and foreign to Lisa. She’d spent the last four years proudly saying Shanghai to anyone who asked her where she lived. Saying she lived in America sounded contrived, and she wondered if Miss Tang could sense that, but when Hong Mei prepared Lisa for the questioning she told her under no circumstances should she say she lived in Shanghai.
“But you have just now told me you have been in Shanghai four years.”
“Yes, I have been in Shanghai for four years, off and on. I go back and forth to America and travel in Asia.”
“You have been other places in China?”
“Oh, yes, I have travelled to many places in China,” Lisa said with a bright smile. “I love China.”
“Where do you go in China?”
“I’ve been to Beijing, Xian, Harbin, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Si Yang, Guilin, Lijiang, Changsha, Jiuzaiguo and Hong Kong.” That last one should get me some good guanxi, she thought, and give Miss Tang some good face. Even though Hong Kongnese never say they’re from China, government officials love it when outsiders include Hong Kong in the Motherland.
“That is many places. Why do you go to so many places?” Miss Tang rifled through the papers in the file, pausing on certain pages, as if she were trying to connect the dots of Lisa’s wanderings.
“Because I am interested in China. China is so big and there are so many places and I want to see as much as I can.” Lisa spread her arms wide and held them out hoping Miss Tang would understand that Lisa understood the enormity of China.
“How can you pay for such travels?” Miss Tang squinted again and leaned further forward than she had before.
“I am not sure what you mean.” What was she driving at? Lisa began to shake her right leg. She hoped Miss Tang didn’t see it.
“I mean where do you get your money to pay for these travels in China?”
“I have money in a bank account.”
“Where does this money come from in your bank account?”
“Miss Tang, I do not understand your meaning.”
“I mean, how can you pay for your traveling?”
“I have a bank account in America and I use this money to pay for my travels.”
“Where does the money in this bank account come from?” Now Lisa understood. Miss Tang was trying to see if she was working in Shanghai.
“It is money I earned working in America.”
Miss Tang shifted in her chair, exhaled heavily and leaned toward Lisa.
“Where do you stay in Shanghai?”
“In Shimao Riviera Gardens.”
“That place is very expensive. How can someone such as yourself pay for a place such as Shimao?”
“Oh, it is not my apartment. When I am in Shanghai I stay with a friend.” Calling Sheila her friend felt disloyal and false. Had Miss Tang ever been in love? Did she understand what it was like to keep a family together at all costs? Lisa was fighting her natural inclination to just simply tell the truth. She wanted to scream at Miss Tang, “Her name is Sheila and she is my ai ren, my love person,” but Hong had also told her not to say Sheila’s name unless repeatedly pressed. Nor should she call Sheila her lover, partner, or anything other than a friend.
Lisa was beginning to get annoyed with all the questions. Miss Tang probably knew the answers to the questions she was asking anyway. Sheila’s company told the women before they went to Shanghai they should expect their phones would be tapped and they would have some level of surveillance. Lisa was sure the folder on Miss Tang’s desk contained more than the copies of her visa and passport.
“Who pays for this place?”
“My friend does. It is my friend’s apartment.”
“Who is this friend?”
“She is someone who works for Allied Beverage. Do you know Allied Beverage?”
“Yes, of course I know this company.”
Just then the door flew open. It startled Lisa, and she jumped a bit in the folding chair. Half of her ass was hanging off the seat because the chair was not built for a large laowai rear end like Lisa’s. A middle-aged man with thin, wispy hair and a potbelly came in. He had his phone clipped to his belt and he strode around the desk and stood at Miss Tang’s side. He had the stern look of an old cadre from the Cultural Revolution. It was easy to imagine him grilling people, making them confess their bourgeois tendencies just so he would stop torturing them, forcing them to write copious self-criticisms renouncing their friends, their families and pledging complete allegiance to the Communist Party, to the new China with Mao.
“This is Mr. Lu.”
Mr. Lu held Lisa’s destiny in his pudgy hands. It was important to give him face since he was obviously the big boss, so Lisa stood up and gave a curt bow. He stood there, stared at her and said nothing. Even though it was cold in the room Lisa could feel herself beginning to sweat.
Mr. Lu picked up the folder and began leafing through it, then started peppering Miss Tang with questions. Have you read this file? Why does she have so many visas? Why has she been in Shanghai for so long? Why has she traveled to so many places in China? Miss Tang sat at the desk staring straight ahead while Mr. Lu hovered over her shooting his questions at the back of her head. If he spoke English he would have been asking Lisa the questions in English and he obviously assumed that Lisa didn’t speak Chinese. Lisa realized it was time for her to take this into her own hands.
“I have so many visas,” she said in Mandarin, “because I received F visas that were only good for six months each.”
Mr. Lu looked at her for the first time—just what she had hoped for by speaking Mandarin. Now she felt a little more relaxed. She’d made a connection with him and continued answering in his Mother tongue.
“I have been in Shanghai for four years time.”
Mr. Lu leaned over the desk and extended his right arm. Wow, she thought, this is going unbelievably well. Lisa stuck her right arm out to shake his hand, but he swatted her hand away, took his index finger and poked her left shoulder. “You (poke) speak (poke) English (bigger poke),” he yelled at her in English. He closed the folder, said something to Miss Tang in Shanghainese, and left, slamming the door behind him.
Miss Tang sat at her desk, collecting herself. Lisa could see Mr. Lu had gotten to both of them. Lisa had gotten nowhere with Mr. Lu, but she felt she might have a chance with Miss Tang.
“Why did Mr. Lu not want me to speak Mandarin? Does he not speak English?”
Miss Tang looked at her and didn’t answer. It was almost as if Lisa could see her thoughts flashing across her forehead like the digital news readouts in Times Square. She could see Miss Tang trying to decide if she should say anything and what she should say if she did answer. For a brief moment her eyes darted to a spot behind Lisa over the door. Of course, Lisa realized, they were being taped.
Lisa had made a big mistake with Mr. Lu. Speaking Mandarin had made him lose face front of his subordinate, and she wondered if she would have to pay for that later. Foolish her for thinking things were going well. The American journalist Edgar Snow, who walked with Mao and the Communist troops on the Long March, was right—when you begin to think you understand China, it’s time to leave.
“Is Mr. Lu coming back?”
“This is not your concern.”
“What did Mr. Lu say to you in Shanghainese?”
“How do you know this is Shanghai dialect?”
“Because I can tell the difference between Mandarin and Shanghainese. What did he say to you?”
“This is not your concern either.”
“What about the woman I came here with, Hong Mei? Where is she?”
“This is also is not your concern.”
“I would like to see her.” Lisa didn’t want to be in this alone. She wanted Hong there with her.
“This is not possible at this moment.”
“Why not, Miss Tang?”
“Because it is not possible. You must stay here and answer more questions.”
“I can answer your questions better if Hong Mei is with me. Where is she? I want to see her.”
“You will see her when you are finished answering these questions.”
“I don’t want to answer any more questions, Miss Tang. I want to see Hong Mei. I am an American citizen and I deserve to have representation. Do you know what that means?”
Miss Tang looked at Lisa and said nothing. Did she not understand or had Lisa just said the most stupid thing possible? There is no rule of law in China, only rules that change daily according to someone’s whim.
“Miss Downey, I would like to remind you that you are in China. In America, do you follow your country’s laws?”
“Of course I do.”
“We are trying to determine if you are following Chinese laws. Miss Hong Mei may not answer these questions for you. Only you may answer these questions.”
“I will feel more comfortable if Hong Mei is with me and I will be able to answer your questions better if she is here.” Lisa was grasping at straws but just as she was throwing out all the Mandarin she knew, she was throwing out anything she could to get Miss Tang to bring Hong back. If Mr. Lu came back, Lisa wanted Hong with her.
“This is impossible. You will see her once you are finished.”
“And I must tell you again, Miss Tang, that I want to see Hong Mei. Please go get her.”
Miss Tang put her pen down on her notebook and sat there, looking at Lisa, not making a move. Miss Tang had regained her composure and was being tougher and more resolute.
“Please go get Hong Mei.”
“I am afraid I cannot do that. You will rejoin Hong Mei when we are finished.”
“I am going to find her.” Lisa got up from the uncomfortable folding chair and walked toward the door.
“Please sit down, Miss Downey. This is not a good idea.”
“Because Mr. Lu is with Hong Mei at this time.”
Defeated, Lisa sat back down. Hong had told her to be courteous, answer any questions as pleasantly and obliquely as possible, and not to make waves. She understood if she wanted to see Hong again and have any chance of remaining in Shanghai with Sheila she needed to park her privilege, submit to Miss Tang, and remember that China is never what you think it is and always what it wants to be.
Nancy L. Conyers has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles and currently lives in Malmo, Sweden. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, The Manifest-Station, Hupdaditty, and is working on a novel from which this story is adapted.