Don’t smile like that. I’m telling you the truth.
Illustration by Jason Arias.
“Why are you coming to Germany?” the russet-haired officer at customs asked me while examining my passport.
“For sightseeing and a meeting,” I said.
“How long will you stay in the country?” he continued.
With that, he stamped my papers and let me through. It was as simple as that? I was still marveling over it as I wheeled my luggage out the frosted-glass door. What a privilege it was to hold a Western passport!
But my amazement made me pensive. I imagined two babies, one born in China and the other in the West, given different passports at birth—one child was automatically deprived of the freedom of travel. Then, why should the Chinese child grow up without the same right? What or who is responsible for that child’s deprivation? The country the child was born into. A country that cannot endow its citizens with the same right of travel and migration as most other countries have done for their citizens, a country that makes its people second-class citizens in the world, has failed and should be held accountable by its populace. So much of our humiliation and resentment toward the West in reality originated from the country we created but cannot hold responsible. We allow the country, which should be the guardian of our rights and interests, to rule and abuse us like a god.
I made a mental note that next time someone argued against universal values by insisting on China’s particularity, I’d bring up this inequality the Chinese were born into as evidence that by over-emphasizing our differences, we reduce our humanity—we must fight to have the same rights as everyone in the world.
Mr. Huang’s place was nestled at the end of an alleyway, close to the train station. It was a three-story house that had a steep roof bulging with dormer windows; on the ground floor his family lived, and the other two floors were for guests. Because it was the low season, I had all to myself a large room furnished with three beds and a few sticks of furniture, but such a big room felt lonely at night, in spite of the moonbeams sneaking in through the slats of the window blinds.
There were only four guests in the entire hostel, myself included. The others were a Korean student and a young Chinese couple who had come to Germany for sightseeing. The couple had just finished their master’s degrees in civil engineering at the University of Manchester and were returning to their home in Suzhou the next month, while the Korean student, a willowy young woman named Doona Kim, was studying music in Vienna, where she said there were many Korean music students. Doona, with youthful candor, told us that she wanted to marry a European before her visa expired so she could live in Europe permanently. I joked that I hoped she already had a prospect, but she said she didn’t have any yet.
Mrs. Huang, a plump Korean woman wearing permed hair and a batik apron, was from Yanbian, the Korean autonomous region in northeast China, and that was why they received some Korean guests as well. Because I was from the same province, the Huangs called me a fellow townsman. I enjoyed their lavish homemade breakfast, which consisted of kimchee, pickled string beans and soy sprouts, daikon slivers mixed with paprika and baby shrimp and squids, salted duck eggs, fried peanuts, rice porridge, and steamed plaited buns. I hadn’t eaten this kind of breakfast in years. When I’d been a reporter back in China, I used to go to the Korean region at least twice a year.
I took the S-Bahn downtown to the Festival of Chinese Culture. I loved the German trains—they were clean, quiet, and punctual. Some were brand-new, still smelling of new metal and plastic. On my first ride I didn’t realize that I needed to activate my ticket, but the conductor didn’t fine me. She told me that if I were not a new passenger, I’d have had to pay forty euros. “But how do you activate a ticket?” I asked. She explained, but I couldn’t understand everything she said. After stepping off the train, I stood watching people on the platform activate their tickets, inserting them in the small red metal boxes to mark the time, till I learned how to do it.
The arts festival at the House of World Cultures wasn’t very impressive, as I had expected. In addition to an assortment of paintings, photographs, and slide shows, there were theatrical performances, readings, and talks. Most of the folk plays had a single act performed by one actor alone because it was too expensive to fly in whole troupes from China; as a result, the performances were simple and at moments crude. I did not enjoy the readings and talks either. The literary events felt insubstantial perhaps because most of the readings were done by German translators and actors on behalf of the authors themselves. I couldn’t understand the German and felt disengaged. What I looked forward to was the small reception in the evening, at which I planned to interview some artists and officials. But because the German host had allowed a dissident poet living in London to sit on a panel that afternoon, the Chinese ambassador declined to appear at the party.
The German organizers were excited about Ambassador Chang’s absence and congratulated the middle-aged poet for his power to nettle the top Chinese diplomat. The bearded poet only shrugged his thin shoulders and looked bemused. He was still holding a long-stemmed red rose that had been presented to him at the end of his reading. I asked him a few questions, to which he gave such terse answers that I could hardly quote him. He held out his glass to a bartender for a refill of red wine. Three waitresses were carrying trays of hors d’ouevres around the room: pan-fried wontons, shrimp dumplings, spring rolls, sweet-sour chicken fingers, steamed shu mai, eggplant boxes, and pot stickers stuffed with crabmeat and zucchini. The food was excellent, sometimes even exquisite, but for this occasion I felt uncomfortable about all the appetizers. It was as if Chinese cuisine could always outshine our other arts, as if ours was a culture that satisfied only the stomach.
A bespectacled German man introduced himself to me in English as Stefan. He was dressed in a black suit, a lavender grosgrain tie, and brown Oxford shoes; the top of his head displayed a bald patch surrounded by curly hair. When he learned who I was, he was eager to talk with me about his work—he’d been writing a long article on contemporary Chinese literature. I was impressed by his knowledge of the subject—he seemed observant and erudite. He’d been involved in selecting the authors for the cultural festival and for that he’d had to read many novels. I asked him, among all the novels he had read, which one impressed him most. He shook his head and said, “None.” Swirling his zinfandel, he confided, “We’ve spent more than a million euros for this series of events. I doubt whether it’s worth it.”
Stumped, I didn’t know how to respond.
I noticed that Stefan got his glass refilled frequently. He said he liked the California wines because he could taste the sunlight in them. I wondered if that was nonsense since I’d never tasted anything unusual in those wines. At the end of the reception, he invited me to his home nearby—he still had some questions for me, if I would oblige him. Though somewhat reluctant, I agreed after he assured me that it would be easy to catch the train back to Chalottenburg. Stefan’s apartment was crammed full of books, even the living room divided by rows of bookshelves. The moment I sat down, he left the room while his wife, a tall Lithuanian woman, poured me a cup of pekoe tea and placed a plate of rolled wafers next to it. Stefan came back with an armload of books. He put them on the glass coffee table and said to me, “These are the German translations of contemporary Chinese novels—I read them all in preparation for the festival. Please take a look.”
All the novels on the table were well known in China, and I tried to think of what to say. Stefan went on, “I want you to tell me honestly: do these writers accurately represent Chinese literature today? Or are they just some authors we Germans picked according to our own preference?”
I looked through the dozen or so titles again and found all of them by the frontline writers in China, so I said, “These authors are major names and regarded as the best ones writing now.”
Stefan sighed and said almost inaudibly, “That country has more than a billion people.”
His wife, a kind-faced thirty-something, piped in, “I read some of them. They’re interesting. Stefan is a critic—more of a stickler.”
Why was I feeling uneasy, even a little ashamed? Why should I care? I was not a fiction writer and no longer held a Chinese passport—why should I give a damn about those novels and what some Germans thought of them? Was Stefan an arrogant prig? Or was he a competent critic, sincere and knowledgeable in his judgments? It was hard for me to decide. He seemed well-meaning.
Those questions continued nagging me even after I had returned to Mr. Huang’s house. I regretted not having explained to Stefan that those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imagination, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardize their livelihood. I wondered whether Stefan would have shown sympathy or contempt for my explanation. Most Westerners don’t have a clue how harshly and subtly censorship works on an artist in China, whose talent, however prodigious, ultimately becomes docile and atrophied.
The next day, after filing my article on the arts festival with GNA, I went downtown again for some sightseeing. It got gloomy quite early in the afternoon, so after a late lunch of curry wurst in Zoologischer Garten, I returned to the Huangs’. Berlin’s winter could be depressing—the daylight was short and the air foggy. I thought of going to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, but I was told that the tickets had sold out long ago.
A computer sat in the study of the Huangs’ and the guests could use it. When I scrolled through my emails on Tuesday night, among business exchanges and spam I saw a message from Niya. She wrote: “Danlin, I have news for you, but I should deliver it in person because I can’t make much sense of it. Can we meet tomorrow or the day after?” She added a smiley face.
I returned: “Of course, I would be delighted to see you. I’m in Berlin on assignment right now—I wish we could meet here! I found an excellent Chinese restaurant in the center of Chalottenburg. They have amazing wheaten food. But I’ll be back in New York in a few days and we can catch up then.”
The restaurant was actually on Kantstrase. It was called Melina, an unusual name for a Chinese restaurant. The exotic name must have been intended to make the place stand out as one that served the authentic cuisine of western China. According to Mrs. Huang, it had opened just a month before.
Amazingly, a few minutes later came Niya’s reply: “Berlin!? I love that city and can come and meet you there. I can take Friday off. I’ve earned tons of miles with Continental Airlines and the flight won’t cost me anything. My Turkish friend Aylin lives in Wannsee and I can stay with her. Do you want to see me to fly out?”
I reread her message, trying to figure out what she hadn’t said in words. She didn’t ask why I was away from New York, and she must have assumed I was here alone. She must have been to Berlin before and quite familiar with this city. I’d always taken her to be somewhat like myself, still unaccustomed to the rootless cosmopolitan life that circumstances had thrust upon us. Now she seemed to be a savvy traveler. I remembered she had once mentioned she was kind of obsessed with travel and often left New York on long weekends. I had thought she’d just go somewhere in the States—Las Vegas or Yellowstone National Park or even West Point. Now, apparently she must be an intercontinental traveler.
I took a few moments to gather my thoughts, and then wrote back: “Do come if you can. I would be happy to see you in Wannsee, which I am told is a wonderful area. I’ve finished my assignment and just been sightseeing. I’ll be back in New York next Monday.” I didn’t ask about the news she had for me, because I understood she might not want to have a written record. I gave her my phone number here in case she decided to come.
The Huangs had a daughter who was attending the University of Potsdam, a school younger than herself, according to her. She majored in philosophy and still could speak some Mandarin, but had forgotten how to read or write. She and I spoke English, which she had learned at the Gymnasium. Unlike her heavyset mother, she was a string bean of a girl with walnut-shaped eyes. She had a German boyfriend, Andreas, who came to eat in the house in the evenings. After dinner the girl and the boy would stay in the study doing schoolwork or just shooting the breeze. They smoked in there as well, which her parents allowed. They rolled their cigarettes with tobacco slivers from a pouch and folded tiny filters into the ends of the paper tubes. I chatted with them and discovered that Andreas’s parents were Russian Jews. He’d been born in a small lumber town outside of Vladivostok and had come to Germany when he was nine. At home he still spoke Russian, and he used to go to Jewish school on weekends but had quit that years before. “I have to work hard to get my diploma in computer science,” he told me, his widow’s peak touching his eyebrow. He’d also been learning more English, in which all the software manuals were printed. Unlike his girlfriend, he was attending a vocational school. He loved to spend time at the Huangs’ and often stayed late into the night.
Mrs. Huang told me in perfect Mandarin about her daughter. “We pay her tuition and give her food and a roof, but she must make her own pocket money by tidying rooms on weekends.”
“She has a good boyfriend,” I said.
“What can I say? She’s grown up now. There’s no way we can dissuade her once she decides to do something.”
“You don’t like the boy?” I said, surprised.
“That’s not it. It’s just too early for her to have a boyfriend.”
I once conversed with the daughter alone and was impressed by her intelligence and sharp tongue. The girl no longer viewed herself as either Chinese or Korean, nor did she miss China, which she’d left at seven. She said she preferred a European rural town to a city like Beijing or Shanghai or even Hong Kong. “I wouldn’t want to live in any of those cesspools,” she said, waving a lean cigarette and puffing out smoke. I reminded her that many Chinese were getting rich, and those cities she loathed so much had become hubs of opportunity where even Europeans flocked. She responded, “I don’t want to make lots of money. I just want a quiet, quality life.”
I didn’t know how to counter that; I supposed that everybody was entitled to their little portion of personal happiness. The girl seemed to be a spitfire.
In contrast to her, her father followed events in China avidly, reading the news on several major Chinese-language sites at least twice a day. He happened to know my name and said he enjoyed my essays and was honored to meet me in person, though he’d never thought I was under forty. “You’re practically a young man,” he said. “Amazing, tsk tsk tsk.”
“You pictured me as an old fart?” I asked, laughing. We were both seated on the canvass sofas in the living room. “Tell me, Mr. Huang,” I went on, “how long have you lived in Germany?”
“Eight years. Before this place we were in France and Italy.”
“Do you speak French and Italian as well?”
“Only some French.”
“Do you like it here better?”
He lifted his cup of aster tea and took a swallow. “A little better, I’d say. There’re so many Chinese in Paris and Milano that it’s hard to make a living in those cities.”
“Have you been back to China?”
“No, I left more than years ago and later my family joined me in Italy. My parents have died, and there’s nothing for me to return to.”
“Don’t you miss home?”
“Of course I do, but I can no longer tell where home is. That’s why my wife and I opened this guesthouse. We don’t make much from it, but we like meeting people from China and Korea. This makes our life less lonely. A busy bee knows no sorrow, like the saying goes.”
I could see that they couldn’t earn much profit, given their going rate, fifteen euros a day. In the low season they also offered dinner for an extra two euros. How could they make money by charging so little? I said, “If you had your pick between Europe and China, where would you prefer to live?”
“Our own country, of course. But our country is a cruel place—it’s like a crazy parent who enjoys torturing you until you lose your mind and your sense of being human. We can no longer live in China—once you leave, you leave for good.”
I feared he was right, but asked, “Why so?”
“Because you begin to see other places and think differently. You have choices now. Who wouldn’t choose a safer and more reasonable place to live?”
“Do you think Europe is a better place than China?”
“On the whole yes.”
“No prejudice, no mistreatment?” I pressed.
“Of course there is,” he acknowledged. “There’s plenty. But in the West, society works by codes, especially in Germany. Every profession has its codes. There are architectural codes, education codes, legal codes, hotel codes, even restaurant codes. So you know what to do and what not to do. Even the powerful have to follow the codes, and they cannot bully you as long as you haven’t broken any of those codes. This makes life easier and safer, especially for ordinary people like us. All we want is a life without interruption, today similar to yesterday and tomorrow similar to today.” He went on, “In China, there’re good rules but nobody follows them. As a result, rules don’t mean a thing there, and an important person can bend rules on a whim. This makes life unbearable for common people. When my wife went back two years ago, she saw how everyone there tried to take advantage of the little power in his hands—even a clerk at a small train station wouldn’t sell her a berth ticket unless she received it as a personal favor, for which she’d have to do something in return.” His voice grew frustrated. “How can you live comfortably in a place like that again after you’ve seen how people in other countries live and work? But for me, from my own experience, the worst part of life in China is that you must radiate menace to survive. You must be able to hurt others, to do damage with anger and bluster, or anybody can push you around. That’s why people there seek power any way they can. An honest, kindhearted person is nothing but a doormat.”
“Isn’t that the same everywhere, unfortunately?” I said, mainly to keep our conversation going. “People take kindness and honesty for weakness and stupidity. In America there’s this saying—nice guys finish last.”
“But in China this mentality of radiating menace is so prevalent that it has created a culture of paranoia and distrust.,” he insisted. “It has become a condition for survival and it can drive you out of your mind. You have to be alert to danger constantly and cannot relax, because people around you are all radiating menace as well—everyone’s afraid of becoming a clay pigeon for others to shoot. They all believe that even the devil would be afraid of meanness—the meaner you are, the better chance of survival you have. If I’d lived there longer, heaven knows what awful things I might’ve done. All that malice and sadness could have turned me into a wicked, spineless man. It’s impossible to live an honest life in a place of fear and hatred. Now, how long have you been in the United States?”
“More than seven years,” I answered.
“What’s that country like?”
I thought for a moment about what to say. “Similar to Europe,” I said, finally, “in terms of the codes you mentioned.”
“Then it must be a good place to live.” His mottled eyes glazed over. He took a gulp of the tea, his cheeks somewhat hollow, his perspiring scalp dotted with age spots. He must have been deep in his sixties. I wondered if he had thought about returning to our motherland someday to die. But why should he want that? We have no choice about where we were born, yet sometimes we can choose where we die. We owe ourselves a chance to grow up, find home elsewhere, and realize ourselves.
Niya arrived in Berlin on Thursday evening and called me after she reached her friend Aylin’s place. We agreed to see each other the next afternoon at three thirty in Wannsee. She would meet me at the train station. She said we could do some sightseeing in that area while we talked. I felt a twinge of uneasiness about the meeting, but I was also looking forward to seeing her. Katie and I emailed each other every day but didn’t have much to say. She was busy wrapping up the semester to get ready for her stint in China.
When I got off the train at Wannsee the next afternoon, passing the vegetable and fruit stand at the middle of the underground tunnel to reach the exit, I saw Niya standing on the wide terrazzo stairs that led up to the front hall of the station. She was dressed in a black single-breasted coat, calf-high suede boots, and sunglasses. Her left shoulder leaned against the wall; her hair was a touch mussed. At the sight of me, her face opened up into a smile showing her tiny eyeteeth; she hurried over and hugged me. Her coat gave off a faint smell of mothballs. I was caught off guard—we’d never been this close before. I said, “You should be hiding behind a magazine.”
“Why?” she asked.
“That would make you more like a detective or a private investigator. More professional, you know.”
She swatted my shoulder. “Stop making fun of me.”
Together we went out of the station. Lake Wannsee is just across the street, patches of the water visible, flickering feebly against the sunset. I suggested we go to the lakeside, and maybe we could have a boat ride. There were a number of ferryboats in the docks and also signs that announced schedules and stops: Griebnitzsee, Glienicker Lanke, Pfaueninsel, although few people were around. One of the boats was named Moby Dick. “Come, let’s take a ride on it,” Niya said and tugged my forearm.
I liked the sight of that tourist boat. It resembled the Melvillean monstrosity, with jagged teeth, silver sides, a streamlined back, an ebony belly, and huge diamond-shaped scales, half of them bright, the other half dark. But a man on the deck, working with an acetylene torch and a welder’s glass, told us that the boats all docked for the winter. So Niya and I strolled along the lakeside instead, pointing out the moored yachts and birds bobbing on the waves. In the distance, we could see athletes sculling canoes and rowing boats, their cries echoing on the water, its surface vast like an open bay glimmering in the twilight.
We found a bench and sat down. Niya told me, “I’ve been talking with Haili. I believe that something terrible is going to happen and that you might get hurt, but I don’t know exactly what is going on. She’s being so vague, but everything she says about you sounds like a threat.”
I nodded, my stomach tightening. “What did she say?”
“She said, `You’re not double-crossing me, Niya, are you?’ I told her I wanted to be neutral because the situation had become political, and I didn’t want to be involved in politics. She started screaming—she accused me of befriending you and betraying her.”
“But what did she say about me?” I asked impatiently.
“She said, ‘Danlin is a nonentity now. His actions have made him an enemy of China.’ I asked her, ‘Don’t you have any pity for him? For better or for worse, you must have loved him once.’ She said, ‘I fell out of love. He wants to destroy others but has brought destruction on himself. If you see him, tell him I will forgive him only if he throws himself at my feet and licks my shoes.’”
“So you have some pity for me?” I asked, my mind raging with misgivings and guesses.
“I confess I do.” Niya lowered her eyes, then fixed them on me.
“Still, you are a friend of Haili’s.”
Niya shook her head. “I no longer feel close to her. In the beginning I knew she’d made a mistake in the way she handled her book deal, but I also believed that you were being vindictive towards her. When I defended her, in a way I wanted to help her make amends while preventing her from being attacked by you and others. But then, she became spiteful and brought in the Chinese government to crush you.” Niya paused. “We all make the wrong decision sometimes. As long as we correct it in good time, it shouldn’t be a big deal. But if one persists in doing the wrong thing, at some point a mistake becomes unforgivable. That’s why I cannot align myself with Haili anymore. I often wonder what made her change so much. She’s become addicted to publicity and fame, and will do anything to chase after attention.”
I looked into Niya’s eyes. The limpid honesty in them convinced me of the truth of her words.
“Do you think Haili will file more lawsuits?” I asked. “Could that be what she’s talking about?”
“She said litigation was useless against a pauper. She seems to have given up on trying to attack you legally.”
“Then what’s going on?”
“She sounded euphoric,” Niya said cynically. “Something bad must have happened to you to have brought her that much joy.”
“But you don’t know anything beyond what she said?” I cried. “Why did you even come here?”
“Don’t be angry that I don’t have the full story,” Niya protested. “And I didn’t come just to spoil your trip. I also came to see my friend.”
“I’m not mad,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “just worried. Thanks for letting me know what you’ve heard.”
“There is one other thing,” she said slowly. “Larry seems to be involved now.”
“How is he involved?”
“Haili said Larry had given her a big loan. She was so happy she nearly burst her seams. But I don’t know how much she got from him.”
“With money she can do a lot.” I gave a little moan as I thought about it. “She can use a hotshot attorney, she can hire hacks to write articles, she can bribe more officials—”
“I guess so.” Niya sighed and looked a little plaintive.
“Come on, help me think. What can they do to me?”
“I tried—I’ve been trying the whole way here. I truly can’t figure out what’s going on. Before leaving New York I called Haili again to see if she could tell me anything else, but she wouldn’t divulge a thing.”
The dusk deepened, and a breeze swept by and shook the sailboats in a nearby dock, many of them covered with tarp of various colors. Their masts tilted and wavered, the riggings tinkling fitfully, while gentle waves lapped the concrete blocks of the bank. A large flock of waterfowl paddled over—mallards, white-billed coots, geese, swans, even a mandarin duck. They seemed hungry, looking at us inquiringly. I wished I had some bread or popcorn or chips for them. Winter would be hard for these birds. Where would they find food? I wondered. Why haven’t they flown south? How were they going to survive the cold weather? There must be an island close by where they nested.
“I like swans,” Niya said. “The way they always stay in pairs, male and female. What’s that one?” she asked, pointing.
“A mandarin duck,” I told her.
“I never saw a mandarin duck before,” Niya said thoughtfully. “Don’t they always live in pairs too?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe only in folklore. Summer must be nice here.”
“It’s gorgeous in spring and summer,” Niya said, her voice lifting, “sailboats, birds, flowers, and kids everywhere. Down there the beach is open for people to swim in the lake. You should come again.”
“Are you hungry, Niya?” I asked, suddenly feeling restless.
I offered to take her to the restaurant I’d mentioned in my email, but she wanted to try an Indian restaurant that Aylin particularly liked. Together we headed west along Konigstrase for that place. Niya said she was leaving with Aylin for Dresdon the next morning to see the palace there. She had long been captivated by pictures of the castle, and had been wanting to see it for a long time.
The Indian restaurant was a long walk from the lakeside. I walked within the reddish path on the sidewalk, along the curb, Finally Niya pulled me out of it, saying that it was for cyclists. I began to see that indeed all bicycles ran in the five-foot-wide strip paved with terrazzo squares. Few Germans that we passed were overweight, and they all followed the traffic rules strictly, standing to wait for green lights when they crossed streets, even if there was no car in sight.
The restaurant was a fine place, clean and quiet, with a faint smell of incense. The space was well illuminated but not too bright, offering an intimate atmosphere. On each table were a candle and a small vase of striped mums surrounding a tiny sunflower. A spare waiter led us to a corner table and lit the candle. As I was ordering a Heineken, Niya stopped me, saying, “Let’s have draft beer. In Germany you ought to drink draft beer.”
So we each had a tall glass. The beer was excellent, sharp and fresh with a mellow aftertaste. We ordered fish masala and basil chicken, which came with two small salads and a naan. Niya said that portions in German restaurants were big, so we shouldn’t order anything more for now.
She was right—the two dishes were enough for us. I liked the way they were served, each in a stainless steel pot sitting on a metal supporter like a tiny stove that had a votive candle burning under the dish to keep it warm. The naan, puffed up in a shallow wicker basket, was delicious. Our mood was lifting.
“This is so good.,” Niya raved. “I haven’t eaten Basmati rice in so long.”
“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “Tell me, Niya, did your parents starve you when you were little?”
“What a question!” She looked at me in shock. “Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“Not at all. Most women from the northeast are tall and sturdy,” I pointed out. “But you’re so cute and petite, like a beauty from south of the Yangtze.”
“You’re messing with me again,” she said, relaxing, accepting the barbed compliment. “You know, my parents actually urged me to eat more when I was in my early teens, but I could never finish what they gave me. `You’re eating like a bird and won’t grow tall,’ they kept warning me. But I was too stubborn to listen, and my cousins always ribbed me, saying I was starving myself because I wanted to look like a ballerina. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I began to enjoy my food. By then it was too late for me to grow anymore.”
“I’m happy you like this rice. I often cook Basmati back home.” That was true, though I couldn’t make it perfectly al dente like that served here.
“I don’t believe you. We don’t have this rice in China.”
“I mean in New York.”
“Are you kidding me? Katie can tell Basmati from Nishiki or jasmine rice?”
“It’s not that hard to taste the difference,” I said, laughing.
“Lucky woman. Haili told me that the Chinese officials had taken Katie away from you. She said, ‘Danlin lost his bride. Serves him right.’ Is that true?”
“Not really,” I said, though Niya’s words stung. “Katie and I never planned to marry—we knew we’d go our separate ways sooner or later. And now, since she’ll be leaving for her fellowship, the sooner we say good-bye the better. Drawing things out could just become painful.”
“You’re a good man, Danlin,” Niya said, “but you seem always to have bad luck with women. In Katie’s case, perhaps you tried too hard.”
“What do you mean?”
“You wanted to save face after Haili left you, didn’t you?”
“That was part of it,” I admitted. “There was more to it than that.”
“Don’t try to conceal your vanity,” Niya pressed, teasing.
“Honestly, in the beginning I had other concerns.”
“What were they?”
“I thought that life might be easier for me if I lived with an American woman. At least my English would improve. In fact, Katie has learned a lot of Chinese from me, in bed. Don’t smile like that. I’m telling you the truth. Men are the same as women in most ways—we all look for mates who will improve our lives.”
“So like Haili, for you marriage was an opportunity?”
“I didn’t think of marriage at all, but I did date Katie with an eye to some practical gains. Now I can see I was wrong. She helped me a lot in the beginning and her warmth loosened me up, but on the whole I’ve given more than I’ve taken.”
“I like your honesty, Danlin—you always talk straight. Like I said, I’ve avoided Chinese men in general, because so many of them feel superior to others, especially to people from provincial places who do menial work.”
“So I’m not a typical Chinese man?” I smiled.
“At some level you’re not. We’re two of a kind.” She pointed at herself. “I’m a good woman but have no luck with men. I always meet cheaters, spongers, and sleazebags, so I’ve realized that I need to be prepared to remain single for the rest of my life.”
“You’re sure you’re a good woman?” I couldn’t help asking.
She considered the question seriously. “Well, I’m honest and kindhearted, and I’m capable in the kitchen, in the bedroom, and in the living room.”
“The last one I don’t get—why in the living room?”
She tittered, wiping her lips with a pink napkin. She said, “I’m good at giving parties. No, I shouldn’t say that. I don’t like parties that much, but I know how to make guests comfortable—how to be a good hostess.” She let out a faint sigh. “If only I could fall head over heels in love again. I’d give an arm for having that feeling back even just for a week.”
I was tempted to say that we’d both outgrown that hormone-crazed phase. But instead I asked her, “What if you could start life over? Would you want to have the same life you’ve been living?”
“No way!” She shook her head ruefully. “I would’ve married the boy who first fell in love with me when we were teenagers, but I was so stupid I turned him down out of hand.”
“If you go that route,” I cautioned, “you might be stuck in a provincial town forever.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Niya said firmly. How about you? What would you change?”
“I would want to be born outside of China and to have never set eyes on Yan Haili.”
Niya’s eyes widened. “She really traumatized you!”
“So did Old China.”
The waiter returned to our table and asked how we were enjoying the meal. We answered with praises. His name was Viveck, and he was from Jaipur. He had come to our table time and again, because he said he didn’t often get to speak English. He was handsome, slightly frail, and in his mid-twenties, already a father of two. I asked him how often he went back to India “I go home for a month every winter,” he said. “It’s cold here.”
Unlike Viveck, the other South Asian men working here were all quite burly, and some joked and passed along their orders in booming voices. One had a shaved head and looked rather fierce.
I left two euros for a tip, wondering as I did so if it was too little. “Eleven percent is more than enough,” Niya assured me. “Tips are included in the checks here. People just leave a bit of cash as a token.”
Once we stepped out of the restaurant, she added, “Aylin said this place was ruined by Americans being too openhanded.”
“You mean Americans tip too much? Then I suppose I am American in that sense. Why not be happy to see others happy?”
“You’re a goodhearted man.” She clutched my upper arm with both hands and leaned in, pressing her chin against my shoulder.
I wrapped my arm around her to shield her from the chilly wind. We walked like this all the way to her friend’s place.
To my amazement, despite her Turkish name, Aylin looked more like an archetype of the fair German woman, with blue eyes and flaxen hair. Her figure was elegant and modelesque in her aubergine-colored dress and taupe stockings. She wore opal earrings and silver bracelets. We sat in her perfume-drenched living room and chatted over Rize tea, brewed in a porcelain pot. Aylin said airily that she missed New York, but Berlin was her hometown and she was surrounded by friends and family—she had gone to the States only to do graduate work. Besides, she had a good managerial job at a hospital now. She spoke English with a soft melodic accent and lapsed into a German word or phrase from time to time. She talked about her father, who had just returned to his own home city of Istanbul. When she was growing up, the man had kept telling his children that when they were no longer his responsibility, he’d go back to his homeland, but none of them had believed him. When Aylin’s youngest brother had graduated college the year before, their father uprooted himself and made good on his word, despite the family’s objections. Aylin’s mother had no choice but to follow him.
“Is he happy to be back in Turkey?” I asked Aylin.
“He seems to be. He always felt like a foreigner here.”
“How long did he live in this country?”
I nodded—it was a long time to be away from home. “But how could he readapt after living away from Turkey for so long?”
“The first few months were difficult,” Aylin confirmed, “but he and my mother both feel at home now.”
“To some extent they’re lucky,” Niya put in. “They have a homeland they can return to.”
“Now my siblings and I will have to go back to visit them at least once a year,” Aylin said.
Around nine o’clock I took my leave because the two of them would need to get up early in the morning for the train. Niya came out with me, wrapped her arms around me, and kissed my cheek. “Think of me sometimes, okay?” she asked, her eyes shimmering in the dark.
“I will,” I said. “Have a wonderful trip.” I turned and headed to the train station, beyond which the moon dangled, a great shining crescent.
The nippy air felt a little damp because of the lake nearby. I whistled a little as I walked—I noticed that I’d been in a better frame of mind since leaving New York. I felt calm and enjoyed meeting people. I didn’t drop the unsettling remarks that seemed to have become my trademark and what others expected from me. Was Berlin so different from New York? I reflected. Probably not. It must be due to the absence of those three crooks I’d been fending off day and night. My fight with them must be affecting me within. The constant struggle had been leaching into my heart, threatening to warp my personality. I wished I could spend more time away from the crush of New York. There had to be better ways to live a life.
From the book THE BOAT ROCKER by Ha Jin. Copyright © 2016 by Ha Jin. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of six previous novels, four story collections, three volumes of poetry, and a book of essays. He has received the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2014 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ha Jin lives in the Boston area and is director of the creative writing program at Boston University.