Ming Cheng was born in the cruelest place on Earth—a village that sprawled through six green hills, so far out west in Sichuan province that the maps had no names for what was there. The village lay beneath a dome of clouds, with rain that could bite right through her clothes. Hardly anyone came through and no one left; a bus was supposed to pass through town once a week, but many days it couldn’t get through the clouds and was forced to take another route.
Ming’s town was called Yang Guang, or Sunshine Village, and everyone thought that was a mean joke. Mama and Papa said the sun used to shine there, though. They could tell, from the deep gorge where the Tuo River ran, that a million years ago the rains had made a mighty river. Then the sun had dried it out, then the rains had come, then the sun, then the rains had come again and carved a deeper riverbed, then the sun again, and then the rain.
Mama and Papa had named her Xiao Ming, which meant “Little Bright One.” They told her she was their bright little pearl, but Ming had a shard of mirror, and the mirror told her that was a joke too; she was an ugly girl, with grownup teeth coming in rotten.
At least she wasn’t a monkey.
There was a monkey hiding in the village, Ming knew—a monkey that could talk. She was only eight when she first saw him, and she kept it secret. If she’d told anyone that she’d met a talking monkey, the people would have called a struggle meeting, dragged her up the fourth hill to the amphitheater, put her on the stage, and pitched stones at her. “Enemy of the revolution, you believe in the olds, the superstitions!” they would have jeered.
Things were supposed to be different now that Mao Zedong was dead. He’d died the same year Ming was born, 1976. Chairman Mao had sent Mama and Papa to Sunshine Village because they were scientists, and the revolution needed them to help make silicone products for the Chinese army. So in 1969, they’d boarded a train from Beijing with at least a thousand other people, carrying just one suitcase, Mama pregnant with Ming’s big brother Han, not knowing where they were going until the train stopped in the Sichuan city of Chengdu and a local army sergeant stepped on and called out their names.
The revolution still needed Mama and Papa. But now the people of Sunshine Village would watch their new leader, Deng Xiao Ping, on television, urging them to get rich so that they’d help make China strong and glorious, and they knew that somehow the new ways just couldn’t get through the clouds that surrounded them.
Ming saw the monkey twice—the first time, in the pagoda. Except for the Red Guards who’d destroyed the old idols, nobody had gone near the pagoda in over a hundred years. Villagers said pale-haired foreign devils lived at the top of the pagoda, nine stories up, waiting to swat you with X-rays that would make you shrivel down into a tiny pebble. Ming wondered, though, if she might be able to persuade the foreign spies to whisk her away, outside the wall of clouds to some faraway land with beautiful flowers and lots to eat. So one day after school, she crept up to the doorway, trembling all over, but she made herself peek inside. There was only a thick blackness and a strong animal scent. Then, suddenly, she saw two fiery golden circles staring right back at her. With the light from those golden eyes she could just make out a monkey form.
“Are you the Monkey King?” she asked. The golden eyes were just like the ones in her old picture book, the one about the myth of the immortal Monkey King. Even Mao Zedong had turned out to be mortal, but the Monkey King, born, or so the legend said, from a stone egg, had reached the highest form of enlightenment. He had trained his mind so that his spirit could come back from the heavens; on Earth, he could transform himself into seventy-two different shapes, from monkey to man, or from butterfly to gnat. He could also somersault across oceans and fly like a bird.
Papa had read stories to Ming about the Monkey King and how mischievous he could be. In one story, the Monkey King got drunk on peach wine and stomped all over a banquet table. But he also protected the powerless, and he could fell a greedy warlord with one forward kick. What Ming loved most of all, however, was the ancient myth that the stone egg from which he had hatched was located somewhere along the cliffs near Sunshine Village. Papa had told her another tale, about how the Monkey King had flirted with many ladies, but his true love was a poor peasant maiden named Zenia, who had lived in Sunshine Village. There was an old superstition—not that anyone believed in superstitious old stories now—that the chilly rain was a curse Zenia had put upon the village when she was deprived of her Monkey King’s love.
With those golden eyes practically daring her to believe in some terrible feudalist myth, Ming glanced behind her, terrified someone might have seen her venturing toward the old pagoda. When she turned back, the eyes and the monkey form were gone. She shivered, the winter chill biting through the holes in her jacket, and her stomach let out a savage growl. Sometimes when she closed her eyes, she saw pigs, tigers, and monkeys flying—Mama and Papa said these were hunger visions. Of course, this monkey, these eyes, had to be one of those visions. It was the last week of January and the pound of pork that Sichuan State Sunshine Village Silicone Works Enterprises had provided on the first of the month was long gone. Mama’s vegetable patch lay beneath the cold ground, and all they had to eat was the rice Mama boiled three times to make it puffy.
As she walked home, Ming composed a poem in her head. “The monkey’s golden eyes of fire / A land beyond the clouds, much higher.”
Ming spotted the monkey again just a few days later. She was walking the long route home from school—the one Mama and Papa said she must never take because she might get lost in the pine grove, or fall off the cliff. Ming took the forbidden route whenever no one was around to see her turn into the pine woods, because getting lost seemed like a good way to have something exciting happen. A massive stone Buddha sat on the cliff; some sculptor in the nineteenth century had carved it from granite, smoothing the big round thighs and belly and the flowing robes. For some reason, the sculptor had left the face incomplete, leaving a pocked slab of stone instead of a mouth to chant and eyes to guard the river. Beside the Buddha was a dark black hole of a cave. The Earth could swallow you up if you went in there, people said.
The clouds grew darker as she wandered through the pine forest, and rain began to fall. Ming sloshed through fresh puddles down toward the Buddha. She opened her mouth to swallow raindrops and felt them tickle her throat. But they dissolved into nothing long before they might have reached the empty space that was her stomach.
Then suddenly the monkey appeared from nowhere, leaping up to sit on the Buddha’s shoulder.
Ming stared at him, transfixed, wondering if she really was crazy.
“Do you have any peaches?” the monkey asked. His voice was deep, sending out sound waves that she could almost feel like a palpable force against her skin. Tears filled his eyes as he said the word peaches.
“What do peaches look like?”
“Or a banana?”
Ming had seen a bunch of bananas once in a movie at the village cinema.
“Modern Chinese people don’t get hungry.”
She knew she was being mean, but people in Sunshine Village were always saying mean things. Everyone knew that the old rule about filling your stomach with good socialist thoughts instead of food was just another joke. The monkey probably saw food in his dreams, just as Ming did. The monkey stared down at her from his perch, his fiery eyes taking in the holes in her cotton jacket, her chafed hollow cheeks, and the chill bumps on her hands. Then he peered into her eyes as if he were looking right through to her soul.
“Help me,” he pleaded.
Ming started to ask, “Help you what?” but the damp air made her cough before she could get the first word out.
As she was coughing, the monkey raised his haunches, turned a somersault, and rolled right over the edge of the cliff. Ming, catching her breath, ran to the cliff edge and peered over. He was nowhere to be seen. She shivered, figuring the current had washed his corpse downriver. A loud cackle sounded from above, and there he was, in mid-air, soaring up and down and up again as if he were on a roller coaster to the sun.
I know why the magic Monkey King was hiding in the village, hungry and forlorn. I’m Ming. He asked me to help him, and when I grew up I did. Zenia, too. The three of us changed the world, in fact. Not that I can promise a happy ending, though the story isn’t over yet. Life is a battle where you win, then lose, then win, then lose, then you just might start all over again, like the eternal battle between the sun and the rain in the village where I was born.
For years afterward, Ming dreamt of riding the monkey’s roller coaster to the sun, and in some ways, she actually did. When Ming was eleven, the Sunshine Village Communist Party officials granted some of the other scientist neighbors who’d come there to work in the silicone factory permission to move back to the cities they’d come from. Mama and Papa discovered that if they saved some money and gave it in an envelope to the local Party, they, too, could get permission.
When Ming was twelve, they moved to the bustling city of Beijing. Ming didn’t mind climbing the seven floors to their new big-city apartment or dodging the million bicycles and cars when crossing the streets; nor did she mind the chemicals in the air that felt like needles piercing her nostrils. She could look above the tall buildings and see a yellowish sphere of sun, even on days when pollution made the air a chalky gray-white color.
Ming loved looking in the stores with their glass cases full of medicinal mushrooms and herbs, bins of wrapped white candy, and headless mannequins wearing dresses. She loved Beijing even though she didn’t have many friends at her new school. The girls laughed at her, and she had heard them sneer—in their haughty Mandarin—at her ragged country clothes.
In school, Ming had read a story translated from English, about a group of writers who lived in America, in a place called New York City. Someday, she decided, she was going to find a way to get on a plane and get beyond even Beijing, to the city in America where everyone wanted to be a writer. Her brother wanted to go to America too. Han had done very well on his Chinese university entrance exams—astonishingly well, his teachers had said, despite his childhood in a dirtwater country village.
Han was accepted into Beijing University, or Bei Da as everyone called it—the best school in all of China. A professor from a place called Harvard Business School came to speak to students at Bei Da, and Han introduced himself and, apparently, made a big impression. Big enough that he ended up getting a scholarship to attend Harvard. Mama and Papa called that kind of good fortune “double happiness.”
But then, in Ming’s last year of high school, Mama and Papa had some serious trouble. One night, they woke to a thunderous knock on the door. Three policemen took Papa away, stating that he had committed some terrible crime—though they didn’t say what the crime was. Mama told Ming the arrest was probably a result of their refusal to hire the local deputy minister of industry’s mistress; they’d protested that they didn’t have the budget and the girl didn’t have any skills. Mama and Papa, it occurred to Ming, still imagined they were serving a revolution where everyone was honorable and trying to make a better world.
Papa spent nearly two months in prison. By the time they let Papa out, the local Party officials had accused the deputy minister himself of corruption. One day in March, the prison guard opened the door to Papa’s cell and simply told him he could go. Mama said she didn’t want to work for the government anymore, but things were changing once again and Mama had a big idea; they were going to start their own private enterprise. Lots of people were doing that now that the laws allowed them to. Mama had rented an old warehouse northwest of the city, in Badaling. The Party was busy there, bulldozing through woods to build the Beijing Badaling Economic Development Zone, complete with industrial parks and office buildings, vast apartment blocks, and a broad stretch of road that led to the Great Wall of China. There, in the warehouse, Mama and Papa started a company they called Rising Phoenix. They hired about a dozen people, including some from the village, and they all got to work making silicone products once again. Instead of military products, however, they made silicone rubber that could be turned into molds for tires or toys or—as Mama and Papa knew but didn’t like to talk about—sex toys.
Mama and Papa worked hard and saved their money, and after three years of frugal living, they bought a big section of land beyond the green hills of the Huyu Natural Scenic Area, amidst farms that were slowly surrendering to cement. They converted their land into an industrial park that housed their production facilities and residential apartments—for themselves as well as their workers and customers from out of town. By then, people were coming by the thousands from all over the world to worship at the altar of China’s double-digit economic growth.
Mama and Papa put all their earnings into their company; they wouldn’t even buy new towels to replace the threadbare ones they had brought with them from Sunshine Village. They worked hard, determined that Ming and Han both could have the opportunity to go to business school and help make China rich and powerful. By the time Ming’s parents were urging her to go abroad and study business, Han was settled back in Beijing, running a private equity firm with an American classmate from Harvard Business School. Mama and Papa said it was time for Ming to stop writing poems and stories and get an MBA.
Han coached Ming on the right things to say in the all-important business school application. For the required essay, she wrote two versions. One, Han had approved; the other was the one she sent. Han said, “Inform Harvard Business School what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.” So in the essay that the admissions officers received, she wrote: With a degree from Harvard Business School, I can achieve my dream of living in New York City and having a big office. Han said, “Show them that you’re passionate about wanting to make a monumental difference in the business world, and that your love of writing somehow has something to do with that.” So Ming wrote: I’ve always kept a notebook for writing poetry. Someday I hope business people quote me, like we quote Chairman Mao in China.
Two months later, Ming received a one-page letter from Harvard Business School that stated: We had many excellent applicants, but unfortunately you were not chosen…. Papa sat, head in his hands, wiping tears with his handkerchief. Ming willed herself not to jump up and down with excitement; she’d have to go to business school at New York University instead, the school Mama, Papa, and Han had identified as her second choice. New York City—she played the name over and over in her mind. Ming had seen a movie where a scruffy guy with the curious name of Woody Allen had kept books about the meaning of life strewn about his apartment and made glamorous women laugh. Even the soundtrack had made her think of walk-up lofts, poetry slams, and drinking fine wine into the night. Eight million people lived in New York City and all of them would understand her.
But three years later, the magic roller coaster came to a screeching halt. Ming returned to Beijing. New York had people with big dreams and even a scruffy man who’d made her laugh, but it also had a crime ring, and Ming was now a fugitive from the law. Han put her to work at his firm as a poorly paid private equity research intern analyzing business plans and housed her in a cheap firm-owned apartment near the Beijing central business district. Every Sunday, Han piled his wife, his son, and Ming into his Lexus and they drove to Mama and Papa’s apartment in Badaling.
One Sunday, in early February, three months after Ming’s return to China, a friend from New York named Zoe Austin arrived in Beijing. That evening the Chengs gathered in the tiny box of a living room to welcome their visitor. Mama and Papa teetered in folding chairs, while Han, the son and princeling, kept up a back-and-forth motion in the rocking chair.
“Sit next to me,” Zoe whispered to Ming in English, gesturing to a spot on the narrow Naugahyde sofa. Ming knew Zoe always had an opinion on what other people should be doing, as if everyone’s life were a Broadway show and Zoe the infallible director. Ming’s friend had neon-blue eyes and wore a black sweater that clung to her wiry frame like a long-term lover. When she spoke, her voice started out throaty, then rose with excitement, like a clap of cymbals in the New York tune “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Han’s quiet wife, Wu Xia, perched on the sofa at Ming’s left, while her fat little son, five-year-old Bo Fu, bounced a ball against the floor. Zoe brought out five gift boxes from the tote bag at her feet.
“For you,” Zoe said, handing her gifts out. Ming watched Han tear tissue paper into little strips, revealing a slender pen box. Han pulled out the cotton batting from beneath the pen and ran his fingers over the bottom—as if he expected to discover a wad of cash or the key to a new BMW—then proceeded to twirl the cotton between his thumb and forefinger. He had a habit of playing with objects; Ming figured it had come from growing up without toys. Papa opened his gift to find an identical silver pen. For Mama and Wu Xia, Zoe had brought classic Chanel No. 5 in shiny, white boxes. For Bo Fu, a Yankees cap and baseball. He put the cap on and grinned, then tossed the ball to his father, who juggled it until Bo Fu asked for it back.
“We are grateful for your presents, however humble,” said Papa. Even Papa, the old revolutionary, was caught up in the era of more, more, more. Americans were supposed to bring you property deeds and shares of corporations instead of shiny trifles. Papa, a small man who looked like he could blow over in a gust of wind, laughed a little and slapped his own cheek. Ming had always assumed this was a habit born of the revolution, when Papa had to perpetually apologize for having too much. Ming’s grandfather had owned land before Mao came to power, and Papa had had to constantly demonstrate his support for the downtrodden, despite coming from the oppressor class.
Ming watched Zoe absorb the insult, bowing her head for a moment. Zoe came from “genteel poverty”—a term Ming had learned in New York. Her mother was a struggling actress, and Zoe a struggling graduate student; silver pens and eau de cologne would have cost her a semester’s worth of books, but Zoe knew that one never arrived at a Chinese home empty-handed. She hadn’t brought a gift for Ming—except for saying, “Sit next to me,” and that was enough.
The black-clad visitor from New York looked Papa directly in the eye. “I’m very grateful to you all,” she said. Zoe spoke Mandarin with scholarly, scrupulous enunciation, but the Manhattan rhythm pounded through every tone. “Perhaps Ming told you that this trip will help me start my dissertation. And when I’m a famous China scholar…” Her voice hinted at bigger gifts in the future.
Zoe had a sienna glow to her complexion, implying a parentage from some far-off coast, though she herself had no idea where that coast might be. She was striking rather than beautiful; the regal bump on her nose and the lynx-like way she smiled were artful signatures. Ming knew that her friend’s exuberance was something she had deliberately cultivated as a matter of survival, and tomorrow Ming would begin to test those survival skills. They had two tickets for a flight to Chengdu and, from there, a bus to Sunshine Village.
Ming could still smell the salty fog and taste the bitter raindrops of her childhood home. While the villagers no longer lived on raindrops and thrice-boiled rice, only for Zoe would Ming blaze through the wall of clouds and help dig out empirical evidence of the Cultural Revolution at its most vicious. Officially, Ming was traveling under the authority of her brother’s private equity firm, New Icarus Capital, assessing whether the Sichuan State Sunshine Village Silicone Works Enterprises might represent a potential investment. Han and Tom Wendall, his nice though married partner, were always looking for moribund, state-owned companies that they could buy cheaply and turn around. And if I take my American scholar friend, everyone will assume that we are there to do academic research, she’d told Han. Her brother had leapt at the prospect, as Ming had been sure he would.
Getting Zoe out here was Ming’s way of bringing a touch of New York back into her life; it was one of those little deceptions Ming had devised to keep from going mad, along with the afternoons when she slipped away with Tom, who’d said, “You seem like you need saving.” Studying herself in mirrors, Ming thought she detected a harsh twist to her lips and a steel glint in her eyes. She and Zoe were both twenty-seven, but whereas Zoe was all anticipation and city lights, for Ming the future seemed to promise only greedy moments of transient pleasure.
After her return to China, Ming had hacked off her waist-length hair; it had smelled too much like the Brooklyn loft she’d left behind. Then she’d paid a stylist to give her a bob that looked intentional. Han said the hairdo gave her a professional bearing. That was all he cared about. Ming wondered if her brother would have hired her if she had still possessed her old gnarled teeth. She had a perfect set of alabaster crowns now, ill-gotten beauties, and sometimes she looked in the mirror just to be sure they were still there, the handiwork of Dr. Perlmutter of Park Avenue who had charged her forty-two thousand American dollars.
“What are you getting your PhD in?” Han asked Zoe. He wore his Harvard Business School sweatshirt, as he always did when he wanted to show off. Ever since Han had returned from America, his face had seemed at war with itself. His smooth skin could crinkle into genuine love for his son or obligatory compassion for the rest of the world, yet he was developing a self-satisfied pudginess that seemed as if it wanted to overtake him.
“Developmental economic history,” Zoe replied.
Economic netted a smile of approval from Mr. Harvard Business School. Han even said, with a heavy dose of magnanimity, “When you finish, if you decide you’d like to go into finance in China, come and see me.”
“Ming tells us that everyone in New York wants to be a writer,” Papa interjected, with a laugh.
“Well, a lot of them want to write at least one book or poem that will save the world.” Zoe looked at Ming as if they shared a secret, and Ming dared imagine what it might feel like to be happy again. In New York, Zoe had often used those words, Save the world, and Ming knew it meant Save the world from greedy landlords and lives mired in anxious poverty and anything else that beat them down.
“We didn’t read the American writers in my day,” Papa was telling Zoe, as if it were too late for him to ever read something new. “Have you read Pushkin? Tolstoy? We got all the Russian writers in translation. When I was twenty the Party sent me to Russia for six months.” He slapped himself again.
Zoe nodded. “I was learning Chinese and I read The Legend of the Monkey King when I was a kid. Not great literature, but I liked that he was supposed to embody the reckless instability of genius.” She rolled her eyes in self-mockery.
“There was a myth that he was born near Sunshine Village,” said Papa.
“Tell our guest about the Monkey King while I get dinner,” Mama said, laughing as she moved toward the kitchen. She was twice Papa’s size. In Mama’s old photo albums there were pictures of her as a strapping revolutionary girl, leading a brigade of girls with shovels. Ming had too much of Mama’s sturdy build—bad luck now that delicate limbs were back in fashion.
Wu Xia rose to help her mother-in-law. Bo Fu tugged on his father’s arm, nagging him to play a game, so Han slipped away to the computer in the corner, where he proceeded to blast Martians with his son.
Ming stayed planted next to Zoe. She’d heard the story of the Monkey King and Sunshine Village a million times, but Papa added new details with each telling.
“The Monkey King sprang from a big rock, like a stone egg, the myth claims, and he lived in Sunshine Village,” Papa began. “Villagers used to call him Handsome Monkey King, although his full name, Sun Wu Kong, means Monkey Awakened to the Emptiness that is Nirvana. He liked to drink, loved the ladies, and fell in love with a beautiful young girl called Zenia who tended the rice paddies and sold noodles at the market. Zenia knew that she would be planting rice until she died of exhaustion unless some rich man wanted her as a concubine, but she was a feisty girl and she had other ideas for herself. When she spied the Monkey King—in the form of a handsome man, strutting about the village market—she called out to him, ‘Can you teach me your martial arts?’ The Monkey King, taking one look at the pretty girl, said he would be delighted to teach her.”
Zoe smiled. Ming recalled that her American friend had a black belt in qi gong.
“So,” Papa continued, “they met in secret every morning before the sun came up, and Zenia became a martial arts master in her own right. They fell in love, too, but the Monkey King was a rascal—he drank too much and was a terrible flirt. Zenia was humiliated.
“Then the village mayor sent a messenger to Zenia’s parents, telling them the mayor would give them a lot of money if he could have her as a concubine. The mayor was an old man with a long beard that was always full of noodles because he liked to eat so much. Zenia had no choice but to obey, and she was furious at the Handsome Monkey King anyway. So she became the mayor’s sixth concubine. The Monkey King, distraught, came to her in secret just before the mayor’s guards came to fetch her, apologizing for his womanizing ways and promising to change, but it was too late. Still, Zenia, in her little room in the concubine quarters, would practice her martial arts exercises and the deep breathing—the first step toward achieving full enlightenment. She hoped that if she worked hard enough, she could send her soul outside her own body and be with the man she loved. Except the old mayor caught her practicing the deep breathing exercises and sent a guard to keep her from doing it. Zenia was so miserable, she stabbed herself with the guard’s scabbard, and vowed, ‘My tears will fall on the village until I can come back and be with my darling.’ And the myth is that the dark clouds will stay there, spilling their bitter rain upon Sunshine Village, until Zenia and the Monkey King’s souls meet on Earth again.”
“Almost makes me want to do my dissertation on ancient lore instead of the Third Front,” Zoe said and laughed.
“Nope, no time for legends, we have to go conquer Sunshine Village and make money off it.” Ming tossed her words in Han’s direction.
Her brother looked up from his Martian-blasting and glared at her. “If we’re smart enough to turn it into a money maker, it’ll be good for everyone.” He turned to Zoe. “Ming thinks she should get to write stories while the rest of us work.”
Ming clenched her Dr. Perlmutter teeth, then let out a despairing wail that would have evolved into words, except Wu Xia came out of the kitchen bearing two sizzling platters just in time to stop her.
The Chengs ate well now. The Formica table jiggled under the fragrant weight of sweet-and-sour spare ribs, dumplings with a garlic soy sauce, pickled jellyfish, stir-fried bok choy, and soup brimming with plump seaweed.
“This is Ming’s favorite dish,” Papa said. He passed around the ribs, sizzling beneath slices of ginger and carrot, and cast a purposeful look at Ming, as if to say time to unite. The vapors tickled Ming’s nostrils and calmed her for the moment.
“Mama boils them first; that’s how they get so tender,” she told Zoe. “Then she roasts them with honey and vinegar.”
Wu Xia, seated opposite Ming, took just one small rib, as if to be polite. Wu Xia had sensible short hair and a delicate face with a tightness about it. It occurred to Ming that she had never seen Han gaze at his wife with love. Her sister-in-law tossed back her orange-blossom wine before she took a bite of anything. They had little Bo Fu, but Ming suspected it was habit and inertia that kept them together even more than their son.
Han picked up his chopsticks and pointed them at Bo Fu, making them open and close like a duck trying to talk. The little boy giggled.
Zoe devoured one rib after another, complimenting Mama and looking as happy to be there as Ming was miserable.
“So,” Papa said to their guest, “you get to travel to Sunshine Village by plane and bus. Did Ming tell you about how we got there? One day, when Mama and I were young and working in Beijing, a Party official told us we were being sent off on a classified assignment, and two days later, we got on a night train to Beijing with about a thousand other people. None of us knew where they were sending us.”
“Three days past Beijing, we stopped at a station,” Mama told Zoe as she put a platter of honeyed gluten balls and oranges on the table. “An army sergeant called out names at each stop and those people got off the train. After four stops, when we arrived at Chengdu, they called our names. From there we traveled three days by oxcart, no buses back then.”
“Then,” Papa interrupted, “we came to a wall of clouds and stopped at a village that was just one dirt street. Sunshine Village. Han was born there, while we lived in a dormitory with many other working families. Then Ming.”
“By the time Ming was born we had our own apartment, but it was just one room,” Han said. “She cried all the time and nobody could sleep—not even the neighbors.”
“Ming always wanted people to hear her,” said Papa. Ming could see the worry in his eyes. Papa had always looked at her that way; he seemed to think anything she did was going to get her into trouble. So often he’d told her: If you’re a writer, you might tell the wrong story and get in trouble.
The following morning, Ming and Zoe took their seats on an Air China flight to Chengdu.
Ming pulled out her notebook. In the air, with Zoe sitting next to her, she didn’t have to play at being a private equity researcher. Even so, she sensed Zoe examining her, with questions that hung between them.
“Your father,” Zoe observed, “loves stories and then he wonders why you want to be a writer.” Zoe smelled like books and peaches, Ming thought, the scent of a stroll past the stores along upper Broadway.
Ming sighed. “Sometimes I look at my parents and my brother and I wonder if I’m even related to them. There’s a big stone Buddha in the village. I used to think I was hatched from rock somehow, like the Monkey King.”
“I was hatched from rock too, in a way.”
Ming knew that while she meant stone, Zoe meant rock music.
Excerpted from Ms. Ming’s Guide to Civilization by Jan Alexander. Published by Regal House, September 2019.