The Expatriates By Janice Y. K. Lee: Book Review
It’s seven years since Janice YK Lee’s, debut The Piano Teacher – a much-loved dual narrative tale of two parallel affairs in expat Hong Kong – topped bestseller lists globally.
Her follow up, The Expatriates, takes us back to expat Hong Kong, where a terrible tragedy transforms the lives of three women; wives and mothers whose isolated existence throws into sharp relief the fragile position of women in a 21st century that could be mistaken for several decades earlier.
A world where, suddenly deprived of their social and economic independence, their worth is measured in charitable luncheons and Jimmy Choos.
Hilary who has followed her husband from California and finds herself unable to join the motherhood club, housewife and mother-of-three Margaret whom tragedy has befallen a year earlier, and Mercy, a twenty something Korean-American struggling to belong.
Despite the dark premise, The Expatriates is a surprisingly light-filled read thanks to Lee’s gift for social satire and the gimlet eye she turns on her Hong Kong home.
The Expatriates By Janice Y. K. Lee: Book Extract
A slow-roasted unicorn. A baked, butterflied baby dragon, spread-eagled, spine a delicate slope in the pan. A phoenix, perhaps, slightly charred from its fiery rebirth, sprinkled with sugar, flesh caramelized from the heat. That’s what she wants to eat: a mythical creature, something slightly otherworldly, something not real. A centaur. Yes, the juicy haunch of a centaur. Mercy lies in bed, not quite asleep, not quite awake, sheets crumpled around her, feeling the gnawing hole in her stomach, relishing it, savoring it.
The sun streams in through her small, smudged window. By the looks of it, it must be past 11:00 a.m., a time when most people— respectable people, people with jobs—have been at work for several hours and may already be contemplating what they should eat for lunch.
She can hear the muted sounds of the streets below. Sheung Wan, an area too quickly being discovered by the rent-hikers—those young, industrious careerists in their well-cut suits and shiny leather shoes who leave at eight thirty in the morning with wet hair and sheaves of papers shoved in briefcases. They have discovered this relatively cheap neighborhood, a short walk from Central, and have succeeded in slowly gentrifying it. The rent-hikers live among aging locals who view their encroachment with bemused silence. Every morning they pass the crazy charwoman in the lobby who barks incomprehensible Cantonese invectives at them as they walk through, fingertips pecking on their phones, pretending not to notice. These superbly energetic men and women have tried to get the charwoman replaced, started a petition, which was photocopied and slipped under Mercy’s door for her signature, but all their efforts have come to naught. The crazy woman stays all day and night, sitting on her plastic stool, bucket and mop beside her, shouting at them and at herself. It is believed she lives in a little room off the lobby, but no one has been able to ascertain the truth. No one has ever seen her do any cleaning, or leave, or come back. It’s one of those Hong Kong mysteries, where she might be the landlord’s demented aunt, a homeless person who has made the lobby her home, or indeed an insane millionaire who owns the building. All this conjecture and information is conveyed through messages posted in the elevator. Then suddenly one day, a direction to an online message board, to which they all migrate, leaving the wall in the elevator mercifully blank. All that remains of the shrill, slightly hysterical dialogue is a strip of yellowing Scotch tape on the plastic wall.
Mercy is hungry. She should eat. But she wants to eat a centaur’s thigh, roasted over a bonfire, turned on a spit by fairies, their sparkly little faces perspiring from the heat. She is certain she will not find this when she ventures out into the small, tight streets around her. They are filled instead with equally improbable things: shiny cow innards; disembodied pigs’ heads with floppy ears, stacked up in bloody piles; dried seahorses in burlap sacks. She does not find the food grotesque, instead is bewildered by how one begins to eat such items, existing as they do in such peculiar and indeterminate forms, or indeed, alive, or in quantities that would feed a village.
When she gets up, she determines, she will turn on her space heater to warm the chill of the December air. She will take out a head of organic Boston lettuce from her little refrigerator and pull apart the leaves, soak them for ten minutes, then transfer them into a spinner, where they will be centrifuged, and the sandy water discarded. She will toss the leaves in a wooden bowl with a micro spray of olive oil, a drop of balsamic vinegar, the insanely expensive balsamic vinegar that she bought at the gourmet store, so viscous it drips in a slow, thick stream. A tomato. A Persian cucumber. These will emerge, pristine, from her tiny refrigerator, chilled, perfect. She will slice them thinly and fan them into beautiful patterns, a vegetable mandala, courtesy of the mandoline, a feast for the eyes. She will hand-crumble Parmigiano Reggiano onto the top, and then, from on high, she will brandish the mill and grind coarse crystals of pink salt from the Himalayas into fine, sparkly shavings that will float, like snowflakes, onto the pale green surface of her salad.
She will bring the salad to the table by her bed, which she will have set with a scalloped linen placemat she bought on a trip to Hanoi, with a matching napkin, and a glass with a bottle of Fiji water just next to it, ready for pouring. She lives in a two-hundred-square-foot studio, but she does not have to live like a savage.
Mercy will sit on the bed and take up her instruments: her heavy silver fork and knife, stolen from Gaddi’s restaurant on a memorable night in better times. The lettuce, slightly glossed with oil, will yield as she presses the tines of her fork into it, the hole bleeding a slightly darker green as she breaks the cells of the leaf, violent death in its own microscopic way. From there, she will lift it into her mouth, a light sliver on her tongue for an instant before her teeth grind it into a small, slippery pulp that will slip down her throat. She will swallow. She will cut another piece. She will put it in her mouth and chew again. Swallow. Drink water. Drink more water. Spear another leaf. Repeat.
It is important to do things right. Otherwise, when you live alone, it can devolve very quickly. Stand on ceremony. Observe the rites. That’s how you get through the day.
It’s a tricky project. The house sits atop a sloping meadow, and the clients want to flatten out the land and make an English garden— totally wrong for the landscape and the surrounding area. It is woodsy and natural there in rural Connecticut, where they are. She wonders why they didn’t buy a tidy, flat plot of land near potato fields instead, or a suburban house in Darien—a tabula rasa, where they can put up high hedges and rose gardens in symmetrical rectangles and live out their Anglophilic fantasy undisturbed by the illogical terrain of the hills. They have friends in the area, they said. That is why they bought in Litchfield. But this is not her problem. Her problem is persuading them to listen to the land.
It sounds pretentious or mystical, but it’s true: The land dictates what will happen to it. So it is not a problem in the end. A lot of clients try to have their way, but eventually, always, they have to yield. If not to her, then to nature. No one has enough time or money to bend nature to his will. Nature is patient, can wait for centuries.
Margaret leans over the desk, wielding her ruler and pencil. This is the part she loves most, the clean beginning, when it is only her and the land and the blank paper, all possibility, no problems. She has her drawings spread around her. She always starts by hand and ends up on the computer.
The problems come later, when concept collides with reality and human nature.
A stone fruit orchard on the east side of the garden. This will appease them. She sketches in some trees. These clients will buy them mature. So much easier. So much more expensive. An allée of trees will provide shade for an afternoon promenade. It is part of her job to idealize life, to proffer a gracious, perfect existence in its most optimistic aspect. She knows all too well that soon the constraints of reality, budget, and deadline will alter her plan until it’s almost unrecognizable. She also knows that this particular project will never get off the ground. This is not a real project. These are friends of friends who forwarded her photos and surveys and asked for her opinion. She’s doing this as a favor for her friends, and she suspects that they suggested her so she will have something to do, to fill the hours, to try to still her mind. Still, she loses herself in the work.
They arrived three years ago in Hong Kong, Clarke and Margaret Reade, with their three children. He is with a U.S. multinational, she says if anyone asks, which they always do. The sound of that term always gives her a frisson: anonymous, vaguely threatening, nationalistically contradictory in terms. It reminds her of when she reads in the paper about companies with names like Archer Daniels and Monsanto, names she has only vaguely heard of but that own everything that touches people’s daily lives, like toothpaste and children’s aspirin and milk.
But here they always just ask, Which one? as everyone here works for a U.S. multinational. They don’t see anything funny about the term. And she tells them M_ D_. Oh, yes, they say, do you know John McBride and Suzie? From Winnetka? I think John works in sourcing? So he’s up in the Pearl River delta a lot? They natter on and on while she wonders if she’ll ever find anyone who understands. So many people here seem hermetically sealed, as if they live in Hong Kong but are untouched by it. They live in an almost wholly American section of the former British colony, now China, and are only inconvenienced sometimes by the lack of good tomatoes or how hard it is to find a really good hamburger.
She looks up. It is noon. A gift when time passes and she is unaware. She has a lunch in town in an hour, and she has to get ready.
It is with a party planner, of all people. Clarke is turning fifty, and she wants to throw him a big celebration but has no idea how to do it and, really, no inclination either.
She showers, thinking about all she has to do. This is the last day of school before the Christmas holiday, they have a dinner party to go to tonight, and then they are leaving for vacation the next day. Suitcases need to be packed, children readied. Dressed, with wet hair, she leaves, bidding good-bye to Essie, her Filipina helper, flags down a taxi on Repulse Bay Road, slides into the plasticky backseat, fastens her seat belt. Loud Cantopop fills the interior of the cab.
“Four Seasons Hotel, please,” she says. “Can you turn down the radio?”
He nods. The taxi flag goes down. They careen around corners; she holds on to the handle on the side, thighs sliding on the vinyl. Outside, despite the December date, all is green and sky and sea. They drive through the Aberdeen tunnel to emerge on the other side, where gray office buildings crowd the skyline. Margaret is reminded again how life on the South Side is the suburbs and Central, the town.
Priscilla is thin and blond, with a mess of clattery bangles down her sinewy, tanned forearm. They jangle as she lifts her arm to shake hands with Margaret in the cavernous lobby of the Four Seasons. An enormous Christmas tree looms above them. Priscilla’s hair is expensively highlighted, with strands of gold.
“Nice to meet you, Margaret.” She smiles. Chiclet teeth.
“Nice to meet you too,” Margaret says. “Thank you for coming.”
They go to the coffee shop, order drinks. Priscilla doesn’t know, Margaret realizes. She doesn’t know about G. Okay. She recalibrates to this. She doesn’t know how she knows if people know her story or not, but she always does.
“Have you lived in Hong Kong long?” asks Priscilla.
“Three years now. And you?”
“Six. Do you like it?” Expats always ask one another that, after they declare their time, often with a searching look.
“I do,” Margaret says. “I do.”
“Good,” Priscilla says. “I hate it when people complain all the time about being out here. They miss the most ridiculous things. Like Safeway or a special type of diaper. I just want to say, look around!”
Margaret is taken aback by the woman’s vehemence.
“Sorry,” Priscilla says, noticing. “I just think you should try to be happy where you are and not complain all the time. People here have the most extraordinary lives, and they focus only on what they’re missing.”
“I suppose so.”
“What brought you here?” Priscilla asks, gesturing for the waiter.
“The usual. Husband.”
“And you work as well?”
“Used to. Not so much anymore.”
“What kind of work?”
“Landscape architecture. I design gardens for people.”
“Yes, it can be.”
“Hard to do here in Hong Kong, though. No one has any land.” “Yes, but everything’s over e-mail now anyway, although I barely work anymore. Although China could be interesting.”
“Yes, China, of course.”
They both stop to ponder its enormity and possibility, as happens thousands of times every day in Hong Kong, where China’s proximity and power is both celebrated and feared.
Margaret tenses, waiting for the next question. She has cultivated a very accurate sense of when it might come in an introductory conversation.
“And children? Have any?”
She looks down at the menu. “I’ve never been here. What’s good? I’m starving.”
Priscilla takes it in stride. “The chopped salad, the Hainan chicken. Everything is good here.”
“Oh, lovely. Chopped salad!”
They murmur the conversational inanities and order from the waiter.
“So how does this work?” she asks, after they have ordered. “I’ve never used someone like you before.”
“You tell me what you want, I try to make it happen.”
“You can guide me, though.”
“Of course. This is for your husband’s fiftieth, is that right?”
“Yes, in May.”
“Any ideas on themes or what he’d like?”
“Half-life?” She laughs, but Priscilla does not. “Mid-century?”
Priscilla has taken out a big yellow pad on which she writes “Clarke Reade’s 50th birthday” with a Sharpie. She looks up, all business. Margaret wonders why she always thinks everything seems absurd. Like it seems absurd to write the client’s name and event on a yellow legal pad. With a Sharpie. No one else seems to find it the least bit strange.
“Thoughts?” Priscilla tries again.
“I haven’t the slightest idea, I’m afraid,” Margaret says. “Is there something you can suggest?”
After going over possible themes and venues and dates, they get the check. Margaret opens her bag, unsure of the protocol, but Priscilla waves her away. As they take leave of each other, Priscilla asks again. “Do you have children?”
Margaret gathers her jacket from the back of the chair, where she has hung it.
“Yes,” she says. “They’re at TASOHK, you know, the American school.” She nods, looks away, past Priscilla and her bright smile.
And that’s it. She has survived the moment. She walks quickly to the glass doors of the hotel lobby and pushes through to the cool air outside. She gulps and breathes.Next chapter
Hong Kong was supposed to have been a new start—if one could say one needed a new start at the age of twenty-four, which is how old she was when she came, three years ago. It is safe to say that life has not turned out the way Mercy thought it was supposed to.
But she cannot say she wasn’t warned. Her mother came home ashen-faced one day when Mercy was thirteen. She wouldn’t tell Mercy what had happened, but her father, dependably drunk and abrasive in the evenings, told her the bad news. Superstitious mother had gone to a fortune-teller to waste his money and find out about Mercy’s future. Idiot fortune-teller had clucked his tongue at her reading, said he had rarely seen someone whose life would be so muddled. She would have bad luck. Things would always go topsy-turvy. She was not a bad person, but things would never go her way. Understand? Her father poured some more whiskey, face already tomato red.
Korean ajumma, busybodies that they were, were all amateur fortune-tellers themselves and liked to read faces. One Sunday, at their church in Queens, she had overheard her mother’s friends talking about the composition of her face having no bok, no good fortune. Thin, jutting eyebrows, cheekbones that were too sharp, a chin that was so pointy it would cut away all the good. She’s pretty, one said. Pretty in a cheap way, said another. That makes it worse. That will invite the bad luck. And the bad men.
Later, she found the fortune-teller’s predictions in her mother’s underwear drawer. She recognized the characters of her name and opened the red paper booklet. It was written in Korean and Chinese characters, so she couldn’t read it, but she took it out and asked a Korean man, a stranger on the street, what it meant. In Flushing, where they lived, it was almost like living in Seoul, there were so many Koreans. The man gave her an odd look but translated a few lines.
“This means, you are riding a fast horse with no saddle. The rider will fall.” He hesitated. “And here it says, a crow cannot soar like an eagle.” His eyes dropped, and he handed the book back to her. “I have to go.”
A crow cannot soar like an eagle.
It was always there in the back of her mind, but what did you do with a fate like that but dismiss it as old Korean folklore that had nothing to do with her?
At Columbia, she had been disheartened to see how hard it was to do well, to stand out. When she got in, she thought, I’ll show those Korean ladies who has bad fortune. But it was harder than that. In her freshman class alone, there had been an Oscar-nominated actress, a boy who’d had two poems published in the New Yorker, someone who had sailed around the world and been written up in National Geographic.
And this is the thing too. In college, Mercy had gone above her station, as she thinks of it in gloomier moments. Perhaps this was part of her misfortune. There was a whole new kind of person there, people she had seen in movies and read about in books. Rich people; really, really rich people. Kids who had drivers, who had never done a load of laundry, whose parents had private planes. Her own parents were not dry cleaners or deli owners, as some curious new “friends” had asked. Her dad had an unsuccessful import/export company with an office that was always littered with samples of ugly, Korean-made poly sports apparel, and her mom, long-suffering, helped out at her aunt’s Korean restaurant and told Mercy she had only one child because she could see that life wasn’t going to get any better. Mercy never apologized about her family but never volunteered information either.
Mercy never knew why she was included in this new crowd. An accident, she thought, born of the fact that she was pretty, looked surprisingly good in a forty-dollar strapless dress from Forever 21, was always up for a dare, and that her freshman-year roommate was a friendly, pudgy Chinese girl from Hong Kong, who went downtown one Saturday in October and bought a cherry-red Mercedes convertible and whose parents had a three-bedroom pied-à-terre on East Seventy-fourth Street. Philena was a homely, uncomplicated rich girl who liked to have lots of people around, always, and included Mercy without drama, paying for everything with her black American Express card.
That first year of university, Mercy studied her classmates, the rich ones, a special breed unto themselves. She noted the soft, flabby skin of the boys, their whiskey breath, the petulant way they talked to their mothers, the way things always got sorted for them. They came from all over the world: Abdul, from Saudi Arabia, who went to London every weekend and would sometimes invite a girl from school, who would come back with six new pairs of shoes and a dress from Harrods and a story about a party at Elton John’s country house, although privately Mercy thought the whole thing made them little better than escorts; or Cal, from LA, whose father was a director and who hung out with Julianne Moore on the weekends; or the boys from Manhattan, so many of them, with their hedge fund fathers, bony, raspy-voiced mothers, and limitless credit cards. The rich boys were thin-skinned, with a puffed-up bravado that was millimeters thin; if you nicked it, they collapsed.
Mercy borrowed Jimmy Choos from Philena and went to the apartments of upperclassmen (oh, the irony of that term!) in doorman buildings, where you walked in to the heady smell of pot and dirty laundry and the drone of some basketball game always in the background. There were half-empty bottles of Johnnie Walker and Jim Beam on the Corian kitchen counters, props for an always ongoing party. The boys were pigs in the way they lived, whereas the girls were princesses.
The girls burned an endless supply of $60 scented candles from Bergdorf’s and did class reading under embroidered duvet covers from Italy. They floated around in weightless cashmere hoodies that felt like gossamer, bought $1,800 handbags without blinking, paid private Pilates instructors a hundred bucks a session, got their pin-straight hair blown out shiny every three days. They went to class in groups and planned trips to Canyon Ranch. Mercy hung out at the edges and witnessed it all. She was the crazy one who’d take any dare, do anything to keep the party going.
Of course, she and Philena had a falling-out halfway through college. Mercy borrowed a silk scarf from Philena’s closet and got ketchup on it. Worse, she hadn’t asked to borrow it. Worse, she put it back without bothering to dry-clean it. Even worse, it was far from the first time, but it was the first time Philena minded. She usually didn’t care. Mercy had exhausted even the lovely and unflappable Philena’s vast reserves of tolerance. That was something.
Mercy felt herself hardening in college. She learned the way they spoke, the rich kids: a reflexive irony where the most important thing was to show you didn’t care, that you were impervious to others’ opinions. But, of course, the hardest shells hid the most fragile selves. Doug, a real estate developer’s son from Chicago, took her out a few times, then cried after they slept together. He never spoke to her again. She told people she thought he was gay, which she did think, but it probably wasn’t so nice to relay to other people.
She meandered her way through college, going home sometimes on the weekends when it got to be too much or too expensive, helping out her mom and aunt at the restaurant. Her aunt, who had no children and ran a cash business, always pressed a hundred-dollar bill or two on her afterward, although Mercy tried to refuse. Family was supposed to help, that was the rule, and she didn’t expect to be paid. Still, her aunt said, “Enjoy. I remember what college was like,” although she had no idea what Mercy’s college life was like. She imagined her college friends coming in to the restaurant and seeing her, hair tied in a ponytail, apron soiled, carrying trays of banchan—spinach, lotus root, marinated bean sprouts, and cold crab—to the waiting throngs or having a cigarette in the back with the Mexican busboys who teased her about being a college girl. Quite a far cry from her black-clad Saturday nights with them. Of course, those friends would never come to Queens, so it was just fantasy.
She toggled back and forth from the different worlds, the subway shuttling her to and fro. Her mother urged her to do premed or become a lawyer, with a desperation that made Mercy uncomfortable. She signed up for art history instead and told her mom that she could still go to law school but she needed some time to figure out what she wanted to do. She figured she was young—she had that luxury.
But that was college. After, the differences became clear. Her friends graduated and got jobs at banks, magazines, PR companies, their way paved by family connections. Mercy applied for jobs, and if she got an interview, she never got past the first round, although her grades were just as good and sometimes better. Her friends moved into one-, two-, in one case three-bedroom apartments funded by their endlessly generous parents. One of her friends, Maria, a girl from Mexico, bought a four-thousand-square-foot loft in Nolita the week after she finished college and spent the summer decorating it before deciding on a career in interior design or art consulting. Mercy went home to Queens, subsisted on temp jobs, and took the subway into the city whenever she could, for dinners in dark West Village restaurants and parties in brand-new condos. She learned to arrive late, not order food, and just toss in a twenty for the two drinks she had.
One night, at a party, she confided to a girl she knew a little that she really needed a job.
“What do you want to do?” Leslie said. She was a button-nosed blonde from Greenwich who was working as a paralegal.
Mercy hesitated. She wanted to do so many things. “I don’t know. I’d like to do a lot of things. I’m interested in art. I could work at a museum. Or photography? Or a magazine?”
“Oh, wow,” Leslie said. “Those are really competitive fields.” She looked skeptical.
“Well,” Mercy said, “those are my wishes. I don’t know how to make them reality.”
Leslie looked sad for a moment. “I’m sorry for you,” she said, and she seemed sincere. Then she got up and poured herself another drink. Mercy felt better, as if she had whispered a secret into a well, and expected no more, but later Leslie e-mailed her with a lead for a job, and she felt that life was okay sometimes.
Occasionally, she wished she hadn’t gone to the fancy college with the fancy kids who showed her a different world. She used to go back to Queens and see some of her old friends, still living in the neighborhood, with the same boyfriends, working in their dad’s accounting office, or managing the family beauty salon, and though she didn’t want that life she knew they were happy. But, then, this was Queens, land of immigrant dreams, and there was an equal number of kids who had made it, walking around in the city with their six- or seven-figure salaries, who got quoted in the paper and whose parents mentioned them with every breath at church, as her mom told her whenever she got home on Sundays. “Jenny Choi, she lawyer now. Big law firm. Harvard Law School. Also has Korean boyfriend from Harvard Law. Probably marry next year.”
Sometimes during the day, when she didn’t have a temp job and was at home by herself, she went to her parents’ room and sat at her mother’s dressing table, with its bottles of Shiseido moisturizer and sunscreen, and she opened the precious small jars as she used to when she was a kid. She dipped her fingers in and brought them to her nose, capped in white cream. She sniffed the cool, viscous lotion, and the scent brought her back to when she was just eight and learning what it was to be a girl, a woman. She’d lain in bed watching while her mother sat on the stool, fresh from her bath, hair wrapped up in a towel turban, face pink and moist. Her mother swirled one finger expertly around the jar and tapped five dots sparingly on her face: forehead, nose, two cheeks, chin. Then she’d make circles around them, radiating outward until she had spread the cream all over.
Mercy remembered lying on the bed and thinking that her mother was the epitome of grown-up sophistication and beauty, that all she ever wanted was to become like her mother. She didn’t remember when the scales fell from her eyes—when she realized that her dad drank and gambled away most of his small earnings, that her mother was desperately unhappy and it was making her prematurely old and gray, that she wanted Mercy to have a ticket out of this world and was scared to death it wouldn’t happen, that her family was not the happy one you read about in books—but she had been happy as a child. She had loved to watch her beautiful mother put cream on her face in front of a mirror.
Where had that girl gone? The hopeful, innocent girl who didn’t have to act the clown to keep up. When had it all gotten so complicated?
She began to think about leaving New York after three years of trying to find a career. She had had a string of temp jobs, answering phones at a record label, being a floating receptionist at Condé Nast, where she ran into an old college acquaintance in the elevator, who worked at Allure and asked her which title she was at. Mercy had answered, Glamour, and imagined the girl going to check the masthead right away. The masthead she was not on. She had lunch in that cool cafeteria and tried to fit in, but none of those jobs ever turned into anything permanent, although they did for other people. Then, also, she had been told to use the service entrance at the Park Avenue co-op where her friend Pru lived, still, with her parents. She had offered to bring takeout Indian from Queens for a group dinner when Pru’s parents were in Europe, and the doorman had thought she was a delivery person, although she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen a female delivery person. She smiled tightly, holding that stinky bag of curry, and said that she was a friend of Pru’s. He hadn’t even been sorry, just waved her in without interest. Of course, she made a joke about it when she walked in the door, demanded a credit card and a tip, but it was kind of uncomfortable, as if they all knew it was a little too close to possible. That Mercy was just one step away from doing those types of jobs.
All these things conspired to make her think she should try her luck somewhere else. A few friends had gone to Europe—London, Paris, but those cities seemed too expensive. There were others in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Seoul. She didn’t want to go to Korea—her Korean wasn’t good enough, and she imagined a country full of men like her dad. She e-mailed Philena, who was working at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, and asked what was going on in the city. They spoke English there, right? The silk scarf incident was long forgotten. Lovely, simple Philena, bored of the scene already, invited her to come and stay for a few weeks, and that’s how she had gotten to Hong Kong. Next chapter
In the beginning, it seemed the right move. Hong Kong was more manageable than New York, but it was still a big city—Central, with its close cropping of skyscrapers and the sea right below, with the “burbs,” as her friends called the outlying residential areas, easily accessible for beach days and outdoor activities. It was easier to get jobs, although they paid almost nothing, and she started working at a weekly newspaper a few weeks after she arrived. It was a listings and features rag, with a grizzled Fleet Street hack at the helm. “Out to pasture in Hong Kong,” he told her over lunch the first day before asking her out. She declined—she had that much sense—but he still let her write articles from the get-go, and she quickly got to know the city. She got her first business cards, although they were a cheesy, shiny white. Her friends from college hooked her into a social scene—young grads from Columbia and other colleges littered the city. People were friendly. She found her cheap apartment and felt that she was getting a foothold. Then the office door was locked one day, the publisher went under, and she didn’t have a job again. Then it became a sort of a roller-coaster where she had a job, then didn’t, then got another lead. Her longest gig was four months as a hostess at a swanky Italian restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, but that ended when the parent company folded. She started getting letters from Hong Kong Immigration, inquiring about her status. And it was the same thing, lurching from one near-missed opportunity to another. And then she met Margaret.
Margaret seemed the answer to all her problems. The pay she offered was very high, and she offered it apologetically enough (“I know you went to Columbia . . .”) that Mercy thought she could probably ask for more soon. It was not permanent work, of course, but that was fine. And then the disaster happened. The thing with G. And then it felt as if life would never be the same.
So now she spends her mornings reading about all sorts of lives in the local newspaper, the romantically named Far East Post, where the smaller city items often have to do with men bludgeoning each other with choppers, the local butcher implement, and children falling out of windows when left alone by their teenage mothers. It makes her feel slightly better, reading about all the chaos, as if her own life is not so bad. But when she thinks about her life, really thinks about it, she feels short of breath. Her life! Oh, Mercy! Her life.
She also looks for stories on the Internet, in magazines. People usually has one, a dependably sentimental human interest story. Last month, there had been an article about a pretty teenager in Tennessee who had her arm blown off while drinking beer with friends and playing around with a gun. In another story she found, a man had driven his girlfriend’s two sons to school, only he had been drunk (at eight in the morning!), and they had been killed in a car crash, because he hadn’t put them in their car seats. The man survived, courtesy of his airbag. The mother had been at home, asleep. Or the famous case of the chimpanzee woman. A woman had a chimp as a pet and had sedated it before her friend came over. The chimp had reacted badly to the drug and torn the friend’s face off. The victim had to have a complete face transplant, and children on the street cried when they saw her.
Mercy wants to find a story that echoes her own.
These stories always talk about the victim, and how she or he is coping. There are lots of pictures, in People magazine, at least, of the victim at home, disfigured or pale, chopping some sort of vegetable on a wooden board in the kitchen while his or her loving and supportive spouse or family member looks on. There are quotes from friends about how brave the victim is, how his character has been strengthened by the tragedy. You can survive a tragedy, given time. But what Mercy wants to know is never there. The person responsible for the calamity is never mentioned. No one wants to hear about the guy who shot the gun by mistake, or the drunk boyfriend driver, or the chimpanzee’s owner. The victims are richly sympathized with, and their guilty, confused perpetrators are erased from the story. They don’t exist. They are supposed to disappear.
What did all those people do?
What are their stories?
She knows her own. She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online, and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.
Her body like vapor. Margaret sits in the tub, perspiring from the hot water, her hair pleasantly damp around her face, sweat and steam mingling into one fragrant wetness. The smell: pungent, salty, body, along with the lavender oil she poured into the water. She feels as if she might disappear, melt right into the steam, an intoxicating feeling. After her meeting with Priscilla, she found her way here, of course.
Dr. Stein says she should live life, meet people for lunch, form words so she can speak them, nod her head, put one foot in front of the other. She has to do this to live.
She had seen the building for months, passing by it every time she drove to town. One like many others, a dilapidated structure of many small apartments or rooms, with washing hung outside on bamboo poles, often turning gray with soot. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would hang laundry outside in Happy Valley, where the air is thick with dust from the exhaust of passing cars. Sometimes the curtains were drawn back from the windows, and she could see inside various homes: bunk beds, usually metal, a TV flickering, very basic.
A small sign appeared one day, red letters on white plastic, in English and Chinese: flat to let, weekly, monthly, and a telephone number. She passed the sign several dozen times before she stopped at a traffic light and wrote down the telephone number.
The next week, she took a taxi there—parking was difficult in the tight, scrambly streets, and no one answered the phone when she called. The door was smudged glass with chipped plastic Chinese characters glued on. She pushed the metal bar. A rank lobby with chipped tiles on the floor, torn red vinyl couches along the wall. An old woman sitting behind a steel desk, eating a pungent lunch out of a Styrofoam container, shabby ledgers and an impossibly old phone. A phone that no one answered.
“I would like to see the room,” she said, girding herself for the exchange that lay ahead.
“Mae‐ah?” the woman grunted in Cantonese, uninterested. One of her front teeth was outlined in gold.
“The room.” Margaret gestured outside, to the sign.
The woman inspected a piece of meat in her chopsticks and looked away. Complete disinterest in the crazy gweilo who was trying to complicate her life.
Margaret clasped her hands in front of her chest and took a deep breath. She remembered the thing she had done when she first arrived, when she had gone to a supermarket in search of corn syrup, something not easily explained if you don’t speak the local language. When the first store clerk had disappeared on her, unwilling or unable to help, she had collared another and would not let him go, frustrated. “Find the corn syrup,” she had said over and over again, implacable in her consumer’s right to do this to a store employee. (Wasn’t that his job, finding products for customers?) She had raised her voice as if this would make him understand her better. Finally, after wandering the aisles, they had found it. And then the store clerk found his friend and left the store. He had been another customer, a hapless local, not a store employee, abused by yet another boorish foreigner. She still blushed when she thought of the incident. She wondered what he must have thought of her. He probably had not been all that surprised.
This was what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there, in their actions. The way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for “Diet Coke, not Coke Zero,” as if everyone thought such a distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above—really, better than—the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age? And it was in her. That was the thing. Every time she spoke louder than a local because he or she didn’t understand what Margaret was asking, every time she insisted on her way, was rude, she felt it in her and was ashamed.
So instead she had groveled, beseeched, stayed long enough at the building that the woman realized she was not going away. Margaret had led her outside and pointed to the sign, and the woman had taken her, grumbling, to the elevator, which they took up to the third floor. There, in a glum hallway, she paused outside a steel door that was painted a glossy olive green that was stripping away in long ribbons.
“Bat cheen,” the woman said in Cantonese, holding up eight fingers. Eight thousand. Outrageous. A foreigner’s price. The room was probably full of asbestos and cockroaches.
“Okay,” Margaret said before the woman had even turned the key and opened the door.
An iron bed, twin size, or possibly even smaller. A filthy thin mattress, pink, with brown stains. No sink. When Margaret wrung her hands, pretending to wash them, to ask where the sink was, the woman pointed to the miraculous thing in the room: a tub. As if to say, why would you even ask? But a tub in this kind of space was a mistake. Certainly. It was ugly, a small, plastic thing, but was newish, bought in the last five years, installed with the water line coming straight up outside of it. So you wash your hands in the tub. Margaret could not imagine what it had replaced. There were no cooking facilities or closets or anything that most people would ask of a living space. The toilet was behind some plywood painted white. She was lucky. Most of these kinds of places had a bathroom down the hall. It was as if someone had taken a random slice out of a normal living space and this is what had been in that asymmetrical, random segment. But it was perfect for her. She gave the woman eight thousand in cash, swiftly withdrawn from the ATM conveniently located outside, signed some Chinese contract, and got the key the same day.
There she imagined what people would think about what she did if they knew. She imagined they would think she was having an affair, was running an illegal operation of some sort. In fact, her utter conformity, even in isolation, amused her. She had gone out and bought a cheap mattress and pillow and had it delivered. She left the old ones in the hallway, unsure of disposal procedures, and they were gone an hour later. She bought cotton sheets and had them washed by the laundry business just outside—she couldn’t bring them home to Essie, too many questions. She bought pajamas from the China Emporium, pale blue with pandas embroidered on the right front pocket, and she put them on and she lay down on her new bed with her new sheets, all brand-new and nothing to do with her real life, and she lay there, arms by her side, eyes closed, and felt at home.
She had scrubbed the entire room, mixing up buckets of bleach and soap and mopping until the mop came away clean. After there was some semblance of overall cleanliness, she went at the corners with a toothbrush. She was thinking about painting the walls. Everything she did there made her happy.
The hours stolen there vanished into some forgotten morass of her life. Clarke had no idea where she was. He thought she was at home or shopping for food or picking up the kids. She could have told him that she had rented a work space or a studio, but she didn’t. She squirreled away money by buying groceries at the local market instead of the gourmet stores and was chastened to see how much money that left for her to pay for the apartment.
But this is what she did: She lay on that twin bed, or in that tub, and she lay there without a thought in her head. If she did think, it was about what her life would be if she only had this life, this one room, this one place.
Of course, she had to get more things, eventually. A soap dish, a bar of soap to put in it, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, a single-cup coffeemaker, a white mug, a package of three hand towels, red, yellow, blue-striped—primary. A small space heater for when the weather turned cold. She bought them at the local Price-Rite, a fluorescent-lit shop in the basement of a shopping mall, with odd items like Japanese scrubbing cloths and purple humidity-absorbing beads. Her small collection of possessions filled her with gratitude in a way that her house full of furniture in Repulse Bay did not. She got to know the neighborhood around her: the flower shop with cheap, bright flowers, no expensive peonies or orchids, just geraniums and gerbera daisies; the steaming noodle shops, with their round tables and stools, chopsticks bunched in the middle like utilitarian centerpieces; the tiny stationery shop; the dress shop; and their proprietors. She bought lunch and ate it in the room. She brought her garbage out with her and threw it in the public bin. She kept the enterprise simple, and so it all worked.
She squeezes the washcloth over her arm so soapy water trickles down in slow rivulets. So theatrical, she thinks, like something you learn to do by seeing it in a movie. “This is how to relax, this is how to enjoy yourself.” She rinses out the washcloth, wrings it, and places it over her face, leaning back.Next chapter
She was not supposed to have met Clarke.
She was living in New York when she did, working at an advertising agency. She had been at home when she got a tipsy phone call from two girlfriends who were at a party three blocks away. “Come!” they had said. “It’s so close to you. We’ll have dinner after.”
After putting on lipstick, she made her way over, only to find that the party was an intimate affair of thirty-five, an engagement celebration with family and close friends, in a palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue. Her friends were happy to see her but also busy talking to other people. Having been lured into coming by the promise of dinner afterward, she tried to hover invisibly by the window overlooking Central Park and spent her time trying to figure out who was the host and who were the guests of honor, so she could avoid their field of vision.
Unfortunately, everyone there was extremely kind and concerned that someone was being ignored, so she had to fend off questions from strangers about whom she knew and where she was from.
Sucking down her second glass of wine and cursing her friends, she looked up to find Clarke.
“Are you crashing?” he said with amusement. He was handsome, yes, but had crinkly, kind eyes. Older than she, mid-thirties.
She mumbled into her glass.
“Come on, fess up,” he said.
She made a decision.
“Who the hell says ‘chaise lounge’?” she asked.
Good. She had startled him.
“I was talking to someone and they said ‘chaise lounge.’ But it’s ‘chaise longue.’ You know? It’s French. Means ‘long chair.’”
“I’m proud to say I’ve never said either,” he said.
“Americans are so idiotic,” she said.
“Aren’t you American?”
“Yes,” she said, all twenty-six-year-old bravado. “So what?”
He laughed. “You’re feisty,” he said. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”
For some reason, she didn’t bristle.
He joined her and her girlfriends afterward for dinner, at a small Italian restaurant on Madison Ave. They drank wine, and her girlfriends giggled, and the two of them knew that they were going to be together.
He was working at Procter & Gamble in New Jersey at the time, and they married and headed back to San Francisco, where they were both from, and she went back to school for landscape architecture, and Clarke got a job at M_ D_. They had Daisy, Philip, and G in quick succession, building their family.
When Daisy was nine, Clarke’s company approached him about a three-year rotation to Hong Kong, where he would oversee Asia Pacific, ex-Japan. It was a big promotion, and along with a substantial raise, they offered him a housing package, a car and driver, live-in maid, school fees for their three children, a country club membership, and two business class flights home a year for all of them. Later she would find that this was a standard package for senior executives, but it seemed dazzling at the time.
He came home with a big folder labeled family expatriation, which included a few paperback books written by women who had followed their husbands abroad. They called themselves “trailing spouses.” Their author photos were bright and cheery, showing them in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing or sitting in a tuk tuk in Bangkok. There was also a guidebook on Hong Kong and a twenty-page printout on the different neighborhoods, schooling options, medical care, and associations that women could join to integrate. There was a lot of talk about the “honeymoon period,” when one was busy setting up and settling in, and that one would be fine during this time. Then, after all that was finished, there would be a grief period, where one mourned the loss of one’s old life. They cautioned against living in the past, suggested that one canvass diligently for new friends and interests. Going to museums seemed to be a popular suggestion.
The entire thing gave Margaret hives. She was fine with moving to a different country, excited even, but the 1950s attitude toward women was frightening to her. Everyone seemed so earnest and cheery. It made her teeth hurt.
Her job was portable, of course, with the Internet and e-mail, and she had been doing fewer and fewer jobs anyway as the kids got older and needed more help with school. Maybe that portrayal hit a little too close to home.
She and Clarke flew to Hong Kong for a few days to house-hunt and get the lay of the land. The real estate agent, a young Chinese woman whose glasses steamed up in the humidity whenever she got out of the air-conditioned car, clutched a clipboard and had an earpiece permanently stuck in her ear. Her name was Rosacea. Margaret later discovered that the curious English names that locals gave themselves were cause for much merriment in the expat community. She and Clarke found themselves that first weekend at a dinner party where someone insisted that they had known a Pubic Ha and that their Rosacea was nothing special. Johnakin, Zeus, Tweety, Aids—everyone had encountered something stranger. One-upmanship was universal after all. There was a long and animated conversation about names that were one letter away from being ordinary, such as Jackon or Rimy (Jackson, Remy).
“It’s sort of a bastardization of an English name,” said one American woman.
“‘Bastardization’ seems a strong word,” Margaret said.
“You know what I mean,” said the woman impatiently.
Margaret looked around. Everyone was white, and they may have all been American, and even all from the left side of the country. She had thought that Hong Kong would be international and cosmopolitan, but she felt as if she were at a dinner party in any suburb in northern California.
She was dizzy with jet lag and sleepy from red wine, and the hostess, a nice woman from San Diego whose husband would work with Clarke, told her, when she was helping her pour the coffee, “We’ve all been there, honey. Trying to stay awake in front of the new boss or trying to look good for new friends. Be good to yourself.”
“Where are the Chinese people?” she wondered to Clarke later that night as they were getting ready for bed.
“What are you talking about?” his voice garbled as he brushed his teeth. “They’re everywhere!”
“But where was that place we were? Stanley? I felt like it was all white people. It could have been Marin County.”
He spit foam and laughed. “Look at you,” he said. “One day in Hong Kong and already you see the vast schism between white and Chinese here. What do you think you are?”
“You know what I mean,” she said.
The next day they got on the plane and flew home to rent out their house, decide what to take. Three months later, they landed back in Hong Kong and began their new life abroad as one more iteration of that species found throughout the farthest reaches of the world: the American expatriate.
It was exciting—this young family taking on the world. Daisy, at nine, was the most upset, but she handled the transition fine. G was just three, not old enough to know anything. Before they left, he would wake up every morning and ask, “Are we in Hong Kong?” She was so in love with him at that age. Two and three, the impossibly sweet ages, where they still smelled delicious, still nestled their head into your neck. They, the bright young family, moved to Hong Kong and started their bright new future.
Now she leaves her house. Just leaves. The power of that impulse. Just leave the children. Just leave the house. It will all be here when you come back. Things will roll on without you. Questions will be answered, repairmen admitted, homework somewhat finished. Just leave. Things will be the same. A thrilling idea. One she knows is not true.
She’s been saying she’s going to the gym but driving instead to her secret room. Her need to leave her house, her family, is growing. Before, she would steal away at nine in the morning, seeing all the kids off, Clarke to the office, but she wakes up and feels as if she cannot breathe, cannot possibly go through all the motions. So she says she has a 7:00 a.m. exercise class and escapes the house at 6:30, kissing warm, groggy children good-bye, making two cups of coffee, one for Clarke, one for herself in a stainless-steel travel flask, making sure the homework is in the backpacks and Essie knows what to pack in their lunchboxes.
She drives in the near-deserted streets and parks in a local lot, where the man knows her by now, waving her in. Margaret loves driving in the open, empty streets early in the morning, seeing the world slowly wake up. She sees both women and men in clothes from the night before, puffy-faced and abashed; industrious runners, sheened with perspiration; shopkeepers, rolling up their steel awnings. She thinks that anyone up at this hour is a saint or a scoundrel, or a little bit lost. She is removed, in her little car, driving, driving, driving, the steering wheel solid between her palms, her destiny so completely linked to her actions: If she moves right, she will be hit by a car; if she moves left, she will drive the car into the concrete wall. These certainties are what keep her grounded. She is in control here.
She goes to her apartment, and sometimes she reads a book or wanders through the Internet—she has begun bringing her laptop with her. She supposes she could just call it an office, but that doesn’t begin to describe what this place does for her.
It is a space of her own, just for her, where nothing from her real life need encroach.
This morning, though, she had waited. She had waited with her children at the bus stop in the cool December air. She had held their still-small hands in hers, feeling their frail bones. And they had let her, because they knew she needed it. The preschool buses really get to her. They rumble up the hill, filled with small children and their small, curious faces. On one bus this morning, a little girl had stared out, her blank face painted white and black like a dog, framed in the window. Like a moment out of a surrealist film. Then the bus rumbled past, and the girl with the face paint was gone, vanished. These are the moments that fill her with a temporary, bittersweet gratitude, that she is here, on this gray sidewalk, with her children by her side, an empty day stretched out before her after they have gone to their respective classrooms with their respective teachers, the temperate blue sky above dotted with floating clouds. And her fear that it will all go away, again.
Her children went off to school this morning, she had a meeting with a party planner, and then she came here, to her secret place.
It is here that she allows herself to think. She is in the bathtub. She is naked. She is alone.
She is a woman who has two children. Not three.
She sits in the warm water, embryonic, floating, and wonders how to begin living with that fact as a base. Next chapter
Would things have been different had she not gone on the boat trip? Never met Margaret? She thinks about that possibility until the unfairness makes her breathless.
Junk trips were a common weekend excursion. On Saturday or Sunday mornings, boaters congregated on far-flung piers or in the cool marble lobby of the Aberdeen Marina Club or the more basic Boat Club, with swimsuits and towels packed in L.L. Bean canvas totes; PARKnSHOP bags filled with paper napkins and plates, plastic forks and cups; coolers with marinated chicken wings, cold potato and pasta salads, chopped-up fruit, bottles of wine. In this case, the boat trip had been organized for a friend’s fortieth birthday, Barbara Chang Miller, a Korean woman married to an American man, with two young children. Barbara had been like a big sister to Mercy. They had met at a Columbia alumni event, and she had taken Mercy under her wing and introduced her to some people, which she had appreciated, since the twenty-something scene was a bit of a goldfish bowl and it was nice to escape it every once in a while to hang out with real adults. Mercy brought a bottle of sauvignon blanc and a linen scarf bought in Stanley Market as a birthday present for Barbara.
It was September but still hot, as it tended to be until mid-October. The boaters greeted one another, finding their respective groups, moving slowly in the damp morning air, hair wet, clutching lattes, children scampering around exploring the corners, as they waited for everyone to arrive. When critical mass was achieved, a phone call was made to the boat to dispatch the tender, or to hire a sampan, and a smaller boat came to take the group to the bigger boat, usually a lacquered wooden junk or a large white yacht rented out for the day.
There were around twenty people—five couples, most with children, mostly American, plus Mercy. She and Barbara were the only Asian people in the group, something she always noticed in Hong Kong, because it was pretty hard to accomplish. Mercy was introduced to Margaret and Clarke Reade, who had three kids who were dashing around the pier. Mercy had never met Margaret but had read about her in the local paper when she had consulted on some hotel garden in Mong Kok. Clarke, Margaret’s husband, looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place him. She had never met the other families. Mercy was the lone single girl.
They got on the sampan and were taken out to the boat. The boat boy hoisted them on, and there was the usual flurry of activity: the women dumping ice in the coolers, putting away the food, setting up the drinks; the men popping open beer cans and retiring to the top of the boat; children scrambling everywhere, babies wailing, mothers calling distractedly for all to be careful; the chatter and the warm smell of coconut sun lotion.
The driver started the engine, and as the boat gathered speed they settled into their roles: the children, sitting at the front, wind ruffling their hair, noses up in the air like dogs, as they sipped from soda cans; mothers gossiping in the back; the men laughing and relaxing on top.
Mercy found herself sitting next to Margaret, who on first glance seemed perfect. She was beautiful, in that polished, golden brunette way, with the perfectly peaked eyebrows and tawny skin and long, coltish limbs. She had on white knee-length shorts and a raspberry linen tunic embroidered in darker raspberry curlicues, under which she sported a red triangle bikini. From what Mercy could see, she had a kind, handsome husband, three beautiful kids, whom she patted distractedly and lovingly, and an interesting job. Women like her made Mercy itchy. How did she end up with all that? She was older than Mercy, of course, but still, she couldn’t imagine accumulating all those things in eight years, or in eighty.
Margaret was one of those women who Mercy imagined didn’t recognize a mean person, since no one would ever be mean to her, or snotty, or distracted. She gave off the aura of someone who was someone, someone you should know, or whom it would behoove you to know. She had never known condescension in her life.
She was kind too. She asked Mercy about her work, was lovely about it. When asked about hers, Margaret tried to demur but was pressed and then told of some of the fabulous gardens she had done all over the United States.
She talked to Mercy for a while about hiking and beaches and outdoor sports, hesitated, and then asked if she’d ever want to take her kids out. “Of course, I have a helper, but what I miss is the young people who will take my children out and really talk to them and can get them moving and thinking. Kids in Hong Kong just want to sit inside in the air conditioning and play video games.” She told Mercy a story about a neighbor whose child was so spoiled he sat playing video games while a helper spooned food into his mouth. The child was eight.
This is what parents did. They told you stories about children and were outraged or delighted by some odd detail and were perplexed if you were not appropriately outraged or delighted as well. They lived so entirely in that sphere, that sphere of people with kids, that they forgot that people could have no kids and have no idea what they were talking about. But Mercy didn’t mind Margaret. She was gracious and kind and wanted to include Mercy in her life. So she said yes. She would come over and do stuff with Margaret’s children. She wondered how much she would be paid but didn’t ask. She was not good at that sort of thing.
Another mother fretted about being on a boat. “It’s like being surrounded by a giant swimming pool,” she said. “Your child could go overboard, and if you didn’t notice right away . . . ,” she said, gesturing at the wake. She sipped urgently at her white wine. Mercy wondered why she would drink at ten in the morning if she was worried about vigilantly guarding her children’s safety.
“The Shang in Cebu is the best!” a woman said, talking about her recent vacation. “The beaches in the Philippines are so nice.” Living in Hong Kong, the exotic became affordable and everyday. Mercy herself had gone on group trips to Boracay, to Hanoi, to Bangkok, on package tours that cost about US$300 for air and hotel. Even Philena had joined in a few, slumming it in her good-natured way as they caroused in the cheap bars and beaches of Southeast Asia.
The pleasant journey took about an hour, and they anchored near the beach, the boat boy scrambling around the front, hauling the anchor off the deck. It was around eleven, and it was starting to get crowded in the water, some six boats already there. The motor turned off, the boat rocked gently, and the heat gathered in the sudden silence. Everyone turned slippery and loose in the sudden warmth. Children began to jump from the roof.
Mercy joined them. She threw off her tank top and shorts on the roof of the boat, her one-piece swimsuit underneath. She had learned to wear modest clothing around older, married people. She stepped over the low rail, gripped the white surface of the roof with her toes, felt the sun warm her shoulders. Then she leapt. The water enveloped her, harsh and cold, as she plunged. She went in deep, her body a sharp line, then struggled up, frightened. People were always dying on these trips, boozy sunny days when people drank to forget the week. You would read about them in the local paper on Monday: not missed until the boat trip home, or someone hitting his head on part of the boat as he dived, or a propeller accident, or a simple drowning.
She broke the surface and waved to Barbara, who waved back.
“You look like one of those shiny-headed seals,” Barbara said.
“Should I swim under the boat?” Mercy called.
“Aren’t you frightened?” Barbara shouted. “I would be.”
She was, but that’s why she always made herself do it.
“Watch for me on the other side,” she called, but she couldn’t tell whether Barbara had heard her. She treaded water for a few seconds, filled her lungs, and jackknifed into the water.
She went deep, and went down, down. The silence. The loud, echoing silence always shocked her when she was in the ocean. She went deep enough to be sure to not touch the bottom of the boat, slimy and crusted with creepy shelled things. She saw the dark hulk of it in front of her, went deeper. She wondered if salt water was good for your eyes or bad, or neutral. And then came the moment when she couldn’t back out, was more than halfway. You decided to go for it or not. She fought the urge to turn back and instead swam for her life. Her head ached. She swam, powerful strokes with her arms, kicks with her legs, head stretched out as far as possible. The beginnings of panic. She swam and swam and swam. Finally, light above, her neck straining to see. She broke the surface and looked up. Air heaved into her lungs. The sun was shining. Children laughing, people talking. Life going on. No one was watching for her. Barbara had gone off, to pack something or follow some child’s cry. Mercy ducked her head underneath again and came up new. She swam to the back of the boat and hoisted herself up. She rinsed off with the freshwater shower nozzle, tears stinging her eyes, and dressed. She felt so alone. She thought that she must be getting her period. She must be melancholy for a reason.
People were starting to gather their things to make the short journey to the beach. They waved over a sampan, and the first boatload left. When the boat came back, Mercy climbed in with her beach bag that had her sunscreen and towel. An old fisherwoman was steering the boat. She had a big black brimmed hat and leathery brown skin.
She looked at Mercy, with her tanned thighs and white shorts and orange tank top. Suddenly, Mercy felt very exposed.
“Joong gok yan?” the woman asked. “Are you Chinese?”
Mercy shook her head no. “Korean.”
“Hong gok yan.” The old lady nodded. Then said in English, “You no marry.”
Mercy laughed. “What?”
“You no marry.” By this time, another couple and their toddler son had come on board—the worried mother, who had been frightened of accidents.
“Yes, I’m not married.” She smiled.
“You no marry. No have husband.”
“Yes,” she said. “Okay.”
“Never!” The woman leaned over and tugged on Mercy’s earlobes. It was so sudden she couldn’t even recoil.
“Okay, okay!” she said, laughing out of shock.
“Your ear say no children.” The old woman looked at the other woman. “She have no children. But you never get fat,” she said to Mercy, as if by way of consolation.
The other woman looked at Mercy uneasily. “I don’t know . . . ,” she started to say.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Mercy said. “You have no idea how used to it I am. It’s fine.”
The woman looked at her with pity. “Okay,” she said. “But this woman shouldn’t say that to you.”
“Oh, what does it matter,” Mercy said. “She’s just an old woman on a fishing boat.”
The boatwoman pulled on the rope and started the engine. The boat started puttering slowly to the shore. Mercy looked out at the flat horizon and tried to arrange her face in a pleasant expression. When they reached the shore, she got out in thigh-deep water and helped to pull the boat in so she could receive the boy from his mother. She reached her arms out.
“No, thank you,” said the woman. “Bill will get him.” She waited for her husband to get out of the boat and then handed over the child.
“I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” Mercy said, holding on to the boat so the woman could clamber out.
“Jenny,” said the woman. “And Bill, and our son is Jack.”
“My name is Mercy,” she said. She was so tightly wound she didn’t know whether she was mad at Jenny or at the fisherwoman or at the world.
They all arrived at the beach and wended their way to the barbecue pits.
Lunch was jovial, lubricated. The men poured out charcoal and tried to light the fire, swearing merrily. “Man make fire,” Barbara’s husband grunted.
When the charcoals glowed orange, they laid down chicken wire and roasted the chicken wings while drinking bottle after bottle of beer. Jenny was nervous about Jack being so close to the fire and kept talking about it.
Another woman looked at Mercy’s wet hair and said, “You are so brave. I haven’t swum in Hong Kong waters since I saw a bloody Kotex floating by.” The others hooted, and Mercy felt stupid.
“It’s so hot,” she murmured, twisting her hair back. “How can you not swim?”
“Yes!” Barbara said. “You are all old, afraid people. Mercy is the only one who has joie de vivre. She is young! You should try to be more like her.” Barbara was from Korea, and her English was not perfect despite Columbia, but she was the warmest person Mercy had ever met. She invited every stray to her house, cooked them jigae and mandu, and was the den mother for stray Koreans in Hong Kong. Mercy smiled at Barbara gratefully.
A man from New Jersey with a sharp face said, “What’s with the Normals?”
“What?” said Margaret. “What do you mean?”
“I just interviewed a guy from Beijing Normal University. That’s different from Beijing University, right?”
“It’s more of a teacher’s college,” said Barbara’s husband, who was in Beijing every week for work.
Mercy watched Clarke sip his beer, and suddenly it clicked. She knew where she knew him from.
She had been on an elevator with him, and he had been with another man. Two anonymously handsome Western men in suits. They were everywhere in Central. She had, uncharacteristically, been laden with shopping bags, as she had been tasked to buy group birthday presents for a few friends, since she was the only one not working at the time, and she supposed she had looked like a spoiled princess.
“Women!” the other man had said to Clarke, as he scanned her carelessly. “Women and their shopping.”
She had been stunned. The man spoke as if she were invisible, or as if she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Later she had thought of all the things she could have said. Like “I went to Columbia!” or “Because you men take all the high-paying jobs.” Or something. The idea that she was entirely inconsequential to the men in a small elevator was hideous to her at that moment, struggling as she was to find a job, find her rent money, find her life. She turned red, almost stamped her feet, struggled to find something to say. And then they got off. She was left steaming, unfulfilled. And here Clarke was, sitting across from her, as confident as ever, as unknowing, married to a perfect woman who was presumably exempt from the assumptions of him and his ilk.
As Mercy looked over at Margaret, something dawned on her. “Are you half?” she asked.
“A quarter,” Margaret said, a little surprised. “My father is, was, half-Korean—he passed away—but my mom is white. Most people can’t tell.”
Barbara piped in, “I could tell right away.”
“Yeah, but others can’t, really,” Mercy said. “Do you speak Korean?”
“Not at all,” Margaret said. “I feel bad about it, but I think it’s usually the mother who does it, and my mother couldn’t. And we lived in a very homogeneous neighborhood. My dad basically wanted to be white. He didn’t like growing up Asian in California at the time. There weren’t very many. Do you speak?”
“I understand everything, but talking is hard. I grew up in Queens.”
“Have you gone to Korea while you’ve lived here? It’s so close.”
“Not yet,” said Mercy. “Soon.”
“I’ll take the both of you,” said Barbara. “It is so wonderful now, you cannot imagine. I grew up there, and it is so changed now!”
“We’re going soon,” Margaret said. “For school fall break, and Clarke needs to go see the office there.”
The conversation fizzed on in the hot summer sun. Mercy drank cold beer and listened in on the exchanges. She heard a woman slip up and say something about a helper’s “owners,” instead of “employers.” Then her husband, embarrassed, made things worse by trying to make it academic, saying that throughout history, humans have always enslaved other humans. There was a pause after that statement. Then, being adults, they moved on. Mercy, being not quite so adult, meditated on it for a while, realizing that she would never view that woman in the same way again when she ran into her at the prepared-food counter at Oliver’s or in the taxi queue in Central.
Jenny’s husband, Bill, noticed that she wasn’t speaking and kindly tried to pull her into conversation. He was interested in shamanism, he told her, having studied anthropology in university. He was telling her about shamanism and the place it had in Korean culture. “Why is it,” she said with a smile, “that it’s always the white person telling the Asian person about their culture?”
When his smile faltered, she persisted.
“No, really,” she said. “It’s funny, and I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but haven’t you noticed?”
“Not really,” he said.
“I think it’s because of the study of anthropology,” she said. “It’s a Western construct.”
As she spoke she knew she was off-putting to him, that she could not engage in the simple interchange most people lived and died by, that the casual, nonmomentous observations were anathema to her. She could also tell, as if she were looking from high above, that her approach was detrimental to her, but she couldn’t help herself.
When she’d said this to a friend, he’d said, “Self-important much?”
But she couldn’t change. She couldn’t talk to people like they expected to be talked to.
“So what do you do, Bill?” she asked.
“I’m a lawyer,” he said. There was a brief silence. “And you?”
“I’m a friend of Barbara’s,” she said meaninglessly. “Oh, and I do a couple of things. I used to write for City Magazine, before it closed down, did some restaurant and music reviews, then I was the hostess for Il Dolce for a while, and now I’m looking . . .” She trailed off.
“How interesting,” he said. “That must be really fun. You get to go out for a living, right?”
Barbara rescued her with a request for her to open another bottle of wine.
There were times when you were at odds with yourself, when you couldn’t carry on a conversation or when nothing you said came out right. This was one of those times, she told herself as she wedged the corkscrew in.
She opened the wine, got up, sat down next to Margaret, and asked her when she wanted her to come over and babysit her kids.
Then later, on the boat ride back, when everyone was on the top deck, wiped from the sun and the long day and the beer, she emerged from the bathroom to find the slavery-remarking man creepily, drunkenly waiting for her, then grabbing her butt and saying, “Your ass is so tight.” She looked at him and pushed past. She’d given up wondering what vibe she gave off so men think it’s okay to do that to her, but she knew she was always going to be blamed. That was her life.