Chapter One: Thrown Together
Trish's first column from China practically wrote itself. She and the rest of the Wheat City delegation had spent a hot but happy day on their stopover in Shanghai checking out the malls, eating a tasty hotel banquet not too different from the Saturday buffet at the Pagoda Gardens at home, and taking pictures of each other along the Bund. So first thing on the morning of the group's second day in China, off went her glowing report from the hotel's business center, describing their relief at all that was familiar in this country they had actually been fearing a little, they admitted now, laughing at their former unworldly selves.
Trish had made sure to mention in her column all the McDonalds, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut outlets that lined the streets of the city, and the uncanny resemblance of many of the western-style buildings here to the old Royal Bank building, the Public Library, and the other vintage buildings that graced the center of the modest-sized Canadian prairie city that all of them called home. She knew these details would help her far-off readers relate more easily to China and at the same time reassure the delegates' families, many of whom were uneasy at the thought of their loved ones traipsing around in a culturally and politically mysterious country on the other side of the world.
"Nosso bad, eh?" their leader Henry Ma demanded of them now, most likely with the same thoughts in mind.
The delegates were nursing their jetlag with after-lunch frappaccinos outside a Starbucks on one of Shanghai's busy shopping streets. They lounged under the familiar green umbrellas, sheltering from the hot sun and watching the Chinese world go by. The people crowding the sidewalk in front of them might have been shoppers anywhere, thought Trish. They were mostly young, three-quarters of them were talking on cell phones, and they all carried shopping bags splashed with the logos of trendy brands. The only difference was they were all Chinese, and yet they gave the little group of foreigners barely a glance.
Henry tried again for the delegates' attention, determinedly, because he was Henry Triumphant now. "You were all a liddlebit frightened, I know," he persisted with a smile that further widened his wide face. "But China's nosso scary, eh? Just like Toronto right here. Hahaha."
He gave his trademark, toneless laugh, with which they were all becoming familiar. Henry was a political science professor at the University of the Prairies in Wheat City and a sometime organizer of group tours, in conjunction with his wife Shirley's Moonextra Travel Agency, "to raise the strategic cross-Pacific ties between Canada and China to a new level," as he liked to say. Henry had been born in Taiwan, but since the economic rise of mainland China he had been playing down his origins.
"It's like being a citizen of the world," stated Mayor Howard Drucker with satisfaction, looking around. "Globalization -- and we're right here in the thick of it. This will bring great things to Wheat City." He toasted them all with his drink and then slurped up the rest of it through the straw, with relish. He was feeling especially relieved that the visit was off to a good start because he had struggled long and hard to sell this twinning of Wheat City and Yutian, a similar-sized city in central China, to his constituency.
"But it's not a junket -- right, Howard?" Sheldon Standingready reminded him from the adjacent table with a grin, shaking a finger in the air. He was quoting back at him the mayor's own repeated warning from their orientation sessions. Sheldon was a large, easy-going, indigenous Canadian, a Plains Cree. He was also Vice-Principal of Wheat City's Chief Stone Native High School, a teacher of the Cree language and Native Culture with a special interest in ethnic minorities, and a speaker of eight languages including Mandarin Chinese. All of these qualifications had made him one of the first choices for the delegation to Yutian.
Mayor Drucker chuckled self-consciously. After three hard-won terms in office, he was sensitive to criticisms of city expenditures and he had indeed made the "not a junket" declaration to the group a number of times. The taxpayers were covering a portion of their expenses, he had reminded them. The delegates had serious responsibilities. As a result, some of the group had begun calling him "Not-a-junket Drucker" behind his back. "Makes him sound like a Thai," Sheldon had observed wryly, showing off a bit.
"It certainly is not," the mayor stated firmly, setting down his empty cup and eyeing the delegation. In the midst of their enjoyment of Shanghai, he apparently felt obliged to remind them of this yet again. "We'll all have our work cut out for us when we arrive in Yutian, meeting our counterparts, coming up with agreements on exchanges and ideas for co-operation and investment." The City in the Jade Fields, as Henry had translated it for them, had become a sort of Holy Grail for the mayor, his great hope for reviving Wheat City's flagging economy, ever since Professor Ma had made the twinning suggestion one night at a Rotary meeting more than two years ago.
"And I should tell you all," the mayor went on in his head-cheerleader way, "Trish Sparks here has already hit the ground running with an excellent column. Just this morning she sent off her account of our arrival here, and since we're half a day ahead of Canada, our families and fellow citizens should be reading it in tomorrow's Gleaner-Post." He beamed at her, the good example for the others.
Trish smiled, a little embarrassed. The mayor had requested, politely but with the firmness befitting a seasoned civic leader, the right to give Trish's columns a once-over before she e-mailed them. She was somewhat miffed about this, but she hoped he would loosen up later on, when she'd gained his trust. She had to admit that she was known for her individual take on things in her weekly column " A Wry Eye," but the Gleaner had always given her a free rein because the column was so popular. As readers told her all the time, without her weekly column there would be no point in anyone paying for the thin, practically newsless, ad-riddled Monday edition of the venerable local rag.
"Hey, Trishie," Mike Shasko called to her in his irritating, know-it-all drawl, with a sideways glance at the mayor. "You realize that, with these little reports of yours, you've got the power to make or break us all?"
Warily, she looked over at Mike as she finished her drink. He still resembled the troublemaker she remembered from high school, although he was a little weathered with age now and his ponytail was thinner.
"Sure, just think. You could slip in a few hints that His Worship here is hobnobbing with corrupt Chinese officials, or that our friend Henry may really be a Taiwanese spy. Or that the Reverend Riethmeyer and Jerome McGrath" -- he gave a little wink in the direction of the Lutheran minister and the representative of the Wheat City Catholic Diocese -- "are chasing Suzie Wongs between enriching cultural experiences."
"Right, Mike," Trish replied coolly. She remembered his protest days at Cartwright High School and she knew the so-called "maverick city councilor's" little ways. "Like I'd throw my job away."
"Hahaha," put in Henry Ma quickly.
The mayor chimed in. "Now, Michael," he began with a show of great patience, making an effort to keep things light. "You do have a tendency to let your imagination run away with you. I'd curb that here, if I were you."
He had only accepted Mike Shasko as a member of the delegation to refute the often-repeated claim by the good people of the East End, whom Mike represented, that the mayor was an elitist. Of course that was absurd, Mayor Drucker knew, although he had to admit there were times he wished some of those bohunks would take a flying leap, especially those who thought Mike Shasko actually knew what he was talking about. But the mayor needed their support.
"Just kidding, Howie," laughed Mike. "Don't get your shorts in a knot." He stretched his legs out toward the sidewalk and shifted his attention to all the well turned-out Shanghainese rushing by. "I'm feeling pretty mellow, really. Just look at all this." He eyed a trio of slim, gorgeously long-haired young women in stylish, scanty summer outfits passing in front of them. "Who would believe this is a Police State?"
Henry Ma, Mayor Drucker, and Jack Goldstein, chairman of the Wheat City Downtown Business Association and proprietor of a large chain of shoe stores, sat up in their chairs and looked concerned.
"Come now, Mike," the mayor remonstrated in a lowered tone, glancing around.
"Mao's been gone a long time," Jack reminded Mike. "Take a look at this place -- no cops that I can see. These people just want a good life now, like everyone else in the world."
"And they want to make lots of shoes for you, right, Jack?" asked Mike, with a knowing look.
"You can't go far without shoes," countered Jack, falling back on the favorite slogan of his "Shoe King" persona, and eyeing Mike's snowy-white Nikes, perched like irrefutable proof at the edge of the Huaihai Road.
"I trust Trish completely," declared Betty Noble supportively, returning to Mike's earlier remark. Betty and Trish were the only women on the trip so they shared a room, and they had already bonded in a sort of mother/daughter way, Betty being a good twenty years older than Trish.
Betty was a city councilwoman and president of Noble Furnishings and Flooring. Before the twinning orientation, Trish had only known of her from her clever "Furnish With a Flourish" ads in the Gleaner. As a businesswoman, Betty was excited about seeing China's economic miracle firsthand, and she was also an avid traveler. Trish had marveled at the useful items Betty kept pulling out of her tiny, tightly packed suitcase, things like folding cutlery, half-sized super absorbent towels, and mini nutrition bars. And all her clothes, right down to her panties, were Tilley Adventurewear.
"I've already told Trish I don't want Phil worrying about me, so she knows just what to say in her columns," Betty added, giving the younger woman a maternal pat.
Trish smiled, but again she felt a twinge of anxiety. She was coming to realize that this assignment was going to be a bit more complicated than her usual sprightly musings about life as the single mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter, or the challenges of navigating the malls on a Saturday afternoon, or the dangers of overdoing holiday celebrations. She knew she had a bigger responsibility on this trip: introducing an entire foreign country, or at least a city, to two hundred and fifty thousand people back home. Well, she thought, she would just stick to what she saw, the way she always did. She would keep it simple and describe it all as well as she could -- but maybe cut back on the wryness a bit, to be safe.
Now Mayor Drucker was in full rhetorical flight, repeating the rest of his reminders about The Twinning, how each of them -- the city council people, the business people, the community people, the agriculture people, the education people -- would be paired with their local counterparts in Yutian, and how they would forge ties for Wheat City, ties that would -- "
"You know," Betty interrupted, with the shamelessness of a woman accustomed to regularly interrupting a very patient husband, "every time I mentioned The Twinning to Phil these past months, we both thought the term reminded us of something. The title of an old horror movie, maybe, one of those Stephen King things? You know, where some people who hardly know each other are thrown together in an isolated place, and an alien force begins to take over and brings about some awful change? What is it I'm thinking of?"
"Not us, I hope," said the mayor, with a nervous smile.
"Hahaha," added Henry Ma, for good measure.