Chapter Two: The City in the Jade Fields
The next morning the delegation boarded the domestic Air China flight for Yutian, and as soon as she'd fastened her seatbelt, Trish pulled out the little notebook in which she jotted ideas for columns. She figured her second column from China would be another easy one. She would focus on her first impressions of the twin city, and then in the later columns she'd go into more depth on particular places, events, and encounters. What could be simpler?
And, with her columns all blocked out, she would have plenty of free time to enjoy herself, soak up the exotic atmosphere, go shopping with Betty, and also get re-acquainted with Jerome McGrath, who had been her boss at Catholic Family Services half a life ago. Back when she was twenty, she'd been at loose ends and had the vague idea that she wanted to be a social worker, even though her qualifications were a single year of university and a backpacking trip across Canada. He had taken pity on her and given her a part-time project putting together a newsletter for senior citizens in the Cathedral neighborhood -- her first taste of journalism. He had remained a friend and a good reference for her later jobs. Now, all these years later, Trish had promised his wife Marian that, in return for her taking in Vanessa during these two weeks, she would keep Jerome sociable on the trip and not allow him to hide himself in some book, as he liked to do.
She also planned to make time to contemplate the little surprise her boyfriend Will had sprung on her just before she left. On the way to the airport, he'd given her a very pretty amethyst ring she'd admired in a jewelry store window earlier in the summer. As well as being a reference librarian at the Public Library, Will was an aspiring writer and he'd just sold a story for actual money, for the first time ever. He'd celebrated by buying the ring for her -- not that the money had covered the cost, he'd admitted, but it had been an incentive. She should wear it on whichever finger "felt right," he'd said. It was up to her.
Flustered, she'd quickly put it on the ring finger of her right hand, though she usually liked to keep her writing hand unencumbered. Like her life. Trish had been married once before, with many unhappy consequences except for the birth of Vanessa. She'd thought she and Will had the perfect relationship: compatible, committed, but each with their own space. He'd seemed happy, too, but lately he'd been making comments about turning forty in a few more years, and bringing up the idea, though in a whimsical way, of moving in together. But there had been a seriousness lurking in the deepest brown of his warm brown eyes. A little more permanence at this time of their lives wouldn't be a bad thing, he'd suggested more than once.
Trish would be turning forty even sooner than Will, but in her case that only made her more determined to protect her independence. Maybe it was becoming more valuable as her dewy years faded, she thought. Independence, at least, could be preserved, unlike the smoothness of the skin around her eyes. She admired the ring once again as she held her pen over her page, moving her hand so the facets caught the light. Seven small purple stones were arranged to form a delicate bunch of grapes on a gold stem, and there was a tiny diamond set at the bottom, like a drop of dew. It was the prettiest thing. She felt a pang, and she wasn't sure if it was caused by her affection for Will, or by the pain that came from disappointing him. Maybe she would be able to sort this out during her time here on the other side of the world.
Betty, in the seat next to hers, was dithering over something much more mundane -- whether to put her sweater in her canvas bag in the overhead or keep it for the flight. The plane's air conditioning hadn't been turned on yet, so she couldn't make up her mind. During their stay in Shanghai, they'd been melting in the jungle-like humidity when they were out on the streets and frozen to numbness inside the malls and restaurants.
"I really hope Yutian will be a little cooler than Shanghai," sighed Betty, settling into her seat after deciding to stow the sweater. "Maybe it's at a higher elevation. This humidity is darned hard to take, coming from a place as dry as Wheat City. I'm dripping again and all I've done this morning is ride the bus to the airport -- and everything was air-conditioned!" She pulled delicately at her Adventurewear blouse. Although it was generously cut, it still seemed to cling.
"I hope so, too," agreed Trish. She really hated the way her bangs kept going flat and sticking to her forehead. She never had that problem at home. "What did our information packet say about the climate in Yutian? All I can remember is 'pack summer clothes.' Well, duh! As my daughter would say."
Across the aisle, Jerome McGrath looked up from his book, some fat historical thing that he'd opened already. "It's an Oven of China," he told them helpfully. "One of my sons looked it up on the 'net."
Trish wasn't sure what that meant. Had she missed something at the orientation meetings?
Betty had too, apparently. "What's that?" she asked. "Like a 'Breadbasket?' Because they grow wheat?"
Jerome occasionally taught classes at the university and so he was accustomed to dealing tactfully with people who hadn't been paying attention. He smiled patiently and opened his mouth to explain, but Sheldon Standingready, in the seat ahead of him, beat him to it.
"It means it's hotter than hell -- one of the four hottest places in China," he called out to Betty and Trish over his shoulder. "Remember what it said about not wearing polyester?"
Betty leaned forward anxiously. "Really? How did I miss that?" Her Adventurewear clothes were tropical weight and wrinkle resistant, but a tad synthetic.
Jerome gave them a sympathetic look. "Marian bought me four of these." He pointed at his sports shirt, which looked like India cotton. "It breathes pretty well, and you can wash it in the sink."
For a guy over fifty, Trish thought to herself, gone entirely gray, and crinkly around the eyes, he was still kind of attractive. He had a nice way about him, and those piercing blue eyes ... She had always thought that. And, she reminded herself, he adored his wife to the point that it was almost ridiculous, yet touching. But by the inexplicable laws of sexual attraction, that had always made him seem even more appealing -- before she'd met Will, of course. She looked down at the bright purple glints of her new ring.
The flight was smooth, and after two hours and a noodle lunch, the plane began its descent. The green fields of the city's name rolled out on cue, looking very much like the fields around Wheat City, even to the occasional swath of yellow rapeseed and blue flax mixed in with the green wheat and corn.
"It does look like home," nearly all the delegates were heard to say as the earth drew nearer.
"Right down to not being able to see the city until two minutes before you land," commented Pastor Rudy, sounding slightly concerned. But just then, as if to prove him wrong, the end of a runway came into view and beyond it, on the misty horizon, the outlines of a few moderately tall buildings.
At the Yutian airport, as modest and straightforward as the one in Wheat City -- they were off the plane and in the baggage claim area in five minutes -- they were met by two young and nervous representatives of the city dressed identically in white short-sleeved shirts and black pants. Each of them held up a large computer-printed sign reading, "Welcome Wheat City Canada Luminary Guests."
"All right!" declared Mike Shasko, giving Mayor Drucker a thumbs-up. Although a self-styled man of the people, Mike didn't object to the royal treatment now and then.
As they gathered up their bags, the delegates noticed that nearly all the people in the airport had stopped whatever they'd been doing and were staring at them. Some of them even had their mouths open. Trish had the feeling that maybe Yutian was going to be a little different from Shanghai. Their greeters urged the delegates through the glass exit doors, and all at once they were hit by a blast of sopping wet heat. Trish felt like someone had thrown a steaming towel in her face. Gasping, they were quickly sorted into two cars and a minivan which were so seriously air-conditioned that their windows were running with humidity.
"Why is it so damp?" Betty queried. "This isn't like the prairies at all."
"The river," Henry offered, waving vaguely toward the city. "It is verrybig." He mopped his face with a large handkerchief, counted heads, and took the front passenger seat of the minivan for himself.
Trish and Betty ended up in one of the cars, with Sheldon in the front seat beside the driver and Jerome squashed between them in the back. Pastor Rudy had been slightly dismayed at being parted from Jerome and bundled into the second car with Tony Gambella from the steel plant and Doug Bonokoski from the Wheat Pool, but he bore the separation bravely, acknowledging that his long legs did take up a lot of room.
Sheldon and the cheerful little driver, who knew no English, struck up a conversation in Mandarin right away.
"MEY GWO?" the driver asked.
"BOO, BOO," Sheldon corrected him stoutly, pointing at the maple leaf tag on his backpack. "JA NA DA!"
"Ah!" The driver broke into a big grin. "JA NA DA! BAI DAI FOO!"
"You've got it." Sheldon nodded. He turned to the others in the back. "He knows all about our Dr. Bethune -- 'Dr. Bai' as they say. Everyone here learned about him in school in the old days. He's a real hero to the Chinese, so it's a great ice-breaker for Canadians over here. And pseudo-Canadians." He glanced at Jerome, who was still an American citizen even though he'd lived and worked in Wheat City for more than twenty years. Trish knew Marian was always after him about that -- if it was up to her, she had told Trish, they would have become citizens long ago. "We'll cover for you, Jer," Sheldon said generously.
The talkative driver continued to pepper Sheldon with questions, and Sheldon translated for the others as their caravan proceeded onto a highway. It could have been a highway near any airport in the world, Trish thought, with rough grassy fields stretching out on both sides. As they sped along, the driver insisted that Sheldon had to be an Overseas Chinese, from his looks and his mastery of the language. But Sheldon set him straight, after several minutes of debate and a little mid-air sketching of a land bridge between Asia and North America.
Only half convinced, the driver finally moved to another topic. "He says he's heard that Canada is very big and very cold," Sheldon related to the others, amused.
"He knows his geography," granted Betty, but with a close eye on his driving.
"And he says the best thing about Canada is that there's no BOO SHIH. Guess what that is."
Trish, who was closely following this first cross-cultural exchange, eagerly accepted the challenge. "Pollution?" she asked.
"No, no," said Sheldon. "Bush. The dubiously elected leader of MEY GWO -- that's what they call the superpower to our south. They keep up with things over here. Apologies, Jerome."
"I'm no fan," Jerome countered. "Most of what he's doing these days seems to be illegal."
"Good for you, Jerome," said Betty, patting his arm. "You're safe with us. Just keep wearing that maple leaf pin." She indicated the little flag pin on his shirt pocket, the pin Henry had handed out to all of them before they landed in Shanghai. Mike, fingering his, had quipped that wearing it must be required, in case someone might have to identify the body.
With all this interesting repartee, Trish had neglected to register the changing view outside the car window for her first impression of Yutian. But she couldn't see very well because of the moisture on the windows. She could just make out some groupings of one-story buildings on both sides of the road with many small cars, small vans, and large tricycles with carrier boxes on the back parked haphazardly around them. The buildings looked like they might be small factories, or the sorts of shops that sold boring mechanical things. They certainly didn't look very exotic. She asked Sheldon how far away from the city center they were, assuming they were far out in some underdeveloped hinterland.
Sheldon had a brief exchange with the driver and then answered, "About five minutes."
"What?" Betty asked, shocked. "But where are all the buildings? And I can't read any of those signs," she protested, looking at the colorful but meaningless Chinese characters that ran along the rooflines of the low buildings on narrow boards. "In Shanghai there was some English, or at least letters to sound out. These are just ... like scribbles. How--?"
Sheldon turned and grinned at her. "Yeah, it's brutal" he agreed. "The big cities on the coast are pretty developed. Here we'll get to see the real China." He said that as if it would be an experience to relish, but Betty touched her hand to her mouth, and peered out the window anxiously.
Jerome was scanning the blank open space toward which their car was heading. "Even outside of Wheat City you can't see the Power Building until you're almost there," he reminded Betty and Trish, trying to sound hopeful.
As for Trish, she recalled that they'd been promised their hotel would be three-star, "very adequate," according to Henry Ma, with "all the features." In the promotional material there had been a photo of a lobby with a crystal chandelier. As their driver changed lanes to pass a horse cart loaded with watermelons plodding slowly along the edge of the highway, she clung to that hopeful image of civilization.
In another minute they rounded a wide traffic circle with a huge rock in the middle, surrounded by spiky red and yellow flowers. Then there was a long street of two-story shops, some of them featuring racks of clothing, and others, a super-abundance of brightly-colored plastic household necessities like pails, basins, and wastebaskets. Along the sidewalks, a steady stream of people ran parallel to a margin of spindly trees. Again, the shops sported signs with big Chinese characters, but here and there Trish spied a few bits of useless but still reassuring English, shops with names like "Wow," "Pretty Baby," and "Quikshop."
The car turned again onto what had to be a main street. It was crowded with buses and lined with taller buildings with glassy fronts that seemed to be mostly banks and optical shops.
"I think I saw a sign with an arrow that said 'Shopping Center,'" Betty said to Trish under her breath.
"In English?" asked Trish dubiously.
"I thought so. But maybe I'm hallucinating."
Then, after crossing an intersection, their car stopped abruptly, and the second car and the minivan pulled up behind them. "Oh not yet!" Trish blurted involuntarily. She'd been hoping for one more turn, beyond which a smaller Shanghai would materialize.
Big red Chinese characters loomed above them on the front of a building, and there was also a string of smaller gold letters beneath spelling out "New Dynasty Rits." Sheldon rubbed the humidity from his window to get a better look. "Not bad -- but I think someone might be flirting with copyright infringement."
The hotel was on a busy corner of the city, and it had a newish-looking, four-story façade of polished granite. Wide steps led to a revolving glass door beyond which there was indeed a lobby, a small one, with a single sparkling chandelier.
The delegates climbed out of their vehicles into the suffocating heat. It had been reduced to mere glaring sunlight during the drive; now, it found them again and came down like a hammer.
Approaching the slightly-dazed foreigners was a smartly uniformed, terrified-looking doorman who looked about fourteen years old (later they learned he was twenty-one).
"WEK-UM!" he stammered gamely. "You are WEK-UM to Yutian!" With a wave of an arm he managed to commandeer a group of even younger-looking people from inside the hotel, all dressed in colorful embroidered costumes, who fell upon the group's luggage as it was unloaded and wrestled it up the stairs to the lobby.
"Gu people," Sheldon explained, watching the enthusiastic young men and women. "The chief ethnic minority in this province."
"Are they the traditional load bearers?" asked Pastor Riethmeyer, who'd prepared for the trip by reading perhaps too many nineteenth century missionaries' diaries.
Sheldon gave him a quizzical look. "No," he answered. "They're from the local tourism college."
Some passersby began to take an interest in all the action and gathered around the bottom of the hotel stairs to watch. There were several old men, some sturdy women with babies in strollers or tied into cloth carriers on their backs, and school kids in bright-colored tracksuits. All the kids were giggling with their hands over their mouths, and even the babies were staring, transfixed.
"I'd guess they don't get many foreigners around here," the mayor ventured.
"Not many," granted Henry Ma cheerfully. "You are like pioneers."
Trish didn't like the sound of that. She pictured circled wagons, whizzing arrows. But then Henry began herding them into the lobby to check in.
On the third floor, Betty and Trish inspected their room which did appear to have "all the features" of a mid-priced hotel at home. Henry had instructed the delegates to rest for an hour until it was time for the reception downstairs where the Yutian officials would be extending the city's greetings.
The pretty, red-cheeked Gu girl who had insisted on lugging Betty and Trish's bags to their room had just fled in sudden embarrassment and confusion after Betty had tried to give her a one yuan note as a tip.
"Oh, that's right," Betty recalled. "They don't take tips in China. I wonder what she thought I was trying to do?"
"Maybe they haven't covered that yet at the Yutian Tourism College," replied Trish. She checked out the bathroom and reported, "It's not bad. There's a nice shower and lots of free goodies."
"Ah, I could use a shower," sighed Betty, who had been prying items out of her tightly packed suitcase. She kicked off her sandals and fell onto one of the twin beds. But as soon as she hit the mattress she jumped up again, with a sharp cry. "Lord, that's a hard bed! It's like a slab of wood," she complained, rubbing one hip.
Trish tried the other bed, more carefully. "Hmm -- definitely extra firm. It could be a slab of wood. But it makes a crunchy sound. I wonder what it's filled with -- husks?"
"It's corn country," Betty replied. "But did you see this gorgeous fruit basket?" She pointed to the generous arrangement sitting on top of the desk.
Trish got up to inspect it. "What are some of these things? They're so exotic. Look, this one has curly pink spikes. And what's this bumpy thing?"
"Only eat what you can peel," Betty reminded her.
Trish reached for a banana. "There's another basket, a tiny one, in the bathroom, on the back of the toilet," she told Betty as she took a bite. "Wait until you see it. It's heart-shaped, and it has a little gold cushion, and guess what's on the cushion."
"Oh, the Chinese are so nice about gifts," Betty enthused. "What?"
"Well, how sweet -- that on top of those pretty fans they gave us on the plane. Don't they think of everything?"
Trish weighed the possibility of including that little welcoming detail in her column.