Chapter Seven: Propaganda
Trish, Jerome, and Rudy found their way back to the center of town easily, navigating the streets of the foreign city now as if they'd lived there for years. This sense of familiarity was reinforced by the occasional shouts of recognition from the Chinese people around them: "JA NA DA REN!" "HA-WAH YU?" Mei Li had told the Canadians that their presence in the city had been mentioned several times in the local newspapers.
It was only a little after eleven as they neared the neighborhood of the hotel, but the three of them were weak with hunger, as usual. Breakfast was always early, and strange, and the cultural challenges they encountered in the mornings seemed to sap their strength. So they decided to stop at a little hole-in-the-wall tea place (the sort of place they would have run from in horror in Wheat City) around the corner from the Rits. It had a picture menu and some Chinese snacks they had come to depend on at odd hours, or when the hotel cuisine failed them.
Trish now swore by a glass of lukewarm green tea as a way of fighting heat exhaustion, and with it she liked to have a fresh, doughy, red bean pastry. Jerome was partial to the fried corncakes accompanied by a bottle of Yutian beer, while Rudy boosted his glucose level with a plate of steamed bread morsels and a small bowl of sweetened condensed milk for dipping, washed down with a can of lychee juice. His wife was a nutritionist, and he was giving himself a break.
"We've gone native," Trish said happily, testing her gooey bun for freshness with her finger -- but it was always fresh. "Remember when we kept looking for Starbucks and McDonalds? I'm going to write a whole column about that, and about how we discovered these snacks. In fact, I already wrote an e-mail to Will about our survival skills, so all I need to do is expand it a bit."
"Are you mentioning all of us personally in your columns?" asked Rudy as he popped open his juice, looking a little worried.
Trish blew on her glass of tea, to cool it and make the leaves sink faster. She liked the pattern they made as they floated to the bottom. "Sometimes. Why?" She raised her eyebrows. "Is there something you don't want Sue to know?" She looked at the little bowl of densely-sweet cream on his plate.
"No, no. Just wondering."
"Speaking of Will," Jerome asked. "Did he give you that ring?" He was looking at her right hand as she held the hot glass gingerly, with alternating fingers.
"You don't miss much, do you?" she remarked, but with a smile. "As a matter of fact, he did, just before I left."
"And, it's pretty," she asserted, sipping her tea carefully. "I like it."
"You two should get married," Jerome stated.
"Oh, really?" she replied. This was typical Father-knows-best Jerome, always telling everyone what was good for them, so she tried not to be annoyed. It was none of his business, of course -- but at the same time she was interested in hearing what he had to say on the subject. Rudy was pretending to study the Chinese characters on the menu, but Trish could tell he was waiting, too, all ears.
"Why?" she asked Jerome.
"Because you smile every time you mention him."
"I do? Well, he's a nice person. We get along great and things are just fine the way they are. Besides, my house is only big enough for me and Vanessa, but I'm never selling it, and he lives in a tiny studio and owns about ten thousand books."
"Surely you could work something out," Jerome urged, unperturbed. "Those are just details."
"All disgustingly happily-married people think other people should be married too. But I've seen the other side. You remember Barry," she reminded him. "Once burned, twice shy."
Trish was satisfied to see that she'd made Jerome blush slightly by accusing him of being excessively happily married. She found it rather touching that a middle-aged man could blush. But Jerome wasn't giving up. He always liked an argument.
"You have to admit, though," he insisted, "marrying someone who makes you happy isn't beyond the realm of possibility."
The simple logic of this assertion gave Trish a little jolt. The way Jerome had put that placed it smack in front of her -- The Realm of Possibility -- a brand new place almost as real as the others she'd seen lately, Yutian, Shanghai,Vancouver Villas.
"Well, no ... " she admitted. True, it wasn't as if her whole life was on a rigid course, already mapped out. She knew there were lots of possibilities and surprises out there, and it was always within her power to choose. She'd never dreamed she'd ever get to China, but here she was. Yet it would be craziness to get married again, she was almost forty. Even contemplating the idea would get Will all riled up and talking again about living together, for heaven's sake. Once he had even suggested, jokingly she'd hoped, that they ought to give Vanessa a baby brother. Who needed that?
But it suddenly felt as if something in her life had shifted slightly, something in her way of looking at things. There seemed to be more substance to her surroundings. The light and shadows along the foreign street outside, the orderly disorder of the low rooftops with their colorful makeshift awnings, the steady stream of buses, bicycles, and hawkers, the hot, blue, Chinese sky itself, looked sharper and brighter, more full of interest, and meaning, than they had only a few hours before.
In the afternoon, Mei Li reclaimed all the delegates from their wanderings for an obligatory trip to the local Museum of the History of the Revolution. Yutian had played a small role in the Long March, and the museum was a must-see for visitors. Deadly boring as it sounded, they had gone along with her plan, even Mike, because Mei Li said it was air-conditioned and the tour would take only an hour, and she promised that afterwards they would stop at a "western cafe" that she had discovered downtown. She was definitely a clever girl, thought Trish.
The excursion proved not too painful, and the iced lattes had been a treat even though the coffee place had turned out to be Australian, but who were they to be choosey? Later, after dinner, as a result of their afternoon trek through the hard-scrabble history of the early days of the Chinese Communist Party, they were feeling a little politically curious as they sipped beer at the outside tables of a bar near the hotel. It was one of those cheap places with which they were now familiar, featuring wobbly plastic patio furniture set out on the sidewalk, and nervous staff members who suggested that large foreigners sit on two plastic chairs stacked together, for safety's sake. Thus enthroned, some of the delegates began to quiz Mei Li about democracy in China. They were feeling a certain lack of inhibition because Henry (hahaha) was off somewhere tending to his "personal interests," as he called his numerous relatives and business contacts, and no one else in the vicinity, the Canadians were pretty sure, would understand a word they were saying.
Mei Li was surprisingly accommodating on this particular evening, maybe because she had come to know them all a little better, or maybe because she was halfway through a bottle of beer. When Betty, ever tactful, suggested their guide might not feel comfortable with some of their questions, Mei Li brushed aside her concern and explained sensibly that when she was in New York in the fall, as part of her post-graduate fellowship at Columbia she would be teaching a Chinese culture class for economics students who wanted to learn more about China. She knew that they would most likely have many "interesting" questions for her, and she wanted to be prepared.
Thus encouraged, Mayor Drucker leaned forward, holding his beer bottle between his knees and frowning earnestly.
"So let me get this straight. There's no more dictatorship here, you say? China sees itself as some kind of democracy? Or, what's the term -- 'socialism with Chinese characteristics?'"
"Of course," answered Mei Li. "The people must always come first and their voices must be represented. This is even more true now that our economy has improved. There is much more that has to be done for the people."
"It's those 'Chinese characteristics' you have to watch out for, Howie," Mike warned, pointing his beer bottle at him, and winking at Mei Li.
The mayor attempted to ignore him. "And the structure? There's some sort of representative body, or congress --?"
"The National People's Congress," Mei Li began. "It meets --"
"Rubber stamp, rubber stamp," laughed Mike sardonically. "Have you ever seen one of those guys not raise his hand?"
"China is developing a form of democratic representation much like that in Western countries," replied Mei Li stoutly. "And my university is very famous for its commitment to democracy. The May 4th, 1919 Movement, for example."
"You don't say," replied Mike. "So what about the June 4, 1989 movement, then? The Chinese government killed a lot of kids from your university."
Everyone grew still. They'd been warned by Henry before they left home that Tiananmen was still very much a taboo topic in China.
Mei Li gave the slightest glance around and then, her voice lowered, she replied, "Yes, that was terrible. The leadership at that time was extremely concerned about national stability and divided about what to do. Perhaps it could have been handled better."
"Perhaps," said Mike with heavy irony.
"Some of the leaders weren't in agreement with what happened. They favored negotiating with the students. And a few who were younger leaders then are among the top leaders today. They are truly people-oriented."
"Uh-huh," replied Mike sarcastically. "You know what? The people are being played like a fiddle."
"Lord, Mike," exclaimed Betty, exasperated. "You're so negative. Leave the poor girl --"
But Mei Li was caught up in the argument now. "Such things happen in Western countries too," she countered. "American students were shot during student demonstrations. And Bush was elected even though more people voted for his opponent. And then he tricked the country into going to war --"
"Yeah, well, the U.S. That's a bad example just now," admitted Mike. "They're really screwed up down there. Canada is better."
"Yes," put in Jerome. "If we can keep our own home-grown neo-conservatives in check. But at least in Canada you can throw out a sitting government with a non-confidence vote if necessary."
Mike glanced at Jerome. "Well, look who's Canadian. The guy from New York."
Jerome smiled, never one to rise to the bait. "Somehow being in China has made me feel more Canadian."
Since Mike seemed on the defensive for the moment, Rudy dared to put in his two cents' worth. Usually he was a little wary of Mike.
"The Catholic priest we met this morning, he really surprised me," Rudy said to Mike, earnestly. "I mean, you hear about the suppression of religion here, but this guy was totally content. He's got more parishioners than ever before, he says, and his church was chock-full of saints' statues and Bibles and prayer books, they've got mass times all through the week --. And this was a guy who was tortured during the Cultural Revolution. Maybe things actually have changed for the better."
"The guy's been bought off, obviously," Mike said dismissively. "He's a government tool. And oppression is alive and well in Tibet -- check it out."
Again, the delegates cringed. Another taboo topic. But Trish was glad in a way, though she would never admit it, that Mike was bringing these things up. They were matters she was curious about, though she knew she could never put any of them in a column. The other delegates were glancing around to see if anyone had heard, but Jerome, of all people, seemed interested in pursuing the exchange.
"Now that's an interesting thing," he observed thoughtfully. "I've found that how people feel about Tibet these days depends mainly on where they get their information."
The delegates relaxed a little. Trish realized they were all coming to depend on Jerome's balanced take on things, his ability to see merit in both sides of a question, whether it was politics or pigeon tongues.
"One of my sons wrote a paper on Tibet for his high school history class," he went on, "and he did quite a thorough job researching both sides. He likes to do that sort of thing. He gets himself in trouble sometimes." He glanced at Mike as if he would appreciate that.
"He found that the popular media favor a very romantic view of the Dalai Lama and his people, driven out of Paradise by the Communists, biding their time in India, hoping to get back. That sells nicely. But if you read some history books and look at a few statistics, you realize it was only a paradise for a certain percentage of the population -- the monks and the land owners. The rest of the people were actually serfs living a pretty grim existence. Their descendants, the ones who stayed in Tibet, have a much better life now under the Chinese, although the central government certainly keeps a firm hand on things -- since they know the "government in exile" has lots of financial support from the CIA, and other entities that would be happy to see China distracted by internal troubles."
Mei Li was nodding her head in agreement. Mike made a sound of impatience and disgust. "The CIA! The Tibetans are Buddhists, for Christ's sake," he said. "Why would they get mixed up with -- "
"Right. It's kind of disturbing," replied Jerome.
Mike opened his mouth to protest again, but Sheldon waved a calming hand. "Down, Mike, down. Here's something I know for sure: Tibet has never been recognized as an independent country by anyone. It's always been more or less connected to China. A lot of people don't know that."
"As for suppression of religion in Tibet," put in Jack Goldstein, "I can tell you one thing -- they have a heck of a lot of working temples there. My sister and her husband went on a tour. They took about a thousand pictures. I guarantee you there are temples, and they're full of monks."
Betty frowned in frustration. "It's all so confusing. How do you know which side to believe?"
"Read," said Sheldon. "And then read some more."
"Yes, well, when I get home," Betty replied. "But I'd like to know right now, would the Dalai Lama lie? And take money from the CIA? He seems so otherworldly -- and he has that sweet smile. Did you ever see that huge illuminated picture of him in the International Terminal at JFK?"
"Maybe under that smile he's as pragmatic as a lot of other leaders," Jerome observed dryly. "He's cast his lot with the people who give him support, and he goes with the flow."
Rudy, next to Jerome, looked up suddenly. A flash of insight lit up his face. "Just like Father Fu! Too bad the Dalai Lama didn't stick it out, like him. If he'd stayed, he would have kept his garden in the end, like the priest."
They were all rather struck by this observation, but then Mike burst out, "Hold it, hold it! You know, this is just so typical, all this 'what I heard,' 'what my kid heard,' 'on the one hand, on the other hand' -- it just gets everything all muddled up when it's as plain as the nose on your face, as clear as black and white: this country is run with an iron fist, and a lot of people here -- " he jabbed his finger at his fellow delegates " -- are falling big-time for the propaganda." He scraped back his set of stacked chairs and swayed to his feet. "Where's the can in this place?" he asked no one in particular, and blundered off.
The others watched as he worked his way around the tables, bumping into one chair leg after another until he found the entrance to the bar.
Then Doug observed, " I thought it was conservatives who believe in black-and-white. Isn't he a leftie? Where's he at?"
The mayor sighed. "I don't think he knows. Mainly he just wants an argument."
"His dad was just the same," put in Tony, with a shrug. "He was head of the union at the steel plant for years. He was always stirring things up, going after the workers and the management both. Everyone thought of him as sort of a pinko." He glanced quickly at Mei Li. "No offense. But now, here's his kid, the same kind of hell-raising motormouth, but he's so anti-China ..."
"Pig-headed. With Canadian characteristics," Sheldon summed up.
But Mei Li, of all people, shook her head in disagreement and gave a slight smile. She was watching attentively as Mike banged around at the back of the bar, cursing the lack of English signage.
"He's very passionate," she observed, dispassionately.
Later, as the delegates made their slow, tired, and in some cases boozy way down the block to the New Dynasty-Rits, Trish was slightly alarmed to find Mike catching up beside her. She had assumed he would be slinking off to his room to nurse his grievances, but he seemed to have sobered up and decided on a different course of action. He fell into step with her, interrupting her easy chatter with Betty.
"Hey, Trish. Feel like trying out the karaoke place? It's pretty tacky, but kind of fun. The drinks are cheap and they give you all this fruit, too. They've got some of the songs from our high school days -- they think they're still cool. We could kick back, relive the old days at Cartwright."
"I don't think so, Mike," Trish said as discouragingly as she could. It was midnight, but the Yutian air was still hot and sticky and smelled vaguely of rotting vegetable matter. All she wanted was a cooling shower and sleep. "High school is about the last thing I want to remember," she told him. "We were so stupid then, don't you think? I can't stand looking at those photographs."
"You always looked like you were having a good time," Mike said, coming closer and actually nudging her arm.
She drew away quickly, as if she'd been stung, and moved closer to Betty -- who, she could see, was following all this out of the corner of her eye.
"Come on," he insisted. "We go way back. And you're a free agent -- a divorcee?" He gave the word a sly turn. "That guy I see you with sometimes, the library guy. You're not living together or anything, are you?"
"No. But he's -- " She searched her brain for the most accurate word. "-- important."
"Yeah, but he can't be that important. It's not like you're engaged." He made "engaged" sound like something ludicrous, something from high school.
"Mike -- " Trish was surprised to feel tears of frustration welling up, and her throat constricting, as if she'd been unfairly taken for someone she was not, and didn't want to be. "Really. I can't."
And she walked ahead quickly toward the hotel, urging Betty along and clinging to her as if she were a human shield.
Back at the Rits, with the air conditioner humming, Betty was pouring bottled water into the handy electric kettle that came with the room, getting ready to make their bedtime cup of Lemon Zinger.
"My head is swimming," she declared. "All that politics and religion, just exactly the subjects one isn't supposed to discuss. For myself, I'm just sticking to the individual level on this trip -- Ernest the doorman, Wei Wei and her customers, and the Gu girls. And those nice boys who got us out of the mud. I'll never forget them -- they were so good-natured."
"Mmm," Trish replied, getting ready to take her shower. She was hot and fussed, and she still couldn't find some of her things, among them her contraceptive pills. She must have forgotten to pack them in her rush to leave. That would make her homecoming a little problematic. How stupid.
But Betty could tell what was really bothering her. "That Mike Shasko could take a few lessons in politeness from some of the people we've met," she went on. "The ordinary Chinese have such nice manners, I think. They're very considerate. He's so mouthy and pushy and full of himself -- I don't know how Mei Li keeps her poise. And you handled him quite nicely, I have to say," she added.
Trish took that as an invitation to confide. "What really gets me," she admitted, "is how he assumes Will means nothing to me."
"Will? The young man who sends you all those e-mails? He must be very nice. He seems so concerned to let you know how your daughter is getting along. He checks in on her at the McGraths'?"
"Yes, he knows I'm afraid Marian might not want to tell me anything worrying. Vanessa can be moody -- kind of bratty, actually. I told him I was concerned about that, and he said he'd take Vanessa out now and then and find out how things were going."
"He sounds very thoughtful," Betty observed. "But the two of you really don't have any 'plans for the future?' That's how we put it in my day."
"I think the future can take care of itself," replied Trish coolly. "I had a lot of plans once, but none of them worked out. Things are fine the way they are." But hadn't she said that once before, recently? Was she starting to sound like an idiot?
"Then how can you blame Mike?" Betty asked sensibly. "He's just going by what he sees. You're not planning to marry Will, and you don't live together, so he assumes you're looking for something better."
Trish looked up in surprise. "Better?" She'd been rummaging in her suitcase; now she forgot what she was looking for.
"There couldn't be anyone better than Will." That was such a simple fact, but she'd never put it into words before.
"Well, then?" Betty plugged in the kettle and looked at her.
Trish didn't know what to say. She couldn't say 'things are fine the way they are' again.
"I'm thirty-eight," she said instead.
Betty laughed. "You have no idea how funny that sounds to me. You're young, Trish. You're only starting out. You can't imagine how long middle age lasts -- and then there's old age! It seems forever since our girls left home," she said wistfully, toying with a teabag. Then she blurted suddenly, "Go on and marry him, Trish. You said you didn't want any plans, but everyone needs plans. We all crave things to look forward to. The two of you could make a wonderful life -- you could still have a child together."
"Oh, right!" Trish threw her hands in the air and appealed to the ceiling. What was it with this marriage thing all of a sudden? And there was that little baby's face again, popping up like one of those pesky icons on her computer. The little face from the Realm of Possibility.
"Oh, I know, I know," declared Betty. "It seemed impossible to me, too, when I was your age. We talked about having a third child, and I know now that deep in his heart Phil was hoping for a son. But I thought I was so busy, that the business was so important, that there wouldn't be room for all that again in my life -- and of course Phil went along with that. He's a considerate man, like your Will. But now, when I think about it, it would have been so easy. By the time children are fourteen they're really half on their own, all you have to do is worry." But she smiled. "So I would have been off the hook again around fifty. And now I'm sixty, and I can't tell you how much I regret not having that boy, it just pains me. He would have made such a difference -- he'd be taking over the business. And I know he would have been a boy," she stated firmly.
Then she reached over and patted Trish's hand. "But if you get married to your nice young man, I'll feel much better."
"Jerome McGrath was telling me almost the same thing," Trish complained.
"Well, there!" Betty unplugged the water boiler smartly as it began to make bubbling noises. "There you go -- he knows all about surviving parenthood. Didn't they have a brood of boys and then adopt another one? And now she's got your girl as well."
The way Betty put that -- "she's got your girl" -- gave Trish a start. All of a sudden she missed Vanessa, moods and all. She felt the need to be finished with all this China business and to be home, telling Will and Vanessa about the strange and funny things she'd seen, showing them the exotic souvenirs she'd bought for them. And the way Betty had said "they're half on their own at fourteen" worried her. She had always assumed, without much thinking about it, that Vanessa and her moods would be around forever.