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July 08, 2024

The Twinning 9

By Barbara Rendall

Chapter 9: The Banquet

At the top of Great Wisdom Hill, past ten thousand stones, give or take, the four tired trekkers found the farewell party. The Banquet Pavilion was a rectangular stone platform sheltered by a broad tiled roof held up by colorfully painted rafters and those red pillars that seemed to be a vital part of Chinese architecture. A long granite table, looking to Trish like something out of medieval times, stretched nearly the full length of the pavilion. Two Gu girls in traditional dress were playing a bamboo flute and a small two-stringed fiddle at one end of the platform, while the Wheat City delegates and the Yutian officials mingled around the table, drinking soft drinks and Great Wall red wine. Under the table, several cases of each beverage signaled a long meal ahead.

Oddly, there were no chairs at the table. But a moment later, even more oddly, chairs began appearing over the crest of the hill: large, richly-upholstered dining room chairs. Each was carried upside-down over the head of a young Gu person, like a big, awkward hat. The carriers grasped the arms of the chair near the side of their heads, and the back of the chair hung down behind like a desert traveler's sun flap.

"Heavens," exclaimed Betty. "Haven't they heard of folding chairs?"

Henry made a patrician, pooh-poohing motion with his hand. "This is all part of the tradition. To honor the guests who have come from afar."

A few dynasties earlier, thought Trish, Henry would have made an impressive emperor.

"But where will the meal come from?" Trish wondered aloud. There wasn't a kitchen in sight, it suddenly occurred to her, not even a small shed.

"From wherever those chairs are coming from, I'd guess," answered Betty. "There were a whole lot of trucks in the parking area where they let us off. But it's a bit of a climb."

Sure enough, after arranging the chairs around the banquet table, the young people re-emerged from the spaces between the surrounding rocks carrying white foam containers the size of washing machines, each one lugged upward between two people.

"I smell barbecue," said Tony. "Am I dreaming? It smells like Victoria Park on Canada Day."

Several Gu girls were opening the first box and spreading platters heaped with skewered barbecued meat along the table. ("No bones!" Jack, highly pleased, called out.) Colorful Gu cloths had been laid and dishes and chopsticks were brought out quickly. The delegates were urged to seat themselves; the girls would serve them.

A floating feast of cold and hot dishes arrived before their eyes as more and more food ascended the steps and was quickly placed in front of them. Finally, two young men, short of breath, arrived with the last white box between them. It contained two dozen tightly-packed liter bottles of chilled Yutian beer. They called out something to Henry, grinning.

"Ah," said Henry. "They noticed we liked this beer verrymuch on these hot days, so they brought this up too, although it wasn't on the menu, hahaha. We are very spoiled."

"But this is too much!" Betty protested. "It would have been much easier to have this at the hotel, or some other restaurant in town."

"It's 34 degrees out here," added Mayor Drucker. "These people are going to collapse. I had a hard enough time just walking up from the parking lot, and all I was carrying was a handkerchief."

"We should give these kids some of the drinks," suggested Rudy, noticing how the young men were wiping their faces on their sleeves.

Henry translated these protestations for the city officials, who were thoroughly enjoying the mountain-top meal, offering toasts and pointing out, with Mei Li's assistance, distant Yutian sights for the visitors. They replied to Henry with smiles and nods, as if accepting the compliments and dismissing any concern.

"It is the custom, it is done all the time," Henry explained to the Canadians, shrugging. "It is the young people's duty, and their pleasure."

"I frigging well hope they're getting overtime," put in Mike -- who, however, was happily accepting a glass of cold beer in spite of the exploitation. And his plate was full of wooden meat skewers that had been stripped bare.

Sheldon expressed their gratitude in Mandarin to the young men who were pouring beer and neatly repacking the empty bottles. They smiled bashfully and politely turned down the offer of refreshment.

"No problem, they say," Sheldon told the delegates. He shook his head in admiration.

"You know," Betty said suddenly, emphatically, "I am really so impressed with these people. And I didn't expect to be, to tell the truth. Before we came here, I thought I would pity them, or want to help them. But you know what? I have a really good feeling about these kids, especially. If something bad should happen to them, they'll be able to handle it. They'll just dig in. Take Wei Wei. I've seen her place: a little burner to cook on, some stools to sit on, quilts to sleep under, a pan to wash in -- and, well, a TV and a laptop and a mobile phone. She's ok, and she and her husband have money in the bank, and some interesting plans. They know how to get by, and get on. We could take a few lessons from them." She put her hand on Trish's arm. "And you know, it really makes me wish I had a second chance to raise my children."

"That's true," agreed Tony, who was sitting on her other side. "At home, we've got it too easy. We totally freak out if the power goes down, for example. We're helpless without our appliances -- you know how you keep flicking things on, forgetting they don't work? That's pathetic. People can't even go camping anymore, for Pete's sake, without an electrical hook-up."

Henry, happy to dish up "face" to the Yutian officials, translated some of these observations to those seated near him. The three men and the grandmotherly woman didn't dispute the comments or reject them with a show of politeness. They only nodded blandly and smiled. They seemed to know about this already.

Trish decided she had to get some of this into her last column. She'd been looking for a way to sum up all the things she'd learned here. But how to write about it without sounding brain-washed? Because what had happened to her brain had nothing to do with scouring out old ideas -- it was more like having your mind expanded, crammed full.

After food and more food, lubricated by the usual toasts (but this time with wine as an alternative to white liquor -- someone had advanced quickly in their understanding of Western tastes), the mayor of Yutian stood to bid the Wheat City delegates a formal farewell. The speech was more or less the same as his welcoming one, as far as Trish could tell from Henry's translation. Maybe there was only one speech, she thought -- or maybe it was just Henry.

Gifts were exchanged. Mayor Drucker presented the Yutian mayor with the customary Wheat City gift, a framed arrangement, the size of a coffee table top, of hand-blown glass wheat sheaves made by a Wheat City artisan. The mayor of Yutian responded with a framed cork-carving of Great Wisdom Hill and Temple the size of a front door. As well, each delegate was given a tall, heavily-carved jade container -- a brush-holder, they were told, but they could use it for pens -- that weighed at least two kilos.

"More heavy things those poor kids had to haul up here," lamented Betty.

Then the entire group was hustled together for a final photo on the steps of the Banquet Pavilion, with the impressive gifts displayed in front of them. The photographer fussed around arranging everyone meticulously by height and rank, and the Canadians began to get a little restless, especially Mike.

"Hey, Mei Li," he called. "You come here by me, honey." He reached over and drew her in from the edge of the group. She yielded, although she went as rigid as she could to keep some distance between them. "I sure hope we're all getting copies," he said. "I don't want to forget this."

Trish was puzzled by his strange change of mood. Suddenly he was so positive about everything.

Enough versions of the group photo were finally captured. Blinking from the flashbulbs, the mayors, officials and delegates broke from the formation on the steps to meet the members of the press, who were just arriving. Several men and women carrying lights, cameras and small recorders were staggering up the last steps from the parking lot and approaching the pavilion. The Chinese and Canadian mayors, like moths drawn to a flame, went straight for the elaborately made-up woman with a microphone in her hand and a camera man at her side. The other officials followed, hoping they might also be asked for a word. The delegates trailed after them, to listen and perhaps be noticed, too.

Mike alone hung back, standing on the steps and watching Mei Li. There was a wound-up, hyperactive look on his face as he paced along the top step. Trish thought she'd better keep an eye on him.

As Mei Li moved towards the reporters to help with the interviews, Mike jumped down and intercepted her.

"We'll miss you, Mei Li. You took such good care of us," he said ingratiatingly, yet also sounding like he might be making fun of her. "You know, if you're going to be in New York next year, you should come up to Toronto sometime. It's not far. I get back there now and then. I could show you around."

"I would like to see Canada," Mei Li replied carefully, "but I think I will be very busy in New York."

"Or I could come down there," Mike pressed on. "It's a great place -- we could have some fun. You should give me your e-mail."

The guy didn't know when to quit, Trish thought, almost pitying him.

"I am not going to Columbia for fun. I will be very busy with my studies," she countered, obviously realizing it was time to draw the line.

"You're way too busy, Mei Li." Mike shook his head. "You need to loosen up, enjoy life."

Trish glanced over at Betty to see if she was taking this in. She wasn't missing a word, of course. Some of the others were listening too.

"If I want to do things in New York for enjoyment," Mei Li went on resolutely, "I will wait to do them with my husband when he comes to visit."

Mike stared at her. "Husband? You have a husband?"

"Of course," she answered.

"Well, where the hell is he?" Mike demanded, looking around, as if he might be lurking somewhere among the Ten Thousand Stones. "You never said anything about a husband."

Trish was thinking the same thing. The girl would have had a much easier time if she had mentioned this husband a little earlier. But Trish had read somewhere that Chinese couples weren't as joined at the hip as Western couples. Not many wore wedding rings, she'd observed, and the Yutian officials had never been accompanied by spouses at any functions.

"He is in Shanghai," Mei Li replied.

"What the hell is he doing in Shanghai? I thought you went to school in Beijing."

"I did. But he has a good job in Shanghai. Although perhaps he will visit me in the States some time."

"Well, I should think so," Mike stated fussily, sounding like someone's mother. Trish had to fight to keep from laughing.

Betty, drawn by this interesting new development, moved forward to calm the waters and learn more about Chinese family customs.

"How nice to know that you're married, Mei Li. Will you and your husband be able to live together back here once you've finished your studies in the States?"

"Perhaps. It depends on where I find the best job. We are both very serious about our careers. He is in IT."

"But will you have children?" Betty asked. "I mean, a child?" she amended quickly, remembering the One Child Policy.

"Oh, yes," Mei Li answered matter-of-factly. "Our parents want a grandchild. Either mine or his will raise it for us."

"What do you mean, raise it for you?" demanded Mike. "You make it sound like a hamster."

This from Mike, thought Trish wryly -- Mike, who had a daughter he hardly ever saw, who lived with her mother in Toronto. But he was raising his teenaged son, the poor kid. She did have to give him that.

"It is very common in China," Mei Li replied crisply. "Grandparents often raise the grandchildren."

Then Henry called to her, and she moved off quickly to help with the members of the press.

"Cold bitch," muttered Mike. And he cast a glance at Trish.

Hey, no fair, she thought. I'm a good mom, and I'll be back with my daughter in just a few days. The thought warmed her, and the warmness made her think of Will. With a gesture that was becoming a habit now whenever she thought of him, her right thumb sought and touched the amethyst ring on the finger nearby. She was very glad she and Will didn't always live this far apart.

The reporters, toting their cameras and recorders, were moving on. They had listened to the Yutian officials' effusions long enough, it seemed. Now they wanted to interview some of the Canadian delegates, with Mei Li interpreting. They eyed the varied group. Trish fluffed her hair, Betty re-applied lipstick, and both tried to think of some interesting observations they might make, realizing one of them would probably be asked for a few words, if only to provide gender balance. But it was Sheldon the reporters went for first, since he was so big and so mysteriously Chinese-looking, and he also spoke Mandarin. In Yutian, that made him something close to a rock star.

While Sheldon stood on the lower step of the pavilion and made his informed comments about the local culture -- Trish heard "Gu" this and "Gu" that -- Mike prowled around above them up on the platform again, looking both thoughtful and frustrated. Trish wished she knew what was going through his mind. Something to do with feeling like a jerk, she hoped.

Then the woman with the microphone turned to Betty (Trish was a little crushed), and her friend enthused predictably about her interest in small Chinese businesses and the satisfaction of getting to meet "real people" like Wei Wei and the tea shop ladies at the model village. When that topic had run its course, the reporters looked around again. They began to move toward Doug, who was wearing a cap with a bright yellow sheaf of wheat embroidered on the front and looked primed to talk about agricultural issues. But just then Mike called out to them from his place on the platform, right above Doug.

"Hey, why not me?" he asked mockingly. "I've got lots to say. You can translate for me, Mei Li." He beckoned to her. "And I've got a gift, too, especially for you, sweetheart."

All at once, Trish had a bad feeling. It had something to do with Mike's strange wheedling tone and whatever it was he had for Mei Li. His hands were empty, but he was fumbling with the bottom of his t-shirt, trying to get at something concealed underneath. Next to Trish, Jerome drew a sharp breath.

"Oh shit," he said in a desperate undertone.

His language surprised Trish, but in the next moment she understood. Here was Mike's message for China, at last. Jerome made a move toward the steps, but Mei Li, sprinting past him, was quicker.

From under his shirt, Mike was pulling out what looked like a folded white cloth, but as he began to open it, colors and parts of large black letters appeared.

"Oh, Mike!" Mei Li cried out, heading straight up the steps, sounding keyed-up, enthusiastic, and completely unlike herself. "How nice!"

She threw herself against him, hard, and locked her arms around his upper body. Everyone gaped in amazement: the media people, the Yutian officials, the Wheat City delegates, even the Gu kids who were behind Mike, packing up the banquet. But none of them looked as amazed as Mike himself. He swayed backwards in Mei Li's enthusiastic embrace, almost losing his balance because she'd pinned his arms with her full-body assault.

"That damned idiot!" Trish heard Sheldon, behind her, declare furiously.

Jerome looked around. "Where's Henry?"

"What is going on?" demanded Betty, utterly confused.

Mike began to tussle with Mei Li, to free himself, and a section of the strip of cloth he had tried to unfurl hung loose.

" -- EE TIB -- " Trish read, and there were some Chinese characters, too.

"Oh my god. I don't believe it." She grabbed Betty's arm. "We should have known."

"Known what?"

Jerome, Sheldon and Henry ran up to help Mei Li keep Mike out of sight of the cameras. Then Henry, seeing that Mike was secured, made a quick u-turn and rushed back to the Yutian officials who were watching the strange behavior of the foreigners with curiosity. While Jerome and Sheldon held Mike, Mei Li hastily bundled up the banner and stuffed it into her large shoulder bag. Her cheeks were flaming, but her eyes were hard and determined. Trish guessed she must have seen her fellowship year at Columbia flash before her eyes.

Then Mei Li glanced around quickly to judge how much the officials had noticed, but they were all looking toward Henry for an explanation. Henry drew them into a tight huddle at a safe distance from Mike. He spoke quickly, seriously, and in a confidential tone, without a single "ha." Then he moved over to the media people for a short stroking session, expanding visibly, smiling widely, gesturing, and probably making a joke about how difficult it was traveling around with crazy, unpredictable foreigners. Whatever he said, the members of the press were smiling back and nodding their heads.

To add the final touch, Henry looked over toward the Wheat City delegates, all busily filling each other in on what had just happened, and called out gaily, "Maybe a liddlebit too much good Yutian beer for Mike, eh? Haha?"

Mike would have been annoyed by that, but he didn't hear it. Up on the platform, Sheldon had taken him in hand. He had him backed against one of the red pillars and was poking him in the chest with a forefinger and directing a stream of words straight at his face, looking every inch the vice-principal.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Sheldon demanded.

Defensively, Mike argued back. "A little taste of free speech would do them good!"

Hearing this, Mayor Drucker strode up the steps, stony-faced with indignation, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Sheldon. "That was a very, very bad idea, Mike. I should never have let you come. People warned me. But I didn't listen, I wanted to be fair. They were right, though. Everything -- everything -- could have been ruined."

Mike, striving to maintain his bravado, waved a hand dismissively. "Sometimes you've gotta speak out, Howie. Stand by your principles. You know what I mean? You know what principles are?"

He glanced at Mei Li who still stood nearby on the platform, straightening her clothes. She glared back at him.

Below, Rudy and Betty were still trying to find out exactly what had happened.

"It said 'Free Tibet'?" Rudy asked Jerome, aghast. "And there was a Tibet flag? We could have been jailed -- or at least thrown out of the country." He glanced toward the city officials and lowered his voice. "We may be yet."

"Rudy, we're leaving tomorrow," Trish reminded him. "Relax." Trish guessed he was worrying about his congregation again, and what they would do if he was part of an international incident featured on the CBC evening news.

"But where did he get that banner?" wondered Betty, always practical. "It even had some Chinese characters on it."

"Probably from some activist group at the university at home," speculated Jerome. "He likely had it in his suitcase the whole time."

"Good Lord," declared Jack, horrified. "And we had no idea." He shook his head in disbelief, as if they had unwittingly harbored a terrorist in their midst.

As the delegates chattered away, the reporters began to reorganize themselves to do the last segments of their coverage all over again, since the filming had been interrupted by Mike's outburst.

"Lucky for us hardly anything in the world is broadcast live anymore," observed Jerome.

Trish guessed that had probably never occurred to Mike. He was even more clueless than she'd thought.

Then, as the daylight faded gently over the modest Yutian skyline, the press gathered their equipment, the Gu kids finished tidying the Banquet Pavilion, and the Wheat City delegates boarded the bus for their descent from Great Wisdom Hill. It was time to pack for home. Mike slumped alone in the back seat, looking angry or thoughtful -- as usual, it was hard to tell the difference.

As they arrived back at the New Dynasty-Rits, those delegates in the front seats of the bus were treated to yet another surprising scene: Mike pushing his way out the door of the bus to catch up with Mei Li on the hotel steps.

"Hey, Mrs. Li -- if that's your right name. Wait just a minute."

Mei Li turned, wary, and he jogged up to join her on the top step. "I just realized," he said, his old bravado only somewhat tempered by the curtailing of his protest. "You can't think I'm all that bad. I mean -- what you did -- at least you don't think I smell bad or anything. Am I right?"

Mei Li pressed her lips together and gave him a long, appraising look.

A few moments later, as the next people off the bus passed through the lobby, they were puzzled by the sight of Mike and Mei Li taking two easy chairs in a quiet corner. A Gu girl came up to them and asked if they wanted tea.

After another few minutes, the stragglers, Trish and Betty -- they'd been saying goodbye to Ernest the doorman, who wouldn't be on duty the next morning when they left -- were treated to the sight of Mike and Mei Li leaning towards each other in conversation, with two untouched cups of tea on the table between them. Mike was speaking, and Mei Li listened. Then Mei Li was counting off points on her fingers and speaking in a steady, low voice while Mike, for a wonder, took his turn listening, with his mouth shut. It became him, Trish thought.

"Would you have believed it?" Betty murmured as they stepped into the elevator. "That comes under the category of Now I've Seen Everything. I would have put a few miles between myself and him if I were Mei Li. She could have gotten into huge trouble for what he tried to do. Not to mention the way he's treated her during the whole trip."

Trish agreed. But she added thoughtfully, "A lot has changed on this trip, though. Don't you feel a little different?" she prodded her friend, whom she'd known only as a name in the newspaper a few months ago.

Betty considered that as they got off the elevator and headed down the hallway to their room.

"You know, I feel a little younger, actually," she answered. "Is that weird? My feet are killing me and I'm totally exhausted, but I also feel younger."

"I know what you mean," said Trish as she took out her card, conjured the little green light above the lock, and pushed the door open. "After coming halfway around the world, you get knocked out of your groove and suddenly there's a lot more to think about."

"That must be it," Betty agreed. And she looked a little less tired as she regarded Trish with interest.

Later, as Trish and Betty were surveying the clothes and purchases spread out on their beds, and despairing over how they would fit everything in their suitcases, Jerome knocked at the door.

"Packing up? I still have to do mine." He handed Trish a folded piece of paper. "Here's Marian's last e-mail. I printed it out for you."

"Thanks for going to the trouble," Trish said sincerely. "It will help me gauge Vanessa's mood -- I need to know what I'll be coming home to."

"No trouble. I wanted to check my mail once more before leaving. It sounds like everything's fine," he said with a smile. "They'll be at the airport to meet us. Sleep well. It'll be a long trip home. Good night, Betty."

After he'd gone, Betty shook out an embroidered Gu tablecloth before folding it. "He is such a nice man," she said emphatically as she smoothed the cloth on the bed.

But Trish was already eagerly engaged in scanning the nice man's private mail. Marian's message began, "Hi Darling," and Trish felt a little pang of conscience. But she felt a certain pride, or contentment, as well, knowing Jerome had been willing to share that with her.

Marian began by covering all the homey things: there were no messages from the office, and on Sunday she'd seen Jerome's secretary at Mass, and she'd said all was well. The boys were all fine, and Matt and Brian had phoned from New York. They were the older two of the five McGrath boys who had been born in the U.S, and on their summer break from university they had gone down to Long Island to work at an uncle's air- conditioning business while they gave some thought to whether they wanted to be American or Canadian citizens. The latest was that Brian had met a girl and loved it there, and Matt had gotten into an argument in a bar about Iraq and hated it. In Wheat City, Marian was making sure the other three kept busy. Michael was getting along surprisingly well with Vanessa. The two of them liked the same music and had the same silly junior high school sense of humor, so Vanessa was the perfect cure for the boredom Michael felt as the only one of the boys without a summer job. Although, Marian hastened to add, she'd been keeping him busy cutting grass and helping her in the garden, and he was much more polite and cooperative with a girl in the house.

Marian went on to say how much she was enjoying chatting with Vanessa. Girls were so chatty compared to boys, she was discovering, and Vanessa was opening up a whole new world of patterned nail polish, hair-braiding, and a million other things for her. And she'd been so flattered when Vanessa came right to her when she got her period and wasn't embarrassed at all. Every day the two of them shared a salad and fruit lunch and both of them felt much healthier.

Reading this, Trish was pierced by homesickness -- for the last time, she hoped. It shot right through the center of her heart, and there was a touch of jealousy there as well. She would be so glad to see Vanessa tomorrow, or whatever day it would be when they finally landed in Wheat City. She wondered if by going halfway around the world, she might have gone too far. It was as if the slender thread of love and worry that bound her to her half-grown child had been stretched perilously thin by the distance. Trish felt an urgent need to get back where she belonged.

At the end of the message, Marian added, "Michael and Vanessa are looking forward to coming to the airport to meet you all. They're very keen on hearing all about China -- I hope you took lots of pictures. And I know I don't need to tell you (but I will) how much I look forward to having you Home. What you wrote was so lovely -- I treasure you too! See you Friday. XXX M."

Trish's face grew hot with embarrassment. Really, he shouldn't have given her the whole message. That little bit of intimacy (why had she capitalized "Home"?) was really more than she needed to see.

And it made her miss Will -- they had their code words, too. She hoped Will was planning to stay the night at her place after they arrived home, jetlag be damned. In her last e-mail, she'd hinted that he should. Although it was awkward that she'd forgotten to pack her pills and had been off them for two weeks. Would she tell him? Or should she just let it go and leave it to fate? The Realm of Possibility grew larger still. And it made her think a little further about why Jerome had given her Marian's entire message. Why indeed?

"That must be good news about your daughter," Betty commented from the other side of the room, watching her with a smile.

"I'm ready to go home," Trish admitted, smiling back.

"It's a long flight," Betty said, echoing Jerome, as she rolled her Adventurewear into tight, narrow tubes and made a nest at the center of her suitcase for her jade pen holder. "But I like a long flight every so often," she mused, "especially after a trip filled with so many interesting experiences. Those hours on the plane make a good interlude. You're way up above the earth in a kind of special zone, neither here nor there, literally. I look at it as a good opportunity to plan the next ten years of my life."

"That's a nice idea," replied Trish. She liked the sound of that.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-06-04
Image(s) © Tom Rendall. All rights reserved.
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