Chapter 10: The Long Way Home
It was a surprisingly touching scene the next morning in the lobby of the New Dynasty-Rits as the Wheat City delegates prepared to take their leave. The Gu girls and boys had all gathered to help load the baggage onto the bus, and fresh-faced Ernest the doorman had joined them after all, even though it was his morning off. He wore civilian clothes instead of his Gilbert and Sullivan-style uniform and he scrupulously avoided interfering with the responsibilities of the doorman on duty, but he pitched in to move bags.
Trish was trying to get a few last photos of the Gu kids, and then a funny thing happened. Henry was moving among the delegates, collecting their key cards to hand in to the desk, and when he came to Jerome, who was standing next to Trish, Jerome took the opportunity to thank him for all his help in setting up the delegates' visits in Yutian, which had turned out to be fruitful and enjoyable. He had especially enjoyed his meeting with the Catholic priest, he said. It had been very illuminating.
Overhearing this, Trish agreed readily. "Yes, he's a very interesting person -- and very charming. I was glad I went on that visit."
Henry smiled his slow smile. "Yes, Fu Qingxin. His given name means 'pure heart.' Though sometimes he calls himself Francis. His family knew mine years ago -- his father and my grandfather were acquainted. He has seen much in his lifetime."
"He seems to be living an ideal life now, for an elderly man," observed Jerome. "That was good to see, after all the hard times. And his mind still seems very sharp. He has some interesting opinions."
Henry's wide smile turned to a smaller, slightly superior one, accompanied by a barely perceptible shrug. "He is a very ... " Henry paused to think of the right word. "A very innocent man -- with his church, his garden, and his internet."
Henry paused. Trish met Jerome's sudden glance -- that sounded very familiar to both of them. Then Trish looked up at the glittering chandelier hanging from the lobby ceiling, then back at Jerome. Had there been a light fixture in Father Fu's ceiling? She tried to recall.
Just a touch too quickly, too eagerly, Henry added, "He says that to everyone." And then, a beat later, smooth once again, he asked Trish, "Did you give me your room card?"
"Oh, no -- it's here," and she dug it out of her pocket. Henry took it and glided away.
"That was kind of interesting," she observed to Jerome. "Could Mike have actually been right about something?"
Jerome smiled a smile of keen enjoyment. "God only knows. It seems like 'interesting' never ends around here."
"Where's Mei Li?" she wondered aloud. For the first time since their welcoming reception at the City Hall, their guide wasn't among them. But then Trish remembered that she had said her formal goodbye to them all before they got off the bus last night, probably not wanting to risk further exposure to this unpredictable collection of foreigners. Still, she had dared to share that last cup of tea with Mike in the lobby. Trish wished she knew what had passed between them, but she did know one thing for sure: Mei Li was now well-prepared for her trip to America.
The delegates began boarding the bus, and the Gu boys and girls, assembled on the steps of the hotel, waved vigorously. Some of the girls wiped tears from their cheeks. Waving back at the young Chinese people through the bus window, Trish felt a sentimental tug. But as the bus pulled away and headed out of town toward the highway, and she began listening to some of the comments around her, her mood switched to amusement, accompanied by a lot of mental note-taking.
"I'm going to miss this place," Mayor Drucker declared emphatically. "They know how to treat you right."
"Me, too," admitted Betty, wiping away a tear of her own. "Already I can hardly believe half of what I saw. I'm glad I bought so many things to take back -- otherwise I'd think I dreamed it all." She rearranged the lead-heavy expandable carry-all at her feet.
"What's really strange," Tony put in, "is that every morning now, I actually crave a few pieces of lightly-cooked broccoli with my breakfast. Loretta's going to think I've gone bonkers."
The others laughed, but they understood.
"It really is worth traveling such a distance and coping with all the differences," remarked Jerome. "You discover what you can put up with and how much there is to learn, still. It's an amazing experience -- like discovering you have a third arm."
They all looked at him. "Can I use that in my column?" asked Trish.
Mike, alone at the back of the bus, was slouched low in his seat, with one leg stretched across the aisle. To express his disapproval of their early departure hour, he'd thrown one arm across his eyes in a bid for more sleep. But now he raised the arm slightly and gave Jerome a dubious look.
"I don't know about that," he said, "but I'm really going to miss the cheap beer. If they could export that, they'd have my vote. Well, almost."
"And those pretty Gu girls, too, eh Mike?" Sheldon reminded him with a grin.
"Hahaha," Henry Ma chuckled, his cheery self once again, now that various disasters had been averted and another cross-cultural exchange was drawing to a successful conclusion. "Westerners always like China best just when they are leaving it. They forget about all their complaints. I have observed this phenomenon mennytimes."
Across the aisle from Henry, Rudy nodded. "Human nature," he stated thoughtfully, his brows knitted, as he made notes in a small brown book and watched the fields of jade flash by for the last time.
Trish suspected that the pastor was working on the presentation he had promised his flock, or maybe he was writing his sermon for next Sunday morning, probably something like "Human Nature Around the World." With her last column for the Gleaner weighing on her mind, she sympathized. She resolved to spend part of the long stretch of time above the Pacific thinking about what she would write.
After the short flight from Yutian to Shanghai, the long wait at Pudong Airport, and then the tedious boarding process in multiple languages, they were finally settled on the big Air Canada plane with the jaunty red leaf on its tail, bound for home. Their first meal came, and then the first movie; then the cabin lights were dimmed and the heavy throb of the dutiful engines filled Trish's head. The droning was more distracting than she remembered, and her thoughts, which she'd meant to focus on her column, scattered in all directions.
The screen up front showed the tiny outline of a plane tracking their course eastward. Just now it hovered south of the Sea of Japan and some figures below informed passengers that the outside temperature was minus 50 degrees Celsius, if anyone needed to know. Trish preferred not to think about the cold, vast emptiness that surrounded the plane, and the huge, wrinkly sea (she'd raised the shade and peeked out the window) that lay far below. The scratch outline of her final column lay in the open notebook on her tray table, but her thoughts raced ahead of the plane to the weeks and months to come -- to the next ten years of her life, as Betty had put it.
But Betty herself, seated next to Trish, was not considering the future just now. She was dozing lightly behind her traveler's sleep mask. In fact, all the members of the delegation seated nearby seemed to be napping, although it was only two in the afternoon, Yutian time. Yet it was only natural to be so exhausted after two weeks of slow-roasting in an Oven of China, struggling with a different culture, and processing so many new and unexpected impressions. It had been a challenge to the system for relatively un-young, un-worldly people such as themselves, Trish thought.
But what exactly would come from all that effort? she wondered. This was what she needed to write about. What were they bringing back to Wheat City, besides thousands of photographs, a wide assortment of Asian trinkets, and a twenty-kilo framed cork carving? Would anything change? Was anyone else in the group thinking -- or dreaming -- about this right now?
This was the same question Trish often asked herself to pass the time when she found herself on the downtown bus in Wheat City: what would you hear if you could listen in on the thoughts of all these people? And it always gave her a little shiver, because she knew that if everyone's thoughts were suddenly audible, they would probably blow the roof off the bus. But here, in the dimly lit, humming womb of the plane, among her ten friends of two weeks, she thought she might dare to put her imagination and intuition to work in order to answer this question.
Actually, reading her fellow delegates' minds was not, by now, a difficult task. They had all been living at such close quarters that her powers of deduction were sharply honed. She had become intimately acquainted with, for instance, Betty's opinion on almost everything, Mayor Drucker's ambitions for himself and Wheat City, Rudy's many anxieties, Jerome's homesickness as well as his surprisingly liberal views, Jack's on-going bowel problems, and the strange layers and unpredictabilities of Mike's personality. And she'd heard enough of their chatter over breakfast this morning in Yutian and while waiting for their connection in Shanghai to know what was uppermost in their minds now that they were homeward-bound.
Henry Ma, for example, was already planning his next trip to China, a tour for a group of Western Canadian businesspeople looking for investment partners. Trish foresaw the happy deals that would be made: many units of Vancouver Villas and Thousand Vistas Spa Resort would be snapped up, and ships loaded with canola oil and potash would sail to the Far East, while Yutian electric bicycles and Bamboo Green Health Tea would appear in all major cities from Victoria to Winnipeg -- and after all this "facilitation," Henry would be sporting a few more brand-new designer accessories.
As for Mayor Drucker, now dozing a few places behind her in his aisle seat, he would be counting off on his fingers the exchanges and joint ventures that might come from this trip, and he would be alternately looking forward to and fretting about the visit by the Yutian delegation to Wheat City next spring. There might be all sorts of complications, he realized now. It wasn't unusual for a late blizzard to hit in early May. And what would they feed their Chinese visitors? Perhaps he could consult his friend Joe Chow, who owned the Pagoda Gardens and owed him a few favors. And of course the mayor would be hoping for a few more trips to China for himself. He had always wanted to see the Three Gorges Dam -- now that was a public works project.
Jack Goldstein's thoughts could be guessed by anyone: the Shoe King had to be thinking of shoes, lots of shoes, fresh from the Pacific Rim and selling like fried corn cakes in all of his chain stores. And just as surely, Doug Bonokoski was dreaming of potash sales and cooperative agricultural exchanges, although he'd discovered that Yutian farmers didn't need quite as much help as he'd anticipated. In fact, they had some small-scale, low-tech, but innovative approaches to things like drought management that Canadian market gardeners might want to learn more about. As for Tony Gambella, he should have been full of ideas about cooperation on steel production and marketing, but Trish knew from listening to him at breakfast this morning that visions of Tim Horton's franchises across China had a stronger hold on his imagination.
Trish felt a little guilty when she thought about Pastor Rudy's state of mind. He was probably wasting a good deal of the energy he might have put into world food issues, or his "Impressions of China" presentation, worrying about a ditsy columnist's joke that had linked his good name with certain unconventional behavior. Trish glanced up the aisle and saw his neatly-combed head one row ahead on the left, in the window seat, leaning against the plastic wall. She hoped he was getting a good rest, and not worrying over what might lay in store for him when he returned to his wife and the Good Shepherd congregation.
Directly across the aisle from Trish and Betty, Sheldon Standingready, his broad neck cushioned by a u-shaped travel pillow, rested with a Buddha-like smile on his face. He would be wondering about small bits of words in two Chinese dialects that were separated by thousands of miles: How could they be so alike? He was also contemplating the joyful nature of the Gu people, and wondering how to bring a similar joy to Chief Stone Native High School. He was convinced it would save some of those kids. Sheldon planned to give it a try--he would start with the Chinese kong zhu yoyos that danced on strings. There were half a dozen in his suitcase.
Jerome, in the row ahead of Sheldon, would not be wasting his time sleeping. Behind his closed eyelids he would be pondering and weighing, adjusting himself to a more complex vision of life, adding a little Buddhism to his Catholicism, for example. Borders that he had once taken for granted, and relied on, had become interestingly blurred on this trip. After expecting to find the Church in China restive and oppressed, he had found instead Father Fu's forgiving, wide-minded, eastern-tinged faith -- a faith that was steady and long, while things political were indeed sometimes cruel, but temporal. Jerome was also, as he'd observed several times, feeling more Canadian, finally, after having lived in the country like a bystander all these years. Trish guessed he'd finally realized that home was wherever Marian was, and the rest was mere detail, as he had said to Trish about her own relationship with Will. The philosopher had been unable to disguise his intense homesickness, Trish thought with amusement, but now he was almost Home. Trish smiled, for Marian.
As for Mike, who was sulking alone and unseen somewhere in the dimness of the cabin, Trish was pretty sure she knew the question that was uppermost in his mind just now: Who had come out on top over the last two weeks, himself or China? He was the kind of person who hated to lose a contest, and in his own mind he never did. He had been humiliated when Mei Li foiled his protest, but by now he had most likely worked the facts around in his mind as he always did, the way other people rearrange their living room furniture, to create a narrative that flattered his image of himself. He had taught a few people a lesson and struck a blow for free speech -- that's what he would tell himself, and anyone who asked, and others who didn't.
His son Jason would probably be waiting for him at the airport. He was a weedy, forlorn-looking sixteen-year-old, a few years ahead of Vanessa in school, with perennially uncut hair and a t-shirt that looked like it had sat for a week in the dryer. He idolized Mike, but he was often embarrassed for his trouble. He sometimes accompanied his father at protests, always looking like he hoped something wonderful, instead of mortifying, would happen this time.
Trish imagined their reunion at the airport. Jason would ask Mike eagerly, "So, Dad, did you teach them a lesson over there?" And right now, Mike was wrestling with what answer he would give. It would probably go something like, "Well, Jace, it's complicated over there, I gotta tell you. But the women! You wouldn't believe the women -- they actually throw themselves at you!"
In the seat beside Trish, Betty stirred. She lifted her sleep mask to peer at her watch and then pulled the mask down again, resettling herself more comfortably in her seat. Trish knew exactly what was occupying her friend's mind: Chinese accent pieces. Betty had been talking about her idea last night before they went to bed. She planned to section off a corner of her store for some exotic bits of "Chinoiserie" so that discerning Wheat City customers could mix them with the traditional furniture the Nobles sold. Betty had been so taken by all the things she'd seen, the wonderful silk embroidery, the porcelain, the leather boxes, the cloisonne and jade, the carved trunks and stools and accent tables, that she wanted everyone to have some. In the carry-on at her feet she had wedged, along with her other souvenirs, a small red and gold-painted Tibetan stool that she was dying to show to Phil. It had just fit. She'd met someone in Yutian through Wei Wei who had a cousin in Vancouver who could sell her boxes of such things. She and Phil could simply drive out in their van a few times a year and pick up a delicious selection, she'd told Trish. She was excited about bringing a bit of the beauty she had discovered in the Orient to Wheat City.
Also, Betty had said, she had decided to start looking for some young Canadian person as eager and clever as Wei Wei who might want to come to work for them, and eventually take over the business, since their daughters weren't interested. All of that would fill the next five, if not ten, years of her life, she'd said with satisfaction.
Of course, to Trish, the most interesting of all the thoughts churning around inside the plane, as the plane itself churned its way across the hemisphere, were her own. They flowed out and around and looped back, over and over. All at once an abundance of possibilities confronted her. What had happened, she wondered, to her narrow, worried little life of just a few weeks ago? It had grown wider and much more interesting as she traipsed around on the other side of the world, by turns confused, exhausted, amused, and amazed. Strangely, she now felt quite optimistic about her life.
Maybe it was simply a physiological thing, the result of surviving these two challenging weeks, the same way one feels suddenly energized after emerging from a bout of 'flu. She kind of liked that idea, nature being in control after all. And thinking of nature -- she had been off the pill for two weeks now. Maybe that had also triggered some change deep inside. Whatever it was, she felt wiser and happier. Now, sharing her life with Will seemed like an obviously wonderful thing to do.
And a child? She had admitted the possibility -- the door was ajar. But they would have to take it step by step and see what happened. How many women in their late 30's get pregnant right off the bat? That was hardly likely. But if she did, and if everything went well, it would be pretty impressive. How would she be able to argue with it? And Will and Vanessa would be so happy. She couldn't help taking pride in the power to bring so much happiness. Life would grow crazier maybe -- but it would be so interesting. She couldn't resist that.
Trish looked down at her ring, and the deep blue and purple facets winked back at her in the dim light. It had been very wise of Will to give it to her before she left, she understood now. It had been with her everywhere on the trip and had kept him in her thoughts. Then, just to see what it would look like, how it would feel, she slipped the ring off the third finger of her right hand, her writing hand, onto the third finger of her left, the finger connected most closely to the heart, as the belief went. And she found that it was a better fit -- a little less restricting, a bit more balanced. It felt right.
Now she was eager to be home. Her knees trembled with restlessness, and the plane felt eager too, pressing itself eastward against the powerful turning of the earth, against the clouds and winds and weather, towards Canada. Five or six more hours and they would see land again, British Columbia, a sudden green solidness spilling straight down from the mountains to the sea, one small portion of Henry's beloved "Pacific Rim." For all that she had laughed at Henry's fixation, she knew that she was lucky to have seen the other side of that rim.
Imagining again, Trish projected herself ahead a few hours. They would arrive in Vancouver, and in the airport they would find relief in the return to the familiar language, to faces like their own, to the Globe and Mail, to real coffee and donuts. After an interval, there would be the last short flight. Then, in less than two hours, the plane would slowly, gravely give in to gravity once again. They would make the final, ceremonious descent, the plane moving forward and downward at the same time, to the flat, welcoming prairie that surrounded Wheat City like a checkerboard of green and gold at this time of year. Inevitably, some of them would remark how much it looked like Yutian.
Picturing the crowd of people that would be waiting at the airport, Trish's heart beat a little harder. All the families would be there, and hers, Vanessa and Will, would be among them. With happy waves and shouts, the delegates and their relatives would be reunited in the small arrivals area of the Wheat City airport. Immediately the crowd would begin to sprout all the exotic, funny, bulky Chinese things being brought back as carry-ons -- straw coolie hats, stone guard lions for suburban doorsteps, bamboo walking sticks with dragon head handles, kites and urns and scrolls. And of course Betty would be pulling out her bright Tibetan stool, because she would want to show that to Phil right away. And Mayor Drucker, who had somehow convinced the airlines to carefully wrap and convey the huge framed cork carving of Great Wisdom Hill along with their baggage, would be more than happy to pose with his gift for the members of the press, whom his office staff would have badgered into being there to record the delegates' triumphant return from the Far East. Proudly he would tell them that it would hang in the mayor's office for years to come.
Vanessa would be eagerly watching for Trish (Trish hoped), and before her eyes the crowd would become, for a few moments, a strange and colorful snapshot of China. Still part child for a little while longer, Vanessa would be anxious to find out what sort of gift from that faraway place would be hers.
Will would be wondering too. Trish had made sure to put something in her last e-mail that hinted her trip had been a good thing for both of them, and that she would be bringing him something nice -- and she hadn't been thinking only of the jade penholder. She would find his face in the crowd and press her way toward him, clutching her bag of exotic gifts in her right hand, and waving high in the air with her left. If he was thinking the same thoughts she was thinking (and she knew he was), he would see the amethyst ring, a tiny, shining blue world in itself. She would catch his eye and gesture and grin, and he would understand immediately: the fact that she had gone all the way to the other side of the world and found him there was proof that they shared something important -- something real.