Three: Getting There

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A week before the trip, he got another email from Megyn. He read two sentences and then shouted to the house, “She’s going with me!”

He could almost hear her voice as he read.

“I’ll be on the same flights. I’m going to my parent’s place near Wuhan. They don’t travel now. I haven’t seen them in a couple of years, so this is a good opportunity. The school is paying a lot of my expenses so I’ll have some meetings to attend there. But they know family is going to be my focus.

“When I’m at the University, I’ll show you around the neighborhood where I grew up; it’s close. And there are a couple of restaurants there that my friends say are still excellent. One of them, Tsing-Tsing, is across from the main gate and a favorite of both faculty and students. I’ll take you there and do the ordering. You’ll love the Cantonese students’ favorites.

“Look for me at the gate in San Francisco for the Shanghai flight. (I booked the seat next to you, I hope that’s OK?)”

Spence was so stunned he couldn’t move.

He wrote his email reply still in shock, “Wonderful! I’m looking forward to it. See you in SFO.”

Rereading before clicking the Send button, he thought it sounded trite and patronizing.

So, he re-wrote, “Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to seeing you. Tsing-Tsing sounds very interesting, thank you. See you in SFO!”

Send.

He grinned and told his empty house, “She’s going with me!”

#

A week later, he packed his computer with the PDFs of the slides in the roller case. He added the power supply with the adapter to the front pouch. That case would travel with him as carry-on. The two backup USB sticks, files double-checked, were in his checked bag.

The trip began with the flight to San Francisco.

Upon landing, he bolted to the front so he’d be one of the first to leave. He headed to the International terminal and the gate for Shanghai.

He spotted Megyn who was looking better than he remembered, her face glowing. He smiled as he noticed her impeccable clothing and makeup. Everything perfect. He wondered how she would look after the thirteen-hour, all night flight.

When she saw him, her smile broke into a grin.

Rushing up, he pushed his rolling computer bag aside so he’d have both arms empty.

For a moment they stood looking at each other.

Finally, he said, “I’m so glad to see you.”

She laughed, “Hug me!”

She felt soft and warm.

As she put her arms around his neck, he leaned forward and automatically inhaled.

Shampoo? Muted flowers? And something deep. Musk? No, something else, unidentifiable but nice.

“Uhm,” he mumbled, smiling, as he put her down.

She pushed back her hair, “It’s warm here.”

Looking at her face, Spence saw her cheeks had gone from rose to red.

Spence grinned with joy as he realized she seemed to be feeling the same emotions he was.

He was nervous, giddy and could feel his heart in his ears.

She grinned back and her flush deepened.

#

The flight was long but not boring. After dinner, they watched a movie, sharing the headphone connection with a Y-adapter. Spence had purchased it at the last minute from a stand across from the departure gate. Later, when the cabin lights dimmed and most tried to sleep, they went to the back of the plane next to the rear galley. They stood and talked until turbulence and the seat belt sign drove them back to their seats.

They continued talking but at a whisper. Spence had to lean close to hear over the incessant hiss of air in the cabin.

He told her about growing up in the mid-south in the sixties and seventies. Integration started in the schools. But decades later, it was clear that “white flight” had nullified many of the gains. He’d moved to Arizona soon after marrying and had two kids before the divorce. He told Megyn he still saw her from time to time, but only for family events and holidays.

When it was her turn, Megyn said she had grown up in the city. She explored the lakes and river banks with her older brother in the summers. One winter, he made strap-on steel skates for the small lake near their home when it froze. They had races and, even though smaller, she usually won. She’d been kind of a tomboy, she explained.

In school, she said the Cultural Revolution was terrible. Some teachers left the country escaping south to Korea or north into Russia. Others quit teaching and hid their intellectual abilities by taking labor-intensive jobs. A few, she whispered, suffered much worse.

“I blame the government for my brother’s dropping out of school. He was born in Xinjiang Province during our mother’s first marriage. His father died or was killed; I never knew which. Mom said my brother was less than a year old then. She took him and moved back to live with her parents in the country north of Wuhan. That home is where my Mom and Dad live now. It’s beautiful there. My mother married my father a little more than a year later. He’s Han Chinese not Uyghur — she pronounced it “wee-gher” — like her first husband.

Megyn said the Cultural Revolution hurt the mediocre and less capable students the most. Her brother dropped out and tried to connect with his father’s family by moving to Xinjiang.

“But it didn’t work out,” She continued.

“He came back to Wuhan two years later, angry and bitter, but refusing to talk about it. All I knew was that the patient and protective big brother I remembered never came back.

“He started a metal shop while I kept on with school.

“I did well even with the bad teachers.

“Later, the government said the Cultural Revolution had failed. They blamed the previous administration. They started a program to improve the schools and many of the good teachers returned. Soon, the university was better than it had been before.

“After I got my Masters degree, I went to work at COMAC in Shanghai. They gave me a small team of software engineers to start. After two years, we succeeded with the two projects I supervised. They had me get an H1B green card so I could start their office in Sunnyvale. I had a new  team, this time with two US engineers. We soon moved that office to better quarters in Cupertino. I then added four more engineers so we could take on bigger projects in partnership with US companies.

“I bought a small house in Cupertino and I’ve been there ever since.

“Most of my working adult life has been in the United States. I know Americans and America, and I love my life there. While I’m excited to see my family, I’m afraid they’ll think I’m no longer Chinese.”

#

The flight crossed the International dateline and it was technically the next day when they landed. Immigration in Shanghai stamped the date next to the Visa in his passport. Spence and Megyn collected their luggage and boarded the bus to their hotel.

Checking in, they had rooms on the 33rd floor. In the elevator, Spence watched the numbers as they went up. He noticed there was no floor 4, 14, 24 or 34.

“How come they skips the 4s?”

Megyn explained, “The Mandarin words ‘4’ and ‘death’ sound almost alike. We avoid 4s — they’re bad.”

After finding their rooms, they agreed to take an hour to get settled before meeting for a late dinner.

Spence unpacked what he’d need in the morning, shaved and took a shower. He put on tomorrow’s clothes.

She opened the door when he knocked.

“Hungry?”

She motioned him in saying, “I was just starting to look at Room Service. Let’s order in if you don’t mind. I’m tired.”

They chose one dish each and then splurged on a Robert Mondavi Chardonnay for 400 RMB.

“That’s about $60 dollars,” Spence calculated.

“How do you do that so quickly?”

“Well, the conversion rate is about 0.15. To make it easy, I divide the Chinese price by 4 making it 100. That times the conversion rate gives 15 and then I multiplied back up by the 4 I divided with in the first place. Sixty bucks.”

Megyn blinked before asking, “So, what do you think of Shanghai?”

When the food arrived, they were hungrier than expected.

Spence said, “That’s because it’s breakfast time at home and our stomachs are waking up.”

Spence opened the curtains to look out and, to deepen the effect, Megyn turned off the room lights. They stood next to each other and watched as the Shanghai nighttime skyline flooded the room.

Spence opened the wine, poured two glasses, and they had a toast.

#

The curtain was still open when Spence awoke the next morning.

He must have stirred because she snuggled closer and said, more a statement than a question, “We still have two hours.”

#

When it was time, Spence re-packed his bags in his otherwise unused room. The shuttle took them to the Hongqiao airport for the plane to Wuhan.

On the three hour flight, they sat hand-in-hand with only occasional small talk. When they landed, they both knew they’d have to separate. Megyn would go to her parent’s home and their problems. Spence would go to his hotel and the classroom.

Coming out of baggage claim, Spence saw a young man holding up a sign with his name.

“Blake”

Spence nodded as the young man’s eyes met his, “He must be my driver.”

“I have a rental,” Megyn said, pointing the opposite direction.

Spence stumbled with the words, “Shanghai was …”

Beneath her translucent skin, Spence saw her flush red as she smiled.

“Yes,” was all she said.

“Will I see you during the week?” Spence asked.

Megyn stiffened.

“I don’t know. Mom didn’t give any details on the phone. I’ll have to spend time with her; she won’t tell me everything all at once. She isn’t like that. ‘Feelings are what you feel, not what you say,’ she once told me.”

Spence nodded. “Family comes first, especially your parents. Do what you need. I’ll wait. But I’ll miss you every moment.”

“Me, too.”

#

Checking in by himself, the Fengyi Hotel was a far cry from what they had shared in Shanghai. The school had reserved a two room suite, but each room was tiny. The living room had a sofa and two chairs. Spence thought that if he put his feet up to watch TV, they’d touch the screen. The bedroom had the shortest double bed he’d ever seen. He’d have to walk sideways between the bed and the wall to get in, and then sleep corner to corner.

Most things in the two rooms were various shades of gold. There was gold carpet, gold wallpaper, gold sofa, gold curtains and a gold bedcover. The only other real color was blond wood. For that he had the TV cabinet, the desk, two nightstands, two chairs and the door.

All the lights were fluorescent and their blueish light did not help the gold or the blond.

In the bathroom, he knew he’d bang his elbows in the tiny shower. And there was less than a foot between the toilet and the wall. He’d have to use it from the side. At least the mirror over the sink was tall so he wouldn’t have to stoop while shaving.

The white slippers on his bed were a nice touch, he thought. He put them on to unpack. He started to iron his cotton shirts for class but, glancing down, he noticed the soles of the slippers had turned a dark gray.

“What the …?”

He sat down on the bed and took one off. Running his finger across the sole, his fingertip came away gray.

Guessing the source, he rubbed his bare foot on the gold carpet and looked at the bottom. It was the same gray color.

“It’s the carpet. Don’t they vacuum this place?”

In the coming days, Spence would learn that the entire city of Wuhan had this same gray ash. Most of the eight million inhabitants used charcoal to cook their dinners every night. Consequently, what settled out during the day was replenished every evening by the fresh cooking plumes of grey ash. The gray soot coated everything and if you scuffed or stomped your foot in a patch of grass or his hotel room’s carpet, a cloud would rise up.

#

In the morning he awoke to an angry voice. It was coming from outside his 11th floor window. Looking out, the air was bile-yellow.

Spence shook his head, “I had no idea it was this bad.”

The shouting came from across the street. He could make out children doing calisthenics in tempo with the voice. It came from tinny loudspeakers in the school yard. Up here it woke him. Down there it would be very unpleasant.

His wrist watch said 6:45 AM.

Monday morning and the first day of class were here.

In the lobby area, he ordered coffee but couldn’t drink what they poured. He ordered hot tea and steeped it himself, but skipped the milk, unsure if it was safe. He disqualified eggs for the same reason. The rest of the menu was in Chinese and, not willing to make a random choice he would make up for it at lunchtime. He couldn’t afford to get sick and mess up this job. He needed the money.

On his way out for the first day of class, Spence went down to the lobby early. He stepped into the hotel Commissary, nodding to the attendant. He bought a six-pack of bottled water with its label printed in English. He could only hope it wasn’t a knock off filled with Chinese tap water.

The same driver was waiting. Even though it was only 8:20 AM, Spence always liked a little extra time on the first day.

He said, “Let’s go.”

The driver took the hotel side exit. The side road had a light at the main avenue where they turned left. The driver swung wide so they ended up in the curb lane. A half block later, Spence saw two concrete pillars with open black gates. They drove through leaving the traffic behind.

They passed the elementary school whose loudspeaker calisthenics had awakened him. A residential area was next. The tightly packed, two story apartments were all painted a dull gray. The road then opened out to  a tree-lined roadway. Spence thought it might be a park with large grassy areas. But the driver waved his hand and announced, “Wuhan University.”

Students on foot crowded the road on which his van seemed to be the only vehicle. All the students wore brand new clothing. They moved out of the van’s way as if sharing this road with vehicles was unusual but not illegal.

Once or twice the driver honked as they approached someone on a bicycle. The riders continued straight as they passed. Looking back at one of them, the rider turned immediately after. Spence realized the honk meant, “Don’t change what you’re doing and I won’t run over you.”

The driver stopped in front of a four-story, somewhat industrial looking building. He pointed and said, “Classroom.”

The main doors of the building stood wide open as students streamed in. With his roller bag and the 6-pack of bottled water, Spence and his driver entered. His driver pointed to the staircase which climbed up the back wall to the left. There was no elevator in sight.

His driver motioned and said, “Third floor.”

The first flight of eighteen concrete steps up the back wall led to a landing. There, a left turn and another eighteen steps got him to the second floor. His classroom was on the third. The climb with his roller bag and water bottles demanded a rest before the final flight. His driver offered to carry his computer bag but, at this point, Spence wanted to make it on his own.

His first class had almost 200 students. They sat at long tables running side to side and arranged in a dozen rows. There was an aisle down the middle and along each side.

Spence opened his bag to get ready. He plugged in the computer to power and projector and pressed Fn-F8. The projector clicked as the lamp came on. Looking up at the large screen behind him, he could see his desktop. He opened the lecture PDF and had the first slide on the screen.

He was ten minutes early.

A young, rather stern-looking woman in a brown and black tweed suit introduced herself.

“I will translate for you,” she said offering her hand.

Spence shook it and gave her a friendly, “Hi, my name is Spence. What’s yours?”

She nodded but, all business, explained how class would proceed. He never did learn name.

She said she would start the class, introduce him, tell the students what to expect and how to conduct themselves. She would then tell him to start the lecture.

He was to say a sentence and then wait for her translation into Mandarin.

“That is our official language,” she added.

She would then indicate he was to continue.

She would also track the time and announce the mid-session break as well as the end of the session at Noon.

In the afternoon and for each of the total of ten sessions, that’s how class would be conducted, she informed him.

Spence thought she was being way too formal. It was not what he preferred in his classes. But, he reminded himself, I’m in China. I guess things are different.

On the precise twitch of the second hand on the large wall clock at the back of the room to 9:00 AM, she began.

Her voice grated on his ear just like the shouted calisthenics. It sounded like she was badgering the students, scolding them for some misdeed.

On the first break, Spence worried about the pace. There was an awful lot of Mandarin for the words he was saying and, in the first ninety minutes, they’d done only 12 slides instead of his planned 30.

We’re not going to get even half of this material done by Friday, he thought.

Twice during the morning, there was a question from one of the students. Spence waited for the translation. Yet both times, the translator gave an answer and then waved for him to continue.

About thirty minutes before lunch, things came to an unexpected head. A discussion between translator and a student went several rounds without resolution.  Two more students joined in. Whatever the disagreement, the translator seemed to be losing.

When even more students joined in, the translator shouted, stomped down the middle aisle and walked out.

Dumbfounded, Spence stood there.

What do I do now?

One of the students sitting in the front row said, “She translate you wrong. Please keep speaking. We understand you fine.”

“You know English?” Spence asked.

A different student answered, “We learn it. Required in middle school and always at University. Some not understand you so good, but we help when needed. Please resume class. Lecture very good.”

Looking over the class, Spence saw many nodding heads.

So he went on and, as they nodded and smiled in the right places, it appeared they understood.

About a half hour before lunch, a question came up. As Spence waited, there was a short discussion with a small group of older looking students answering. It was clear when they resolved the issue, but Spence had noticed that their chatter back and forth was different. It seemed more rhythmic and flowing.

He asked, “Were you speaking just now in Mandarin?”

“No. We use Cantonese,” one of the older students told him. “Everyone much better that way. Mandarin for official news but Cantonese for every day.”

At Noon, he called the lunch break. His driver took him back to the hotel for lunch. And at 1:30 PM, he rode in the van back to the classroom.

In the afternoon session, things got even better. There were more questions, some relayed to him in English. The general tenor of the class relaxed; he could see it in their posture and faces. And they laughed in the right places when he told a story about a misdiagnosed software problem.

They were geeks. No question about it.

When he dismissed class a few minutes after 5:00 PM, the projector was on slide number 132.

He calculated the pace: 132 slides in six hours, a little over 20 per hour.

Perfect!

#

Back in the hotel that night, Megyn called on his cell phone.

“Good, you enabled it for international calling. Save this call in your address book. It’ll have the right access codes to dial my Cupertino number. The cell phone network can ring me wherever I am.”

She continued, “So, how’s class going after one day?”

“Pretty good once the translator quit.”

He filled her in and she laughed, “Engineers aren’t diplomatic. They say pretty much what they think. But they focus and get the job done. The school here is one of the best in China. Their verbal English should be excellent. Most of them have been practicing it for many years. And for the computer and software students, almost all their textbooks are in English. If you’re OK working without a translator, I’m sure the students will be fine. I’ll let the school know what happened but that everything is OK and they should just leave it alone.”

Spence agreed.

“How’s it going with your family?” He asked.

Megyn paused before answering.

“It’s complicated. I get the idea they think my brother might be mixed up in something bad. But either they don’t know the details or they won’t tell me. Whatever it is, he’s denying that anything is wrong. At one point, he even accused me of not being Chinese anymore, of not being family. That hurt. My own brother.”

Spence tried to be hopeful, “Well, you’ve only been back 24 hours. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days.”

“I hope so,” Megyn said, but the disappointment weighed down her words.

She sighed, “I won’t see you until Sunday. My brother has something Saturday morning before some all-day meeting Sunday. I’ll give my parents and myself a break that day. You will help get my mind off things.”

Brightening, Spence asked, “Great! What should we do?”

“Well,” she drew out the word, “I know you don’t like touristy things, but maybe you’ll make an exception? There’s a museum not too far away that has things of local significance. There have some interesting ancient brass bells, several dozen in the set. I think they’re dated to a couple of hundred years B.C.. Their pitch depends on where they are struck. They’re quite large and I was told it takes several musicians to play the set. They give a concert on the weekend but I’ve never actually been. Would you like to hear some ancient Chinese music?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I flipped through some Beijing Opera on the TV in my room last night but didn’t listen very long. It was not a pleasant sound. But if you promise I can sneak out if the bells are too awful, I’ll go with you.”

“Ok,” Megyn said, a smile in her voice. “We’ll sit in the back and, if you insist, you can sneak out. You can always claim something upset your stomach.”

“Wonderful,” Spence agreed wanting to put a positive tone to the call. “Class is working and you’re talking to and being with your family. I’m sure they appreciate that. I think this week is just going to get better and better.”

Spence took a breath.

“Megyn, I want to say something. I care for you a lot. It’s been a long time since I told anyone this but, well, I’ve known you for several years and feel I really know you and that you know me. I’m quite sure I love you.”

“I know, Spence. I think I love you too!”

She said it so easily and warmly that Spence had no doubt of the depth of her feelings. It had been a long time since he’d felt this way. It was wonderful to feel they could share anything together no matter how difficult.

She added, “But please understand I’m worried about my family, especially my brother. We grew up together, but I just don’t know him now. He seems hard, unfeeling and secretive. I’ve got to help if there’s any way I can.”

There was silence on the phone for several seconds.

She said, “I’ll see you on Sunday, OK?”

“You bet. I love you.”

“Yes, I do love you.”

It was nice to say it and nice to hear it. It had been a long time.

“Sunday, then.”

“Yes, Sunday.”

 

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