Read China Mountain Zhang Online

Authors: Maureen F. McHugh

China Mountain Zhang

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A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die.
 
—ALBERT CAMUS,
The Plague
 
 
Zhang
 
The foreman chatters in Meihua, the beautiful tongue, Singapore English. “Get he over here. All this trash here! Got little time.” He is a stocky little Chinese man who has suffered disappointments. “Someone work that cutter,
xing buxing?”
Someone is me, the tech on the job.
“Xing,”
I say, “Okay.” Good equipment can’t be trusted to stupid New York natives. I heft the cutter, balance it against my thigh. My goggles darken, shutting out the buildings, even the lot we are clearing to build.
“Okay,” he says, backing away, glad to have an ABC engineer. ABC—American Born Chinese, or like the
waiguoren,
the non-Chink say, Another Bastard Chink. With my goggles dark I can’t see anything but the glow at the end of the cutter as it goes through rusted, twisted steel, girders in tangles and lying there like string dropped in a pile. Where the cutter touches it goes through like butter, and where the steel is cut it will shine clean and rust-free. Steel drops spatter like quicksilver, glowing metal white. The air smells like a thunderstorm coming.
I swear softly at the foreman in Spanish, but he is too far away
to hear anything, which is good. He does not know I speak Spanish. ABC; he knows I speak Mandarin—
Poutonghua
—and American Standard and the Singapore English Asians call
Meihua
and
waiguoren
call Chinglish.
(Waiguoren
don’t get the joke.
Meihua,
beautiful language, because this is
Meiguo
—America. In Mandarin, Meiguo means “beautiful country” because “Meiguo” approximated the sound in A-mer-i-ca to Chinese ears.)
The foreman is all right, for someone born inside. He speaks English as if he learned it in school in Shanghai, which he did, but at least he speaks it unaugmented. He likes me; I work hard and I speak Mandarin better than most ABC. I am almost like a real Chinese person. My manners are good. An example of how breeding will out, even in a second rate country like this. He can talk to me, and there are probably very few people Foreman Qian sees each day who he can talk to. “You here what for?” he asks me. “You smart. You go Shanghai?” Everyone inside thinks that all the rest of us are dying to go to China.
If I went to China to study I’d be doing a great deal better than working as a tech engineer on a construction crew. Maybe the rest of us are dying to go to China, maybe even me. But maybe Spanish is the first language I ever learned because my mother’s birth name was Teresa Luis and it’s just because my parents paid to adjust the genetic make-up of their son that I look like a slope-head like my father. So Qian doesn’t know; my last name is Zhang and I speak Mandarin and when he asks me why I don’t go to Shanghai or Guangzhou to study I just shrug.
It infuriates him, that shrug. He thinks it is a native characteristic, that it indicates indifference and a kind of self-defeating fatalism. But just looking Chinese is not enough to get someone to China. My parents weren’t rich and tinkering with genes is expensive. Maybe I would map close enough to Chinese standard to pass; then again, maybe something in them would prove me Hidalgo. I don’t apply so I don’t ever have to take the medical.
Pretty soon the steel is lying in pieces that can be carried away.
I shut off the cutter, my goggles lighten and I’m back in the real world. “Give it fifteen minutes to cool,” I say, “then get it out of here.” The crew has been watching me cut, they’ll stop to watch anything. The foreman stands there with his hands on his hips.
Waiguoren
think that Chinese never show any expression, so of course he’s not showing any and neither am I. So the crew thinks we are angry because they’re not doing anything and drifts back to work. They’re a good crew except when Foreman Qian is here, then I can’t get them to do a damn thing.
“Zhang,” the foreman says and so I follow him into the office. Inside, over the door it says “The Revolution lives in the people’s hearts” but the paint is wearing thin. It was probably painted during the Great Cleansing Winds campaign. I don’t think Foreman Qian is very pure ideologically, he has too much interest in the bottom line. It is like the crucifix in the hall of the apartment where I grew up, something everyone passes every day. I have no religion, neither Christ nor Mao Zedong.
“I often ask you, what you do with your life, you pretty good boy,” Foreman Qian says. “We each and each respect,
dui budui?”
“Dui,”
I say. Right.
“Here, you tech engineer, job so-so.”
“Bu-cuo,”
I answer, Not bad.
“I have daughter,” Foreman Qian says. “Request you to my home come, meet her,
hao buhao?”
I have the momentary sense that this conversation, which Foreman Qian and I have had before, has just gone way out of my depth. “Foreman Qian,” I say, stuttering, “I—I cannot … I am only tech engineer … .”
“Not be fool,” he says and drops into Mandarin. “How old are you, twenty-five?”
“Twenty-six, sir.”
“My wife and I, together we have one daughter. There is no one here for her, I would like her to meet a nice young man.”
“Foreman Qian.” I do not know what to say.
“I have no son, and I will not get to go back to China—” He is a Chinese citizen and if the best he can do is a job as a construction foreman, he’s in disgrace. I wonder what Foreman Qian did during the Great Cleansing Wind to get in trouble. “I have a cousin at Shanghai University. I would sponsor a son-in-law there.”
This is unexpected. This is disaster. Whatever has old Qian thinking that I would make a good son-in-law? It looks great from the outside, offer a twenty-six-year-old a chance at Shanghai University and citizenship-by-marriage which is almost as good as born-inside-citizenship. Maybe I would get a chance to stay inside, then his daughter would have a home there. Foreman Qian and his wife would retire to China and live with their daughter and son-in-law.
“I understand that you have not even met my daughter,” Foreman Qian says. “I mean nothing except that you should meet.”
“I cannot, Elder Qian.” I am quaintly formal in my attempt to say something, falling back on school book Mandarin, ludicrous phrases. “I am unworthy.”
Mea culpa.
I am violently flushed, for the first time in years I am so embarrassed that I actually feel hot. “I, I am a foreigner.”
He waves that away. “Accident of birth place.”
I open my mouth to say no, but I cannot say it. Not only is it rude, but I can’t say it. I am impure, a mongrel. I am an imposter. And there is more that he doesn’t know. When I tell him what I am, he will look foolish because he has mistaken me for Chinese, he will lose face. We will pretend that nothing was ever said. Then when this job is finished he will inform me that the company can no longer use me. It is not easy to find jobs.
“You think about it, meet her. Maybe you will not get along, maybe you will. No harm in meeting.”
I should finish this now, explain, but I flee.
 
 
I meet my mother for lunch every six months or so. Filial duty. Teresa Luis lives in Pennsylvania and commutes to work here in Manhattan. She has another family, a husband and two sons. She and my father were divorced during the Great Cleansing Winds. Elder Zhang lives out on the West Coast where he is an office manager for a company that builds robots to do precision robotics. I have not seen him for fifteen years.
I meet her in the market, getting off the subway at Times Square.
I don’t know why she likes to eat in the market; I think it is a tacky place with all the close streets and the booths and sidewalk sellers. She says it has charm. My mother works at Citinet in International Banking. She is a clerk. She always wears those suits that are almost like uniforms—drab colors with tails to the backs of her knees. Never short tails, never the long ones. She is very religious and she believes in Marx and Mao Zedong. Do not make the mistake of thinking her stupid; she has to juggle a lot of Kierkegaard and Heiler to explain but she manages a full wipe.
“Hello,” she says and takes my arm. I am never sure I am her son, although I don’t rationally doubt it. It’s just that the connection between us is very tenuous. Perhaps I have so few of her genes that we are more like cousins.
“Zhong Shan, what’s wrong?” Zhong Shan is my Chinese name, Rafael is my Spanish name. There isn’t any similarity. I am named for a Chinese revolutionary, and for her Spanish great-great-grandfather, who was a union organizer before the great collapse. He was a party member in the secret days of the Second Depression, and later, during the American Liberation War, a martyr.
“I am in trouble,” I say, and tell her about Foreman Qian. While I am talking I watch the copper marks under the skin of
her wrist. Then I watch the copper marks on my wrist, almost like bruises. She ties into her terminal every day, I use my jacks only when I’m working with machinery. With those jacks, Foreman Qian can access my records. But only my surface records, not my deep records, he doesn’t have clearance. There is nothing personal in my surface records, and my mother’s name is listed as Li Taiming, her name from when she was active in the party.
When I am finished she says, “The Chinese are the worst racists in the world.” This is not surprising, nor is it helpful. Nor is it a good political thing to say but everybody knows it. “What are you going to do?” she asks.
“Turn him down. I don’t even know the girl. Even if it worked out, when I apply they’ll do a medical. They’ll do a background check. If I pass a medical I’ll still fail the background check.” Legally everyone is equal, but even here at the other end of the world in the Socialist Union of American States we all know better than that. Be it Rome or Beijing, we bring tribute but we are not admitted. Unfortunate day I was born.
“You can go to dinner,” she says. “Maybe the daughter won’t like you. Maybe you’ll forget your upbringing and sneeze at the table.”
“It’s a lie,” I say, “and you always told me that a lie always creates complications.” But my face is a lie as well, and she condoned that. I am sure she hears the accusation, but we never talk about my mother’s contradictions.
She does not touch me, although for a moment I think she is going to cover my hand with hers and I am afraid.
“It is not the revolution that is at fault,” she says, “it is the people who are implementing it.”
I don’t believe in socialism but I don’t believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.
 
 
There is a game I play when I am out by myself among people. I play it on my way home, descending into the bowels of the city, taking a three-hundred-year-old train to the bottom of the island and under the choked harbor to Brooklyn. The subway sways and like idiots we all nod together. My game is this: I become other people.
A man reading a cheatsheet flimsie, picking the horses. An office clerk in his boxy suit. This evening I am a power tech, a young woman sitting under a subway sign listing the number to call for info on resettlement on Mars. She’s wearing Edison Fission Authority green, her sturdy calves outlined by the tight legs of her coveralls. All day she sells and channels power and I imagine the city’s energy pouring through her hands, the hair on her head rising with the build-up of static charge. Of course that’s not true, she sits at a terminal and feeds information, watches the lines, drains the power reservoirs when they’re needed and fills them when demand falls.
The train stops at Lawrence and the doors open. My power tech gets off and I’m just Zhang: 1.80 meters (almost), sixty-four kilos, leaning against the door with my feet spread to brace myself, right under the sign that says in English, Spanish and Chinese, “Do not lean against doors.” I could go cruising, stay on the train and head for Coney Island and see what I could pick up. But that’s just to avoid thinking about Foreman Qian and anyway, I’m too tired from work.
Still, I don’t get off at my stop, I ride the train all the way to the end. Coney Island used to be a nice neighborhood, condos on the water and all, until the smell in the water drove everybody away. The smell is better now, what with the project to filter all the water that comes into the bay, but Coney Island is still the end of the line. The young couples are starting to move in and brave the crime to get permits to cheap condos and establish communes where everybody knows everybody else in the building. Pretty soon everybody will be begging permits to move out here and the
little free-market greengrocers will open up, but right now Coney Island is gray in the transition and the hawks like me ride the train there to spread our wings.
Gray is a good word; when I come up on the street it’s twilight, the buildings are gray, the wind off the water smells gray and ashy. It’s quiet. A quiet neighborhood is a bad sign out here. My jacket isn’t very warm but I walk down to the water. I wonder if part of the harbor has been burning again, but the ash at the water’s edge could be old.
I walk the cracked concrete walk beside the water, my shoes crunching in the sand blown across it. A young man leans against a bench and my heart quickens. He looks twenty, younger than me. He is wearing coveralls, utility blue, and they hug his legs and pelvis. He is dark though, and I have blond Peter on my mind. Our eyes meet and he is arrogant, dangerous-looking, but his gaze lingers with the possibility of invitation. I think about slowing down, asking him what he’s doing, I just keep walking. I didn’t really come out here for a coney. When I glance back he is prowling stiff-legged in the other direction.

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