The message at the bottom of the screen said simply, I have arrived in Jinan.
Yuanli looked beyond her PC screen at her co-workers. This was stupid, they couldn't possibly see the message from that angle. But she knew they knew. From now on she would feel the glare of their disapproving gaze.
Her glass-fronted cubicle was the only enclosed space in the open-plan office of Lunar Logistics. There had been plans to add more, but the designer had changed his mind along the way. It sat awkwardly in the vast space, like a space module or a display case. They had put her there due to lack of a desk elsewhere in the office. Yuanli didn't mind. She had never been one for socializing, and over time she began to regard it as her sanctuary away from her co-workers: her space, where she was free to think what she wanted and chat with whomever she wanted on the internet. In any case, her co-workers were all at least five years older than her. She was supposed to look up to them, but she found it hard. Their conversation bored her; their obsession with convention made her feel claustrophobic.
She could only assume she had forgotten to close down the MSN properly one evening and one of them—probably Sun Yan from Advance Orders—had sneaked in afterwards and poked about. Which meant now they all knew. Nothing would be said to her face at first, but eventually one of them, Chen Wanwan probably, the old mother hen, would take her to one side. She could almost hear her opening line, "Of course, foreigners can be very charming." This would be followed by the sad tale of the Chinese girl who went to London to find her fortune and ended up a prostitute. No-one actually knew this Chinese girl, but the moral of the story was clear.
Throwaway lines she had overheard when passing the water cooler confirmed this:
"She was writing in English," said Sun Yan.
"Could be just a friend," said Wu Wenting from Reception.
"Or a secret lover," said Chen Wanwan from Invoicing.
He was an English man in his thirties called Chris who worked for an editing company in Weihai. Yuanli knew about the dangers of chatting with strangers on the Internet, but something about his simple message had drawn her attention: Seeking friends in Shandong. Coming to China had always been his ambition, and now that he had broken up with his girlfriend, there was nothing to keep him in the UK. It seemed so sad he felt he couldn't find a replacement for the love of his life in his own country.
Just then Chen Wanwan wafted into the cubicle with a sheaf of invoices. "Could you check these, please."
The door was only open a few seconds, but it was enough for Sun Yan's words to drift from her desk. "Foreigners are well-paid... attract a certain kind of woman, right?"
The harsh words created a repulsive picture in Yuanli's mind: herself in a mini skirt, high-heeled boots and heavy make-up, hanging on the arm of a swaggering Foreigner—just like the women who hung around the railway station.
His next message said, I have found that café you told me about. I like the way it mixes East and West so perfectly.
She knew, of course, she had completely undermined their assumptions. No doubt till then they had believed she was just a quiet girl from Qufu, already engaged to a steady man from the same town. Not that she ever gave any hint of this, of course. But then you didn't need to.
Yuanli felt vaguely ashamed when Chris told her about his experiences in China. He had met a number of Chinese girls in bars and always been disappointed. He wanted to exchange lessons in English and Chinese, but they were never interested in teaching him Chinese. Sometimes he would invite a girl for dinner, and she would turn up with a friend or two and expect him to pay the bill.
Her co-workers were so engrossed in their chatter, they didn't see her leave the cubicle. She stood quietly by the water cooler now and listened.
"...apparently, this woman's cousin actually married a foreigner and moved to Australia," said Sun Yan. "Of course, she's always going on about what a great time she's having, but then she would, wouldn't she?"
"But she's from Shanghai. They think they're better than everyone else," said Chen Wanwan. "They say we're old-fashioned." Yuanli watched as she raised a foot slightly to examine her expensive shoes. "I don't think anyone could really say that, do you?"
Yuanli coughed to announce her presence and crossed the floor to get to her cubicle. All three of them were poring over data on their screens by the time she reached it, myths, fairy tales and second-hand stories echoing round their minds.
Chris' messages were suffused with a sadness that found a response in Yuanli. He had gone to Qingdao to meet fellow ex-pats, English teachers, but he didn't feel at ease in their company. China seemed to irritate them and put them in a bad mood. Some of them seemed to have serious psychological problems. He had felt even more lonely than before. Her loneliness connected with his. Often her co-workers invited her along to the KTV for a karaoke session. She always declined, unwilling to spend even another second with them.
She liked the pure and direct way Chris spoke to her: I need to be in a place where I can start again, make myself anew. Here in China I am foreign, irrelevant, nothing. This makes it the perfect place for me to become something. Do you understand?
In a way, she did, having felt a similar ache in her own soul so many times. The only difference was she wanted to be herself and to remain Chinese. She believed this was possible. It had to be.
She also liked the way he described China, even when he made criticisms: I understand the need to develop, to provide a good standard of living for the people, but do they have to destroy the magic in the process? Some Chinese towns look like English housing estates.
When he sent her pictures of his father's cottage in the country she forgot about the Foggy London scenes in her school books. It was strange writing English to a real English person, the first time the language had come alive for her. It became real even as she discovered her own inadequacies when using it.
I am walking towards the famous Quancheng square now.
Yuanli glanced at the wall clock. She knew how long it would take him to reach the square. She told him to wait under the modernistic blue statue in the center. It was un-missable, the kind of monument found in many Chinese towns. It depicted a tall device thrusting into the sky. In its hollowed-out middle, there was a pearl. Most people had no idea what it signified. If the pearl stood for hope, why was it trapped?
Knowing Chris was physically close made her nervous even though many times she had imagined sitting opposite him, explaining a grammar point in Chinese, listening to him explain the way the colors change in the autumn in England. She wanted to share China with him, satisfy his endless curiosity, hear the thoughts in his independent mind.
She brought up his photo and studied it onscreen. He had very fine blond hair, a friendly face, soft blue eyes. He was standing with his back to the sea, wearing a T shirt, jeans and a light blouson jacket. Even though he looked carefree, there was a certain stiffness about his expression, as though he were trying hard to appear happy.
I am here. I am waiting for you.
Yuanli was wearing a pale blue qipao and matching shoes. She got this idea after seeing a couple wandering around the square. This couple had been different from the wealthy foreigners with their fawning Chinese girlfriends. You only had to look at their faces to see the genuine love they felt for each other—and which was invisible to everyone else.
Lunch was not for another five minutes. Yuanli sat back and waited, aware of her co-workers observing her through the glass panels. There was Sun Yan, checking her bag and straightening the long sleeves of her sweater. This was a woman who believed the problem with the west was the family institution was not strong enough. She said she had read in a magazine no-one married for longer than five minutes. What she didn't say was her long sleeves were meant to cover the bruises left from the beatings her drunken husband regularly dished out.
And there was Chen Wanwan, who only ever once referred to the English Major niece who had committed suicide after her parents forced her to study Finance against her will.
Wu Wenting talked lovingly of her adoring husband, as though no one knew he was seeing a younger woman in Weifang.
All of them were trapped in their different ways. Convention enveloped them like a mist, obscuring their view, making their worlds smaller until a small world seemed normal. It wasn't really malice driving them, it was ignorance, which meant their cruelty was unintended.
In their daily chats, Yuanli had opened her heart to Chris—though not completely. So many times she had wanted to tell him of how her parents had tried to push her into marriage to a wealthy man in her hometown and how her only solution had been to run away. Even as she cried on the train, she could hear people bemoaning her selfishness. Shortly after arriving in Jinan, she had called the man's parents and arranged to pay 6,000 rmb compensation. This had meant living on noodles for almost three months, but it had been worth it. Yet whenever she imagined herself explaining this to Chris, she saw him turning away in disbelief and disgust. I thought this was a modern country.
Yuanli gazed straight ahead and waited. Observing her co-workers was like watching a silent movie without subtitles, summoning meaning from gesture and movement.
Then something else came to mind, a memory from her school days. It was a Biology lesson, and the teacher was conducting an experiment designed to show how sound is inaudible in a vacuum. In order to demonstrate this fact, the teacher placed a mouse under a Bell Jar. At first it just scampered around and squeaked, its nose twitching inquisitively. The teacher then switched on a pump and slowly sucked the air out of the Bell Jar. The mouse began to panic and scratch at the glass, its desperate squeaks now inaudible in the vacuum. As its environment became airless, its tiny mouth gulped one last time, then it slumped forward and finally became still. Even now, Yuanli could see the blank faces of her classmates as they watched the defenseless animal die.
Her heart pounding, she got up and moved quickly towards the door, heels clicking sharply on the tiles.