On the way from the airport, his cousin had taken a detour. If he’d driven in circles, or gone the wrong direction, Old Wu wouldn’t have known the difference. In the countryside west of Hong Kong on the Pearl River Delta, the rutted roads looked alike and the flash of return, of welcome, hadn’t yet arrived. More than a half century ago, he left the hills green with pine and bamboo for San Francisco, and hadn’t returned since.
His cousin wasn’t the son of an aunt or an uncle, but a relative of some kind from the village, who possessed a wreck of a car, and had volunteered to fetch Old Wu. The cousin was a former construction worker whose time perched on skyscrapers had inflated his self-importance. Less than an hour into the drive, his cousin parked in front of a concrete building, a restaurant famous for the local specialty: gay long, rice flour dumplings pleated into the shape of ingots and deep fried. The air was muggy, swollen as a bruise. They were the only customers at the only table, and the only staff his cousin’s daughter, Little Treasure. She brought out platter after platter, refilled pots of jasmine tea, and a bottle of rice wine that Old Wu declined. She hovered, simpering and smiling like a courtesan.
Startling to find himself in high demand after his years among the bachelors of Chinatown. When Chinese first left for America to tunnel through mountains for the railroads and snatch gold from rivers, most were men. Though few fortune-seekers intended to settle, laws also barred most Chinese women, to prevent families from taking root.
During World War II, not long before Old Wu’s parents sent him to America, the laws changed. Finding a wife had remained a competitive endeavor, and Old Wu hadn’t much to differentiate himself as a suitor, just another waiter-turned-cook. Others had gone on to run restaurants, laundries, farms, and factories and move to the suburbs, but Old Wu never left. By the time families crammed into Chinatown’s tenements, it was too late to start his own. The ancients had decreed a man should not marry after 30 years of age, and should not have children after 50, because the proper time for those things had passed.
Then his mother had written, insisting Old Wu marry. She was 93, he was 76. Come back, she told him. Come back and find a wife.
Little Treasure dropped off toothpicks and a bowl of lychees, and poured another cup of tea, but he refrained from drinking. He had a long ride ahead to the village, his leaky bladder didn’t need more pressure, and the strong brew made him jittery. A few minutes ago, his cousin had excused himself to urinate and Old Wu should too. He didn’t want to run to the latrines in the first moments of his homecoming, but when he tried to turn the handle of the restaurant’s front door, it didn’t budge. It must be stuck, the wooden frame warped and swollen. “Hey, hey,” he shouted.
Little Treasure tugged on his elbow. “Uncle, eat.” She looked at him coyly from beneath her lashes. “Does it taste like how you remember?”
“We filled ours with air.” During his childhood, his family ate meat only once a year, during the Spring Festival, but this young girl had never known such want, only China on the rise and none of its turmoil. Turmoil that he had largely escaped by moving to America: the stunted crops and starvation of the Great Leap Forward, the book burnings and beatings of the Cultural Revolution, decades of strife and deprivation that his parents had spared him.
He knocked again and leaned his weight against the door. Locked. He searched for another exit, but didn’t see another door, and the sole window was too small to squeeze through. He’d heard of brides abducted by grooms, but never a kidnapped groom! His cousin must want to present his daughter to Old Wu, to make her the first and most memorable candidate for marriage and the green card that came along with the deal. In time, she could sponsor her parents, her siblings, their spouses, and their children to immigrate. A prize her father wouldn’t let slip out of his fingers.
“Uncle, eat.” Little Treasure had a broad, plain face, placid as a cow, her beauty residing in the cascade of inky black hair that fell to her waist. In a tight t-shirt and flared jeans, she was as tall as him, and twice as strong, with the muscular arms of a model revolutionary. She could level weeds and enemies alike. She could pin him to the narrow bed that he now noticed beneath a calendar of beer models. “Uncle, he’ll be back soon. Sit, sit. You’ve had a long flight.”
He settled into his chair. Even if he escaped, he didn’t know where he was or how far he’d have to walk to his village. Soon enough, his cousin would understand that love at first sight hadn’t transpired. Little Treasure would have to wait her turn to be ranked and compared to the other women whom the village elders had selected for his consideration.
He ate another dumpling, the crust crispy yet chewy, filled with sausage, peanuts, chives, and water chestnuts. Little Treasure dug her fingers into his shoulders. Every bit of him clenched, his jaw, his gut, his toes.
“Uncle, let me.” She kneaded the knots in his neck. She might be one of those girls who sold themselves in the cities. On occasion, he had visited those languorous, heavy-lidded women who charged by the hour, by the procedure, in the red-lit massage parlors a few blocks from Chinatown. He hadn’t visited in years, not with the dried shrimp between his legs that hardly had the strength to take a piss.
Her hand crept to his thigh and he pushed it away. “Let me help you,” she whispered. Her face burned.
He’d been mistaken. She wasn’t a professional. He shuffled away, wondering if his cousin was spying through a crack, trying to catch Old Wu in an indelicate position. And who could blame him? China was becoming a superpower that launched astronauts into space, put on an Olympics breathtaking in its scale and magnificence, and might soon become the Middle Kingdom around which the world revolved. But for now, his cousin and Little Treasure remained mired in this backwater where Old Wu presented the best and only prospects.
Little Treasure wept, burying her face into her hands.
“Young maiden,” he began.
“Young?” Her cheeks glittered with tears. “You should see who they have picked out for you, girls pried from their dolls. I’m a leftover woman.”
Old Wu guessed that she was approaching 30 and still single. She told him after she returned from working in the city as a waitress she’d had a few marriage proposals, but her father held out, convinced she could make a better match.
“You don’t want an old ginger root like me,” Old Wu said.
“The older the ginger, the hotter the spice.”
“When is he coming back?”
“As long as it takes.” She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “You’re my last chance.”
“You’re not old enough to be thinking about the end.”
“No one wants meat that’s gone off.” Her bluntness surprised him.
“Call your father.”
She pushed the bowl of lychees toward him, which he ate to cleanse his greasy mouth. He spit the shiny pit into his cupped palm, and he had another, savoring the sweetness. His mother used to peel lychees for him, digging in her thumbnail to break the flesh. Long ago, the emperor’s concubine had pined for the taste in winter. With lychees crammed into saddlebags, imperial soldiers galloped north, handing off the precious cargo to the next rider each time the horse tired, completing the journey of two weeks in two days.
Old Wu had been his mother’s firstborn and her favorite, the heap of rice in his bowl second only to his father’s. The most tender greens, and the plumpest dumpling always piled before him. When he was very young, he followed her to the river, where she beat laundry against the rocks. How mighty she’d seemed! Warm mud squishing between his toes, sunshine heavy on his cheek, and the smell of the river, of wind on water and churned earth.
Little Treasure cleared the table, and he smelled the dank musk of her, straw and loamy soil and all at once he remembered his boyhood, the life he’d left behind and he was overcome with longing for this lost world. He closed his eyes, inhaling.
She tugged at the zipper of his pants, and he pushed her away, harder than he intended. She stumbled, crying out, and his cousin burst in, ready to catch Old Wu deflowering her. Old Wu pushed past him and found the car unlocked, the radio playing and keys in the ignition. He buckled himself into the passenger seat. He’d never learned how to drive.
His cousin told him to go back inside, with a smile that slid into a snarl. “We’re not finished.”
“We’re late,” Old Wu said. “You don’t want to keep Ma waiting.”
Ma, the final arbiter of any marriage. His cousin called for Little Treasure, who climbed into the backseat and they drove in silence for an hour in the land of the red earth laced with rivers, passing between centuries from one bend in the road to another. Farmers in straw hats and rubber boots tilled the fields with wooden plows and oxen, and at the next curve, squat factories interrupted. The pitted road was so narrow they had to drive into the oncoming lane to pass men pedaling carts loaded with sugarcane or sheet metal, before turning onto a dirt track that led to an arched gate marking the village entrance.
Money from relatives abroad and teenagers working in the cities, in factories and construction sites, as maids, security guards, and waitresses, had transformed the village. Crumbling mud bricks made way for concrete homes, a new schoolhouse, and a fish pond beneath a willow tree in the central plaza. But the village still lacked electricity, still lacked running water, still lacked opportunity.
Strangers, all. No one he remembered.
In his mother’s house, Old Wu discovered a photo in a dusty plastic frame in the family’s shrine, beside a pot of incense and a bunch of lychees. In the overexposed snapshot, tinged in orange and brown, he appeared miraculously young. His hair bushy as a fox’s tail and his back straight as an iron rod, a man who should have had his pick of a wife. Shocking, to discover a piece of him had been here all along, in a village which had become abstract in his memories. He didn’t remember who had snapped his photo in Chinatown, sometime in the 1970s, nor did he remember sending it to his mother, slipped into the translucent sheets of airmail, in which he never could reveal much of himself. She never learned to read or write, and her brief, sporadic replies came under a different stranger’s handwriting each time.
For decades, she’d been a widow. If his mother expected him in his prime, she — and all the prospective brides-to-be — would be grievously disappointed. Only the brightness of his eyes remained, and a full set of teeth, of which he was exceedingly proud. If he’d stayed in the village, he might have become stooped, his hands shaky and his breath labored. He might have died. He was hardiest of the three siblings in his family and the sole survivor. He didn’t remember Ma’s face, only how she squeezed him so tightly he couldn’t breathe the day he left the village. He’d been 10 years old.
From the deck, he watched his father, standing still as a pillar on the waterfront, until the ship slipped out of sight. His parents had borrowed to pay for his passage in San Francisco, resting their hopes upon his wiry frame. He entered under a false identity, becoming a Kwan, the alleged son of an American citizen. A name he repeated over and over to himself, a name that never felt right, that he never wanted to pass onto a wife or children. A name that prevented him from sponsoring visas for his true mother and father because in the eyes of the US government, his parents-on-paper had already immigrated.
If he never saw Ma again, she could remain as vital and strong in his memories. Any minute, she would shuffle in here, her arms wide in greeting. She slept in here, beside the kitchen. She must be preparing his bed in the second room he’d paid for but had never seen. He’d bow to her, and present her the supplements she’d requested to help lower her blood pressure. “Ma?” he asked. She didn’t answer.
His cousin eased Old Wu into a chair, telling him that she’d died a week ago in her sleep. A heart attack, the doctor declared, and there had been no way to get a message to him before he arrived.
Ma — dead? In San Francisco, she rarely crossed his mind. Now he reeled, as much as if he’d witnessed a car plowing her down. Because Old Wu didn’t have a phone or an email address, it had been decided he should be told after his arrival. Who decided — his cousin? His cousin, who’d dined with him, offered a cigarette, pimped his daughter, but said nothing this afternoon. Old Wu wanted to flip the table and shove him to the ground. Watch his cousin’s ugly face twist in panic, in fear, a fraction of what roiled in Old Wu.
No expense had been spared, his cousin was saying, and he scrolled through photos on his mobile phone, displaying wreathes and banners, and top-quality, slow-burning incense and the loudest firecrackers. “Three layers of silk garments and a pearl in her hand,” he said. To light her way into the next world.
Ma was here. She was everywhere in this house, in the musty herbs she boiled for medicine, in the mud-spattered rubber shoes by the front door, as if she’d stepped inside a moment ago.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Old Wu’s hands curled into fists.
“You’d had such a long trip,” his cousin said. “You needed something to eat first. Bad news on an empty stomach, it’s too much of a shock.”
“You don’t know what I need!”
Out by the car, Little Treasure was unloading Old Wu’s luggage, heavy with gifts. Children swarmed around her. Old Wu staggered to his feet, knocking over the chair. Without Ma, he had no connection to this village. To China, his homeland alien as the moon. Dizzy, he hung his head, trying to get his bearings. His cousin tied something around Old Wu’s arm — a strip of black cloth, to be worn for 49 days of mourning. Unfilial son. If only — if only he’d booked an earlier ticket, if only he’d come back last year, or five years ago. “Take me there.”
His cousin ushered him down the crooked path to the cemetery and to the burial mound, heaped with wilting flowers and the ashes of incense and hell money, burnt offerings so she could enjoy the wealth she never had in life. The smells coated his tongue like a vile pudding. His brother and sister had passed away years ago, and their children hadn’t attended the funeral. They had grandchildren of their own, and lived in distant cities after Old Wu’s remittances had afforded them opportunities to leave. His father’s grave was beside her, the grass clipped short and the stone marker wiped clean of mud. Other mounds were unkempt, overgrown with weeds, abandoned by forgetful, ungrateful descendants like Old Wu.
More villagers were coming up the path now, curious to meet their long lost cousin who lived in America. The crowd parted for a man whose body coiled with the power of a withheld punch, the headman who must have conspired to bring Old Wu here. A few young women — teenagers — had brushed on lip gloss, rouged their cheeks, and tied off their braids with satin bows. After he paid his respects to his mother, they probably would parade before him, like contestants in the Miss Chinatown pageant.
Did Ma have any say in the candidates? Were they kind to her, these potential daughters-in-law, to the poor granny who lived alone? He knew little of his mother’s daily life. She must have relied on neighbors to fetch straw to light the stove, to boil water for her bath, and to weed the toughest patches. He couldn’t have failed her more, no different from if he’d forced her to live in a pigsty. He couldn’t stay here for a week. He couldn’t bear to stay here overnight.
“Big Brother,” his cousin said. Old Wu bristled. “You’ll never have to worry sweeping her tomb. We’re family, and we take care of each other.”
Family? He had little in common with his cousin other than the vaunted ancestor from 10 generations ago, who’d settled and spawned in this damp patch of valley.
“I can’t,” Old Wu said. “I can’t stay.”
“But you’ve just arrived!” His cousin put an arm around Old Wu’s shoulders, and lowered his voice. “The conditions at revered Granny’s aren’t up to your standards, but you can stay with me. I have a generator. A television. You’ll have my bed. I’ll sleep on the ground, Big Brother.”
Old Wu jerked away. The air was hazy and overcast, and the heat so intense, he felt like an ant beneath a magnifying glass. “Cousin, take me to the airport.”
“I promised revered Granny that I’d look after you.” His cousin wore muddy loafers, with no socks, never able to escape his peasant habits, his peasant stink despite his boxy suit with the sales-tag dangling from the sleeve — purchased for the funeral? — and his sickening cologne.
“I’ll make a ghost out of you!” Old Wu said. His cousin backed off.
“Stay.” Little Treasure clutched an empty sack of the foil-wrapped premium chocolates he’d purchased at a Chinatown drug store. She must have opened his suitcase, dug through his belongings and distributed his gifts to the children, whose mouths were streaked brown. She must have tossed aside his yellowing undershirts and underpants stippled with holes, in front of dozens of onlookers. He wanted to clap his hands over his crotch.
“A good daughter,” his cousin said. “She massaged revered Granny’s legs every day, and read her stories from newspapers.” He lowered his voice. “It was Granny’s last wish. For you to marry. To marry Little Treasure.”
This entire trip might have grown out of this man’s plotting. Old Wu’s mother could have been ailing for a while. If his cousin had feared the end of the remittances, he might have written the letter ordering Old Wu to come home and marry. He couldn’t trust this man with sly eyes and oily lips, couldn’t trust anyone here not to tear the clothes off his back and the shoes off his feet.
The neighboring village wasn’t far, a cluster of homes on the other side of the patchwork of tilled plots, and from there, he’d find a ride to the airport. He’d sleep in the departures hall if necessary until he could get a flight to San Francisco.
He lurched away from his cousin and Little Treasure, and into a pack of children who clapped and spun and hugged him, all the descendants he’d never had and never would. The faces offered glimpses of Old Wu’s lost siblings, his lost father and lost mother. Their common blood, their vitality that he might draw upon, as if from a well.
Though their welcome was a show, a shakedown, though he knew the children flocked to him out of survival and not out of love, he would never be received like an emperor again. For most of his life, he lived a lowly existence. For tonight, he deserved VIP treatment. Tomorrow he’d walk out of the trap they laid. Their warm, grubby hands reached for his, and he followed.
The crescent moon hung heavy and low in the sky, ripe enough to pluck on a warm night, of the sort that San Francisco never had, that kept people up and outdoors, that he hadn’t realized he missed. Every table, chair, bowl, and plate in the village had been carried into the plaza and set for a feast grand as a wedding — grander. The villagers greeted him with claps and cheers, and he fought the urge to duck his head, feeling unexpectedly embarrassed.
He wanted to impress them. Not for his sake, but for Ma and her legacy. The headman served him first, the most tender fish, succulent beef, and broccoli green as jade. Everyone watched, perhaps worried that he might have returned with tastes too refined for the likes of their country cuisine. When he swallowed and took another bite, relief swept over their faces. Old Wu was still like them, despite the years and the distance between them.
The headman poured the first of many cups of rice wine. Old Wu spat silvery pin-bones into his bowl. With a chopstick in each hand, the headman raised the fish aloft and Old Wu picked off the filet underneath. The taste was sweet and faintly muddy as the pond where it had been raised. If you were Chinese, flipping a fish was back luck — akin to capsizing a boat — no matter where you lived, no matter how long ago you left the village.
The lion dancers cavorted in threadbare, ill-fitting costumes, followed by a brass band with braying, out-of-tune trumpets and arrhythmic drums, and a children’s chorus that sang a tune about a wise old man of the forest. Afterward, the performers marched by. He clapped until his hands throbbed, but the soloist’s eyes glittered with tears, a girl no more than eight. She trembled and he wondered if her parents had threatened to beat her, to deny her food if she failed to stir the heart of Old Wu.
Little Treasure caught his eye and raised her hands, hinting he should stand. Only when he jumped to his feet did the soloist straighten. To his surprise, everyone else rose too, imitating him. He wasn’t used to people watching him so closely and the attention unnerved him. He smoothed his hands down his shirt and over his rumpled hair. All his life, he’d worked in the background, in the kitchen, the customers focused on the dish before them and never the man who chopped, sauced, steamed, and stir-fried — even if his hands at the gas stove were fluid as a calligrapher’s.
If he hopped on one leg, clapped his arms over his head, would they copy him? He took his seat. The breeze rattled the bare branches of the sycamore trees and carried the scent of burning straw from the stoves of the communal kitchen, where grannies emerged with the next course. A crone set a platter before him and pinched his cheek. “Little Wu!”
He pulled away. “You don’t remember me?” she asked.
He wanted to be generous, as the others must have been to his mother and other abandoned grannies in the village. He squinted at her. “I might.”
“My brother shared a desk with you at school. We all played together.”
Played together? She seemed ancient as Ma. “That songbird, that’s my granddaughter. Some say she looks just like me, when I was her age.”
“Very talented.” Old Wu reached for his chopsticks.
“She’d earn her keep.”
His chopsticks hovered over his bowl.
“She could help with chores, washing and cleaning and cooking. And she could bring in money singing, too. If you adopt,” she whispered. It seemed she didn’t want anyone else to hear her scheme.
“Little Wu.” Her gaze frank, and her smile suggestive, missing most of her teeth, leaving brown nubs. She leaned in again, her voice throaty and her scent musty. She placed her hand on his forearm. “Remember those afternoons in the apple orchard?”
The headman took her by the arm and all but shoved her toward the kitchen. Apparently, Old Wu had passed into legend. Everyone had stories about him, even those born decades after he’d left, stories that he himself didn’t remember. Like the time he’d gotten lost and the village had fanned out with lanterns at sundown, calling his name. He’d been a handsome toddler, with a head round and hard as an iron bowl. Never still, headlong toward the horizon. His mother had feared he’d been carried off, sold to a childless couple who wanted a son, or captured by bandits who ate the flesh of the young to give them the strength of 10 men. A miracle, when the headman found him asleep, curled in a haystack. Later, he fell ill with a high fever, and might have died but for his mother, who begged a market customer for help, a doctor’s wife, and procured a vial of an expensive medicine new to the country — penicillin. He could have, should have died a hundred times before he turned 10. In his mother’s telling, he’d been fated to leave the village, and fated to remain abroad, the only way she could accept his long absence.
Dark blots whizzed across the sky, flapping their wings. Bats. He hadn’t seen one in decades, not in Chinatown. To Ma, bats symbolized prosperity and good luck, and she had embroidered a flock onto the hem of the shirt, those knots and nubs he rubbed in the dark on his voyage to America. All at once, he remembered that she was gone.
He hung his head until dancers jostled before him, dropping any pretense of cooperation and coordination. Many of these teenagers might be candidates, faced with a choice of marrying him or leaving for the cities to find work. He knocked over his empty cup. Tipsy after too much rice wine, he tilted the cup toward the dancers, toasting their efforts, and a handful giggled.
They tried to jump higher than each other, as if the strength in their calves and the spring in their thighs might nudge them ahead in the competition. The scratchy strings ended on the cassette tape, and the dancers skipped off. Throwing backward glances at Old Wu, a few crashed into each other like bowling pins.
He burped. His stomach swollen on his skinny frame, like a snake who has swallowed a chicken whole. He drummed his fingers on his belly, his shirt untucked, pants unzipped. He had no intention of taking a wife whose youth would only age him. He knew that now.
At the children’s table, Little Treasure passed out steamed buns. She filled their bowls and wiped their faces with brisk yet loving ease. A maiden aunt who must long for her own brood. She noticed him watching and smiled.
After a night of performing for him, didn’t the villagers deserve a show of their own? He tossed up a spongy bun and caught it with a flick of his hand, and added two more. He pushed through his intoxication, his hands remembering how to keep the buns in the air. Two up, one down. One on one on one. Something he’d picked up along the way, in his years alone. Juggling, another marvel from the village benefactor, and this time, when everyone clapped, he’d earned their applause.
Little Treasure brought him a cup of tea. His mouth puckered from the brew, which had been steeped for too long, but he swallowed.
Before going to sleep, he barricaded the front door with the kitchen table and two chairs. He didn’t want to wake up to the midnight gropes of Little Treasure, or any of the wretched young beauties. He collapsed onto his mother’s narrow bed, trying to find a comfortable position, too tired to change into his pajamas. His cheeks numb from the wine, and his belly bloated as carrion. Soon someone scratched at the front door. “Uncle.”
“Go away,” Old Wu said. “It’s late.” Little Treasure’s breathing was labored, and he pictured her slumped on the ground, pressed against the door.
“It’s awful,” she said. “You didn’t get to say goodbye.”
The first and only time that anyone had acknowledged his loss. His pulse was racing now, and he thought he might vomit. He tore off his sweater.
“Granny told me you never stopped sending money, not like most everyone else who leaves and forgets,” she said.
Some months more, some months less, enough to build a house for his parents that didn’t dissolve in the rain, to pay for medicine, the school fees of his niece and nephew, and a dignified funeral for his father. And for his mother, too.
“Uncle, I have something you want.”
“Go to sleep, Little Treasure.”
She laughed a madwoman’s laugh. “Let’s go for a dip. The moon — it’s bright as day.”
She’d drown in the pond, her body bloated and her hair floating like weeds. He pushed aside the table and chairs, sweating from his exertions, his pulse frantic as oil on a hot wok. He opened the door.
Little Treasure set down an insulated bottle on the kitchen table. She sat him on his mother’s lumpy bed, put a cool hand against his forehead and he leaned against her until his breathing steadied. She reeked of liquor, of regret, sour and sharp.
“Too much,” she murmured to herself. Too much food, too much drink at the feast?
She poured tea into two cups from her bottle. Hot and bitter, but he was thirsty.
“Granny said you had your own place, and that you ate all your meals in restaurants,” she said. He nodded, but couldn’t find the words to explain that by American standards, he was poor, and that the more you earned, the more you wanted.
“And that you had a mansion. Like this.” She picked up a rumpled magazine that fell open to a picture of a grand estate with the white columns and ornate trim of the White House. What he’d achieved in America hadn’t been enough for his mother, not compared to the other stories of riches from Gold Mountain. She had to invent the son she wanted, the son she deserved, and these lies explained the desperate interest on these families marrying off their daughters. Enough wealth to support a wife, to support them all.
“A new car, every other year.” She scooted beside Old Wu, her thigh pressing against his. She poured him another cup of the bitter brew. “I like the BMW X5, or the Audi A4.”
“I prefer Ferrari.” He couldn’t stop the lies from tumbling out, the lies that would raise his mother higher in the village’s esteem. Little Treasure touched his chest and heat stirred in him.
Who didn’t want a rich American uncle, who filled you with a sense of possibility, of prosperity close enough to touch? In your dreams, you escaped the prison of your circumstances and danced on the streets paved with gold. Little Treasure put her hand on his, her fingers stroking, circling until he felt pooled in sunshine. She’d left her tea untouched. Tainted, sprinkled with powdered rhino horn or another sexual tonic to raise him from the dead? Her lips brushed against his, and he fell into her.
Vanessa Hua is author of Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Books). She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle