Extracts of Short Stories

A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li

A Chinese Affair – Extract

I dream of my mother again. She is sitting in front of the sewing machine, crying.

I press on the wooden door and it opens quietly. My father tells me to come in. He is lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, where cobwebs dangle at the corners. He murmurs, but his voice is loud, echoed by the whitewashed walls. It is a winter morning before dawn. The fluorescent light tube, blackened at both ends, casts white light on his dark skin.

My mother wears a thick cotton vest. She hunches over, a piece of cloth in one hand, rolling the sewing wheel with the other. Tears are trickling down her plump face, her nose red. She grimaces in silence. I cross the room and open my arms to hold her.

I am woken by a stabbing pain in my heart, hands clutching my chest, sweating.

My husband is in his third stage of snoring. The rest stage is when he has just fallen asleep. He snores suddenly, waking himself up. He then turns on his side, starting the second stage, soft and varied. In this third stage, when he is deeply asleep, the sounds are loud but even.

I get up and steady myself, feeling the soft hair of the carpet between my toes. I have become used to this—waking in the middle of the night, as sleepy and as alert as a snoozing owl.

The hall is lit by the moonlight through the ceiling window. What is the temperature of moonlight? I tighten my dressing-gown.

On one side of the living area are the Mongolian chest in dark green and the two Ming dynasty chairs in burgundy. Above the artificial white roses and between the two cast-iron candelabras, my husband’s deceased wife is smiling at me. She is surrounded by other family photos, her eyes following my movements. I sit down on one of the antique chairs, feeling dizzy.

I told my mother I live in a house next to the beach. On sunny days I open the windows and the white curtains blow in and out, depending on the direction of the wind. I sometimes put on a straw hat and a pair of sunglasses to take a walk among the beachgoers. I wear various shades of grey and blend into the surroundings, become two-dimensional, a moving shadow, walking under the sun like a grey cat crawling under the moon. On rainy days, I close all the windows and peep up at the yellowish-grey sky and over to the greenish-grey ocean. Raindrops tap urgently on the roof like visitors keen to come in. I told my mother I live in a large house in an affluent area.

I told her I am an interpreter. When I was young, she hoped I would one day live overseas and work for the United Nations. I told her that, as an interpreter, I attend international meetings, where people from different countries negotiate important matters. My clients are businesses, educational institutions and government agencies. I learn the jargon for macro- economics, banking, insurance, fashion, medicine and its various specialties like cochlear implants and IVF. I make up Chinese names for expatriates going to China, and their wives and children, using beautiful Chinese characters, and explain the meanings to them, quoting Chinese poetry.

At night, I may be called upon to interpret for counselling hotlines, when young mothers speak about losing their children to illnesses, middle-aged wives speak about losing their husbands to younger women in China, and older women speak about their loneliness from having no-one. The counsellors sound as tired as I am, but they diligently ask the Chinese- speaking callers open-ended questions, reflect back the situations by paraphrasing, and name the callers’ feelings. I hear ‘What should I do? I cannot see a solution,’ and I say ‘What should I do? I cannot see a solution.’ I hear ‘Are you feeling trapped?, and I say ‘Are you feeling trapped?’ I speak for both parties as if I am having an internal dialogue to console myself, being simultaneously the suffering child and the hand that’s combing through her hair.

I told my mother I was the interpreter at an international conference on synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which two or more bodily senses are coupled. So I was not playing games when I read out the colours of people’s surnames. I met a Chinese artist there who painted lotus flowers in crystal blue. In another painting, he painted raindrops in yellow and titled it Shower of Gold. He painted me, too.

I met my husband when I was interpreting at a writers’ festival for a Chinese poet in exile. The poet’s speech was disjointed, but I tried my best to make sense of it. At the request of an earnest audience, he read a poem from his latest volume. People applauded, not so much for his poetry, because he read it in Chinese, but for his long hair and his animated voice. My husband came to talk to me afterwards.

I was in my Chinese costume, Prussian blue with gold and silver bamboo leaves. There seems to be some decorative value in a Chinese costume, which makes me feel like a porcelain vase, exquisite and brittle, to be treated with care, by others and by myself. So that day I walked with my chin high and my chest out.

My husband used to be a carpenter, known for his impeccable craftsmanship. After his former wife passed away, he studied a real estate course and worked in the property industry. When he retired, he learned to paint and started going to art galleries and writers’ festivals.

He has the look of a well-maintained and respectable gentleman. His jaw, once square, has lost its sharp edges. Like the furniture he made decades ago, he now looks subdued and reliable.

His first wife died twenty years ago. She has large eyes, a prominent nose and a sensitive chin, and smiles contently in every photograph. Her last photo was taken on her forty-fifth birthday. She smiles from behind the elaborate square cake and the orange glow of the birthday candles, oblivious to the accident about to happen a few days later.

My husband had been progressively reducing the number of her photographs in the house, until I noticed it and asked him not to. Instead I reframed some of them. My favourite is in an oval-shaped ivory frame displayed in a corner amid ne china. She wears a Chinese top and looks straight out of a 1920s movie. I also like a photo of her mother and her six aunts sitting on a fence at their family farm. Seven young women with frizzy hair, squinting under the sun, relaxed and cheerful, their oral skirts billowing in the wind. I spend a lot of time walking around the house, feeling accompanied and blessed by the dead, safely buried in someone else’s family history.

My husband’s eldest son is a contractor for telecommunications projects. The second son is an accountant for a large chain of funeral companies. My husband’s daughter is a nurse in a mental health hospital. She is the only one younger than me.

They are generally kind. Just like their father, they share a collective comical affection for me. My comments are exotic, amusing, controversial and not to be taken seriously. Once I told them an old neighbour of mine could read characters written inside folded paper. They all laughed. It has since become a standing joke.

I can afford to be controversial. I can blink my almond-shaped eyes and make provocative statements to people’s faces. I once said over a family dinner, ‘The world is made of strings of energy. A brick and I are made of the same basic elements. The strings vibrate differently to form different particles.’ My husband looked at me, shook his head and sighed. He did not say anything for the rest of the evening, but he made me masala chai.

The next day, after coming back from church, he said he was going to save a space for me in heaven. I looked up from my book. ‘How do you know we are not in heaven already? Every realm has the same problem of overpopulation.’ We were sitting in the garden under a weeping maple. Sunlight was filtering through the new leaves. My husband shuffled his newspaper but he did not turn the page for a long time.

My husband likes to think of me as coming from the middle of nowhere. He often mixes up my hometown with Inner Mongolia, where he imagines I rode a camel to school.

I go back to China less often now. After each trip, I would be depressed for several weeks. I would read Chinese books, browse Chinese websites, listen to Chinese rock music and talk to my friends in China on Skype. My husband once asked why I did not listen to the equivalent rock music in English. I said rock is about anger and there is nothing to be angry about in his society. When probed further, I said I could not explain because it is a Chinese affair. He was satisfied with my response; it confirmed me as his inscrutable oriental muse.

Going out is not without challenges. We walk on the street, and people look at us, older men with envy, older women with contempt, Chinese women with curiosity, and Chinese men with disgust. Those who are English speakers talk to me in simple sentences, while the Chinese speakers pretend to whisper, knowing that I can hear and I understand. The strangest is when we see other mixed couples, mostly older white men with younger Chinese women, and we all regard each other critically as if we are looking at ourselves in the mirror.

My husband took me on holiday once before we were married. When we came back to his house it had been repainted in crimson. A local landmark, it used to be called the White House. It is now called the Red House. I accepted his proposal for marriage and the fact that he had had the snip done years ago. I told my mother I am married to an older man, just like Jane Eyre to Rochester, and we do not plan to have children.

© Isabelle Li

This is an edited extract from the short story ‘A Chinese Affair’, which appears in the collection of short stories A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li (Margaret River Press, July 2016, $27)

A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li (Margaret River Press, July 2016)

A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li (Margaret River Press, July 2016)

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