Beijing Wife by Terry O’Shaughnessy

The pall that lies over Beijing is warm, smells of cinders, hot pavement and cooked food. Sharon is looking in it for her husband. She has lost him on the vast boulevard, has followed the back of his light blue jacket until the crowds of people on the sidewalk overtake her. But he’s gone. Waiting for the traffic light to gleam green through the dim afternoon, Sharon fingers worry, not hope. Deep down she acknowledges, she reluctantly admits, that Danny probably hasn’t once looked back for her in the crush of the crowd on the vast boulevard. She knows that he is the kind of man who prefers to look in front of him and she has let herself fall behind.

The light changes. Sharon steps off the sidewalk to get a clear look down the road, but a bicycle quickly rushes upon her. The rider rings his bell impatiently, the message clear:  get out of the way. She lurches back up on the sidewalk and keeps walking, praying for Danny to materialize, to be suddenly right in front of her where he’s been all along. The afternoon is so hot rivulets of sweat run down the front of her legs beneath her new white cotton slacks. She can taste salt on her lips, and the echo of last night’s duck dinner that keeps coming back now that her nerves have a solid hold on her stomach. Over it all is the minty taste of the toothpaste she used that morning, the tube carried all the way to Beijing from her blue bathroom in Toronto.

“Danny,” she calls out tentatively. A man in a white undershirt turns to look at her, stares at her wheat-coloured hair. “Danny!”

Sharon injects a light note into her voice, to masquerade her worry in case Danny actually hears her. When Danny hears worry, he doesn’t like it. He likes her to be confident only. Wants her to be excited, fizzing with energy, to be moving to Beijing for five years. She walks faster, smiles as though he’s watching her. Behind the smile that remains on her face, Sharon searches for the flap of his jacket, for the glint of fair hair above the dark-haired crowd that will identify her tall husband. She crosses another street, darting and weaving to avoid the swarm of bicycles and vans, motorcycles and trucks that turn, even though the traffic light is now red.

In the psychological profile done back home before Danny’s company would rubberstamp their move abroad, she had been asked: “And Sharon, what do you plan to do in Beijing?”

Danny had answered for her. “Well, she’ll be able to relax. Get away from her crazy boss.” Sharon had smiled brightly and said nothing. The concept of moving to China had not seemed “relaxing” at all. It had been beyond her grasp in a way that her crazy boss was not. But Danny was thrilled, so she smiled wider.

“I’m going to study Mandarin,” she replied, basking in the warmth of her husband’s approval from across the mahogany table. She had smiled and smiled.

Sharon feels in her purse, looking for Danny’s new Chinese business card but it isn’t there. He had taken it from her to give to a colleague in the hotel–she has just remembered this–before they decided to walk over to the Forbidden City. Sharon had felt a bit nervous going out into the streets, but Danny had taken her arm with a firm hand.

“It isn’t far,” he said. “Let’s hurry, sweetheart!” She at last felt a stirring of excitement, though she held on tight to Danny’s jacket. He opened the glass door of the hotel and Sharon scuttled behind him. The shapely heels of her new sandals clicked loudly on the vast marble of the hushed hotel’s foyer floor, then made no further sound on the sidewalk outside where horns were beeping—the roar of a construction sight deafening. Danny was fizzing with excitement. He’d just met his employees that morning, sat at his new desk, even did a bit of work with his new secretary. He couldn’t wait to get here, and had even asked Sharon on the plane if she minded if he came to Beijing a few weeks early. Sharon had thought he meant he would work in Beijing for a few weeks, then return to Toronto for the move.

“No, Sharon, think,” he’d said. “It’s too far to be going back and forth. Anyways, all the expat wives move on their own. The company is throwing enough money at you, sweetie, you should be able to manage.”

Sharon had just nodded. The company had been extremely generous. But she couldn’t quite believe that expat husbands weren’t expected to be there on Moving Day. It seemed unthinkable that you would move house without your husband. But the Beijing wives she’d met over lunch yesterday just nodded when she brought it up.

“I moved from Dallas to Hong Kong first,” one of them said, waving a wrist clasped with a celery-green jade bangle. “Then Beijing.” Another had moved to Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur before Beijing, with three children. A girl called Chris had just moved to Manila from Singapore, and was just visiting. “You get used to it,” she said. “The S & S visits.”

“S & S?” Sharon asked.

“Shirts & Sex,” answered a woman with short spiky hair and a double strand of black pearls around her neck. “You get used to them not being around—in fact, when they come home, it disrupts everything.” They all laughed.

Sharon had listened quietly. She and Danny would never grow apart like this—they were joined at the hip, weren’t they? She wondered why the wives weren’t upset that they rarely saw their husbands. That they could just sit around the linen table cloth, effortlessly eating with chopsticks, exchanging horror stories about shipping cars to Indonesia, or the time all the passports got stolen in Sydney—or the container that arrived a month late with all the beds covered with thick furry mildew. Sharon had been feeling a little sorry for them, so far from home, but was now thinking she had never met such women in her life. The expat wife seemed as foreign to her as China did.

Sharon checks her watch and begins to walk faster on the thronging boulevard. The pollution is thick today and she can’t see more than two blocks ahead. A woman in a frilly brown blouse walks by, carrying a heavy basket filled with watermelon slices, and a few bottles of water, all for sale. Policemen are attaching chains and padlocks to each manhole cover on the vast boulevard.

A young girl pulls at Sharon’s sleeve, saying hello in English as her father motions with his camera that they should pose together. This kind of thing has been happening all week. For some reason, the Chinese families seemed to want her and Danny in their photographs. It was the kind of thing that elated Danny, and they had posed at least twice on the Great Wall the day before yesterday.

Yesterday had been a good day too, in its own way. They had gone to see the preserved body of Mao Zedong in his glass case. They walked hand-in-hand along the great boulevard they called Chang An, toward the dusty vastness of Tiananmen Square where the mausoleum was located, carefully crossing the streets that whirred with hundreds of cars and bicycles. A long wooden wagon on three wheels rattled by them, mysteriously motorized by some gifted mechanic propelling a full load of huge watermelons. A barefoot driver sat on the open seat at the front, smoking and furiously pedalling from time to time. Sleek black sedans followed behind, then pulled in front. On the sidewalks, the melon sellers were busy slicing the orange fruit into batons, piercing them with wooden skewers for easy eating. Scattered throughout were families excitedly on their way to visit Mao.

It was a ritual enacted every morning in Beijing, Sharon had read in the guidebook, and Danny wanted to go. They waited for the doors of the great mausoleum to open, watching the soldiers begin to gather outside to man the sentry boxes at each corner of the building, and the pilgrims clustering in groups. There were women of every age in shiny floral dresses, men in windbreakers and dressy shoes—and old army veterans in badly-fitting khaki jackets–lined up outside. Children were urged to be quiet. Because at precisely 8.30 a.m., the body of Mao, dead since 1973, would be raised for its daily viewing.

They tried to see Mao a few days before, but were refused entry because Sharon was carrying a purse–a forbidden act. Then they saw the signs that they had missed before. In blunt, unequivocal English–as well as Chinese, and was it Thai—some kind of curly script–they read that nothing could be carried inside the mausoleum. Not purses, bottled water, cameras, umbrellas or briefcases. They also learned that there was no checkroom where you might leave these essential items of the day. Perhaps it was felt that the important business of visiting Mao should not be sullied by being just a side trip, Sharon thought. Or maybe it was a philosophical stand about money and capitalist transactions. Whatever it was, she was purseless the second time, hoping the PLA would consider her safe enough to visit Mao.

There was a long line-up to see him, and at first they couldn’t seem to find the correct place to stand. Two soldiers with rifles kept walking by, checking the crowd thoroughly. Alarmingly, two other soldiers began to run towards them, urging them to proceed to the main door of the mausoleum. They were pulling out anyone in the line who carried a purse or a camera, and then called out to everyone to walk faster—to break out into a small run.

As they jogged through the gate, Sharon noticed two big metal racks on wheels carrying hundreds of bouquets of purple and orange flowers. When she got closer, she could see that the flowers were fake. Dilapidated purple and orange plastic chrysanthemums were wrapped in well-used cellophane paper with a coat of fine dust yellowing the edges. The bouquets were for sale, but Sharon decided against it—then regretted it almost right away because those who bought the bouquets were rewardedwith a full-colour remembrance flyer at the door, complete with pictures from inside the mausoleum. People handed over their recently purchased bouquet to a soldier before entering and got a souvenir flyer in return. Their flowers were then heaped at the foot of the enormous white statue of Mao that stood just inside the main door, and removed by someone who restocked an empty metal rack, ready for resale again to the crowd outside.

As they entered the inner room, a soldier had ordered Danny to be silent, then Sharon too, though she had not spoken. A very tall man in a threadbare uniform was on her right, and she watched him approach Mao with deep emotion creasing his tanned face. A young thin man on her left in a pale blue windbreaker took off his sunglasses in respect.

Mao looked florid and strange, Sharon thought. He’d been dressed in the uniform of the PLA, and a matching khaki blanket was pulled up over his legs as high as his waist and his hands looked like cake, as if they might crumble at the lightest touch. His face was orange, and Sharon could see no resemblance to the famous profile of Mao that decorated her textbooks in university years ago. His lower body seemed sunken into the velvet folds of the coffin–a disturbing level or two too low to match the brass-buttoned khaki jacket encasing his chest. Pink lilies surrounded the coffin and there was a respectful hush in the room that had nothing to do with the solicitous soldiers who continually quieted visitors anyway.

They were urged to move quickly and, before Danny wanted to, they left Mao and entered the souvenir area. Here, Mao cigarettes were sold in amounts of 5, 10 and 20. Folding plastic screens with red tassels could be bought for about a dollar. Three-dimensional postcards showing peasants grinning in the fields could be bought in a combination pack that came with a Mao lighter and a deck of playing cards.

A necklace proclaiming the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, with a revolving Mao head, was too wonderful for Danny to resist, so he reached into his sweaty shoe where he’d kept some money and bought it for Sharon. She in turn bought him his own personal little Red Book which commemorated their visit. It came complete with a detachable certificate stating they had visited Mao’s tomb on September 12, 1999. It smelled slightly of mildew and the red dye came off in her hands as they re-entered the dusty busy daylight of Tiananmen Square, feeling that they owned the world.

But today the mood has swung, and Sharon is back to feeling scared and bewildered because the reality of actually moving to Beijing is upon her, and her husband unreachable in some new way.

The little girl keeps following Sharon, waving her camera with a big smile. But Sharon keeps walking, wants to keep moving, so she shakes her head at the girl, trying to indicate she’s sorry she can’t stop for the photo—that she has lost her husband. But when the girl’s face falls and her father’s smile immediately reverses to a scowl, Sharon feels terrible, feels the helpless depression of not being able to speak a common language. She slows down for a moment, wants to explain somehow, but the girl and the father are already walking away from her. And anyway, she’s becoming a little afraid now—almost doesn’t care at all what they think of her anymore because she is lost. She is lost in China, and Danny has lost her, and he probably hasn’t even noticed yet.

Sharon breaks out into a run as tears form in the back of her eyes. She wonders why he can’t, won’t, will never wait even two minutes for her. She even imagines for a moment that maybe he’s trying to lose her in the crowds, but that only makes the wet tears seep from the back of her eyes to the front.

“You gotta keep up, sweetie,” he would say with a grin, with his big handsome smile, his ruthless good humour. Sharon has always known that he likes her best when she is keeping up.

“Danny!” she cries out again, allowing full panic into her voice this time. Sharon doesn’t care how she sounds now. She knows he is long gone, that he is too far away by now to hear her. But she calls out anyway, to release something. Sharon is slowly recognizing that she hasn’t been smart about this walk. That she hadn’t watched their route as they walked from the hotel—that she had just left it all up to Danny and followed him. She hadn’t taken note of all those turns they had taken. She hadn’t even bothered to carry a map.

At the next red light, Sharon stops running and grasps at her elbows, waiting for it to turn green, trying to stifle a surge of panic tinged with a familiar self-loathing. The humiliating loss of self that seems to take her over when she abandons control of a situation. Danny liked to say that loss of control wasn’t a bad thing, that interesting things had room to happen then. Sharon wanted to believe him, always did believe him the second everything was fine and she could feel safe again. She was half in love with a strong, carefree image of herself, and it is the one Danny prefers, and why shouldn’t he?

People stream behind her, turning her this way and that in the humid crush. She cries a little now in the privacy of the thronging boulevard, only dimly aware of how she disrupts the human traffic. She snags in a flow of people turning down a smaller road, away from Chang-An Boulevard onto a smaller road that, in turn, leads to even narrower lanes.

In the lanes, the remnants of the hutongs behind the great boulevard, the heat is almost overwhelming. People teem. Men wear their white undershirts folded up and over their chests. Sharon can’t stop looking at their hairless stomachs, finding them so naked—then she looks away, afraid of attracting their attention. But none of them are leering at her—they’re just too hot. Sharon hates herself for not knowing where she is, despises herself for not even making sure she has enough money for a taxi. Anyway, she doubts that she has the courage to get into a taxi in the first place. For one thing, Danny had the special card for Westerners from the hotel—the one with the address printed in Chinese and the message “Please send me to the Grand Hyatt Beijing. Thank you.” written on it in Chinese characters.  She also has no idea how much it will cost and realizes she hasn’t really made herself aware of the value of the money, these ‘remnibis’ that were also called ‘yuan.’ All those pale People’s Republic of China bills with young men in Mao caps rushing to revolution, their women gazing with energy beyond vast crop fields.

Sharon had looked at the bills on the bedside table in their hotel room when she was getting dressed this morning—they were next to Danny’s wallet and mobile phone. Next to the yuan was a handful of Canadian coins—the nickels with their sleepy beavers, and the dimes with the Bluenose sailing away around Nova Scotia somewhere, the sedate Queen of England on the backs of all of them, gazing somewhere off the coins, not very interested. So different from the drama playing out on the Chinese money.

Sharon looks down at her grimy shoes, at the new edge of dirt that outlines the crease down the front of her slacks, and lets herself feel a full wave of resentment for her husband for a moment. He would insist she be brave. He would make her leave her life and remake herself here. He would even make her do it alone, apparently. The prospect of moving by herself had really thrown her. Danny had never really asked her, he’d just casually informed her of their different moving schedules, and she didn’t say anything. She was trying her best to “be positive.” Now it was too late. He wanted to live in Beijing, so they would live in Beijing, and if she didn’t come, he would come anyway.

“What about children?” she had asked over dinner back home a few weeks ago, before the transfer had been made final. “It’s not totally safe, is it? I mean, the diseases?”

“All the Beijing wives go to Hong Kong to have their babies,” he’d replied, reaching for her hand. “They get to stay in the hospital for a week and they order dinner from The Ritz.”

She had laughed, not believing him. But it turned out he was right. Yesterday at lunch, the wives had said exactly the same thing. All the Beijing wives went to Hong Kong to give birth.

“The only glitch I had,” said the one who had an enormous sapphire ring on her finger, “Was when I had Jeffery. I was scheduled for a C-section, but it was January and the hospital was completely booked. They were inducing women all over the ward.”

“A ‘Year of the Dragon’ thing?” another asked.

“Exactly.”

“When is Jeffery’s birthday again?” the girl with the black pearls asked.

“January 20th,” his mother replied.

“Oh much better luck then,” she said.

Sharon sat there, not saying a word because she couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. Her mother had always told her: ‘If you find yourself at a dinner and you don’t know which fork to use, just wait and watch the others, then follow them.’ So Sharon stayed quiet, waiting for more information, waiting for their translation.

“I didn’t care whether Jeffery was a snake or not. But the doctors were happier that he made it just in time.”

It finally clicked for Sharon. Chinese New Year was what they were talking about—she’d heard about it in the preparation class the company had given her back in Toronto. The year of the dragon was followed by the year of the snake, and last year it had been a Golden Dragon year, an event that came round only once every 60 years.

“Much better to be a dragon than a snake,” one of them had concluded with confident finality.

The back lane shimmers with hot filth as Sharon stops walking and opens her bottle of water. She is completely lost now, and exhausted, almost dizzy, and she forces herself to stop–to lean up against a wall and rest. She decides to act as if she’s waiting for somebody by looking at her watch every now and again, so no one will bother her.

Another piece of advice from her mother.  Sharon has been thinking a lot about her mother. It wasn’t surprising. Here in Beijing, she has no idea of how to navigate her new world and feels she is a baby again, who can barely walk, who hasn’t yet learned to speak. She will have to learn everything from scratch, as if starting life all over again. And what would that mean, in the end, Sharon wonders? Would that mean that when she grew up again, she would be the same person? And would that mean she would, could, fall in love with the same man?

The expat preparation class in Toronto had advised repeatedly: “Danny, you will go off to work in your new office, into a situation that will be essentially the same. Your life will not fundamentally change. But your wife’s life is about to change enormously.”

What they meant, Sharon now realizes soberly, is that she would be the one to decipher the mysterious daily life of China. From buying groceries, to going to the bank, to learning how to fill out a cheque, to discovering how to use the washing machine, she would be the one to figure it out. Sharon hadn’t realized one iota of what the instructor had been saying at the time. Neither had Danny, she felt sure of this. Just this morning in the hotel he’d asked her for a couple of aspirins.

“There aren’t any anymore,” she had replied.

“Could you go to the store downstairs and ask for some, baby? Please? My head is killing me.”

“Well, what should I say?” Sharon asked. “Do you know the word for aspirin?”

“You’re the one who wants to learn Mandarin, honey,” he had said.

Sharon drinks deeply from the water bottle and closes her eyes. She can’t think anymore. She is lost in China and can only wait and see how this impossible situation will turn out. There is nothing else to do. As it turned out yesterday, the girl in the store spoke a little English, and Sharon had located a box of aspirin after looking through everything in the glass cabinet. She hadn’t noticed it at first because this aspirin box was different from the calm yellow and white box back home. It was white and had wildly printed Chinese characters in scarlet all over the front, while bright blue curly writing (Indian? Thai maybe?) completely filled the back. The stamped-on English instructions inside the flap seemed British somehow (they used the phrase “headache tablets”), and a lurid label exhorted that the tablets could remove the ‘heatiness’ of fever as well as headaches. The aspirins had been next to an orange box of condoms in “Enchanting Drink Flavour.” The box was decorated with pictures of different drinks, and had the tagline: “For happy hours by two.” A smiling condom in a bowtie holding a cocktail glass decorated the flap. She had returned to their hotel room laughing, flushed with success over the aspirins, but Danny was busy talking into his mobile phone and he waved her off and the moment passed. He hadn’t mentioned it again, and it became clear to Sharon that he just took it for granted that she would find aspirin in China.

* * *

Sharon checks her watch again, to look busy, and smoothes the cuffs of her blouse. With the dizzy feeling gone, she stands up, away from the wall as an old woman enters the hutong through the round doorway that is peeling with paint. She wears thin trousers, plastic sandals and a blouse the colour of burnt cigarette ends. The old woman’s breasts show through the gauzy, almost sheer material, and Sharon can’t help but see that her nipples point straight down to her brown toes that are coated in a fine dust. Sharon watches as she sits down on a dilapidated step, and fans herself, then lifts one small breast up in the air, holding it there for a moment, before letting it drop. She repeats the movement with her other breast before flicking open her pink plastic fan again, trying to cool off. Beyond the woman’s proud almost haughty profile, Sharon can see four barefoot men sitting on torn squares of newspaper, playing cards. They seem to be reaching the end of their game, and they call out and groan and smoke. Sharon watches them, and the old woman, and feels safe in temporarily having this to do, as if she is part of the scene and therefore invisible. But it doesn’t last.

“You!” Sharon hears, though she doesn’t at first realize what is happening.

“You!” she hears again. A middle-aged woman in a lime green blouse, carrying a plastic bag full of oranges, is shouting at her.

“What?” Sharon says. “No!” she tries. She shakes her head at the woman. Her earlier sense of hapless worry jumpstarts when the woman grabs the arm that holds her purse.

“You!” she says even louder. “You!”

“No,” Sharon cries out, trying to shake her off. Their tussle interrupts the mens’ card game, and even the haughty old woman closes her fan to watch what Sharon will do. But the woman in the green blouse is unexpectedly strong, though so slight, and she propels Sharon down a side lane. Sharon holds on to her purse, feeling real confusion and full anger with Danny. Why has he lost her? What is happening here? What has she done? Her stomach folds in fear and adrenalin fizzes down her arms and legs, urging her to run. But to where? Her heels slip on the hot pavement that is slick with cabbage leaves and peach juice. The smell of overripe peaches is everywhere, a foxy scent that is almost feral. The woman pulls her forcefully and Sharon bumps into her, feels for a moment the woman’s warm perspiring skin through their blouses, then hits her front teeth on the thin metal hair band that holds the woman’s graying hair back off her face. Sharon can smell fear on herself, the sourness of the sweat that is pooling in her armpits and between her breasts, soaking her bra, but the woman doesn’t smell of anything but dust.

“You!” she says again, and Sharon stops fighting her, lets her body go slack. Feels herself giving in. Whatever has to happen will happen now, she thinks. The company had certainly not prepared her for this—and Danny would never have dreamed that something like this could happen to her, could he? Sharon feels tears come to her eyes again. Why have they agreed to move to China when they can’t even remotely speak the language? Why has Danny not waited for her today? She is on her own. She is on her own now and the truth of this, the importance of it, comes to her with bitter recognition.

The woman pulls Sharon toward a bank of trees where long green leaves rustle the way they do before a storm—then pushes her toward a high brick wall. Sharon tries to still the rushing in her ears, the sound of falling water that always deafens her when she is afraid. The wall is a deep burnt red colour, and seems to go on and on, for a long way. Sharon braces herself for what will happen next.

“Bye bye,” the woman says and suddenly smiles, pointing down past the trees where an arched doorway has been cut into the wall. A distant possibility of relief pricks Sharon’s eyes. Here were postcards on rickety stands, and families posing for pictures. Silky yellow Emperor robes for tourists blew in the dusty breeze. Plastic army hats studded with the red star of China hung by the dozens while a vendor selling coconut pieces and water pedaled a three-wheeled bicycle. It must be the Forbidden City, Sharon thinks, could it be? Instinctively she turns to the woman who nods her head vigorously, and smiles, though she holds a hand over her mouth.

“Xie xie,” Sharon finally says. It is the only Mandarin she has learned so far. “Thank you.” But the woman has already slipped back into the noisy hutong, home to where she, and the old woman with the fan, and all the other Beijing wives live.

Sharon enters the Forbidden City and looks around. Her once careful hairdo has frizzed in the intense heat, and her nose is running a little on account of the crying. She feels unbelievably tired. A parade of thin soldiers in green uniforms marches past three young women wearing nylon socks and high-heeled sandals. They are young and thin as wraiths beneath the open umbrellas which protect their skin from the sun. Sharon walks past them, over to the kiosk where you could buy entry tickets, and decides to wait for Danny there. She will stand and wait all day if she has to, she thinks. No more running. Standing and waiting would be another way of keeping up, at least for today. He could run and look for her. She would remain still and Danny could search for her.

Sharon feels calmer now, even cooler. She giggles nervously to herself to think of how afraid she’s been, how she had feared the tiny woman in the lanes. What had she thought could possibly happen? She thinks of herself living in China, this unfathomable place, and is surprised by an unexpected thought. Beijing was going to surprise Danny too in some way, unsettle him just as she had been today. It was bound to happen. How could it not? Sharon thinks she would enjoy seeing Danny shaken up a little. Yes, she would enjoy that. She could imagine that being a Beijing wife might offer this piquant little extra, and an image of her sitting with the expat wives over lunch comes to mind.

“Over here, sweetie,” Danny calls, and she sees him finally, a grin stretching his wide face. She turns away to the ticket counter. “You finally found me,” he says behind her. “Where did you go?”

Sharon turns back towards him slowly, and places a smile carefully. She already feels a bit separate from him, but for now will maintain the status quo. There was enough change coming. She feels, distantly, the approach of something new, something unexpected.

“Well, I stopped to pose for a sweet girl,” she says. “Her father really wanted our picture together.”

“That’s so nice,” Danny says, as pleased as she knew he would be.

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