The Other Side of the World
(A story adapted from a forthcoming novel)
By Jay Neugeboren
My affair with Jin-gen had been going on for nearly a year before she told me about how she’d met Larry. The three of us were members of the same synagogue—Congregation B’nai Israel, in Newton, Massachusetts—and her stepdaughter and my son were in the synagogue’s bar and bat mitzvah class with Larry’s son. Week after week, our children moved in a pack with about a dozen others—in and out of shopping malls, to and from classes and services, and to elaborate parties on Saturday afternoons and evenings. Late Sunday mornings, Jin-gen, Larry, and I, along with other parents, would wait in the synagogue’s lobby to pick up our children from their class, after which we’d drop them off at the Chestnut Hill Shopping Mall in Newton, where they’d hang out for a few hours, during which time, on the Sundays Jin-gen and I were the designated family drivers, she and I would adjourn to a nearby motel or, if both children were planning on a stay of more than two hours—usually for a movie—we’d drive to a town fifteen or twenty miles away—Milton, Winthrop, or Chelsea most often—and find a place there.
And twice, when we knew our children would be occupied for four hours or more, we drove up to Gloucester. Our second time there, waking from a lovely post-coital nap—this happened five weeks before Jin-gen’s daughter’s bat mitzvah—I told Jin-gen that as wonderful as these afternoons were, what I’d been wishing for was to find a way for us to go to sleep and wake up together, and when I said this, she put a finger to my mouth and said that we mustn’t think that way, that we should take what we had and not wish for what we couldn’t have. This was also the afternoon on which I said that I couldn’t figure out why a woman like her would be so friendly with a guy who had the shady reputation, in both his private and his business dealings, that Larry had—a reputation, based on my own dealings with him, he’d clearly earned.
On the way back to Newton that afternoon, she began telling me her story, a story she would finish two weeks later, during a Sunday afternoon we spent in a motel on the outskirts of Wellesley.
Jin-gen had grown up, the youngest of seven children, in the province of Hunan, about forty miles from its capital city of Changsha, where, along with her parents, brothers, and sisters, she lived and worked on a collective rice farm. Her father had been born in the city of Changsha, where his father had been a teacher and an acting school principal. Her father had been raised in a large house with many brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. A gifted student, he’d attended the university in Changsha for three years before being informed upon by a fellow student for a casual remark he’d made about Chairman Mao when he and the student were spending an afternoon together in a teahouse. Her father was convicted of “impure thoughts,” and sent to a stone quarry on an island in Taihu Lake, in Jiangsu province, where he served for seven years as part of a labor-reform brigade.
At the time of his sentencing, he was twenty-four years old and had been married to Jin-gen’s mother for six years. Like her father, her mother came from an educated family, and she and Jin-gen’s father had had five children, two boys and three girls. By the time her father returned from the labor camp in 1981, the one-child-per-family law was in effect, and when Jin-gen was born a year later (Jin-gen, meaning ‘golden root,’ had been her mother’s great grandmother’s name), they claimed she was the daughter of Si-hui, a childless aunt who lived with Jin-gen’s parents in their collective.
As soon as Jin-gen could walk and talk, her father and mother began teaching her to read and to write. Because she was a girl, along with the risk that the truth of her birth would be uncovered (and, thus, her father’s criminal record), they were certain Jin-gen would never be admitted to a university, and so, when she was fifteen, the family sent her and an older sister, Wei-li, to Guangzhou—the former Canton—in the province of Guangdon, where hundreds of clothing manufacturers had been setting up factories. The plan, one that had worked for Jin-gen’s oldest sister, was for her to find work there and, by the force of her beauty, intelligence, and industriousness, to attract a sponsor, either Chinese or foreign (and preferably American or Dutch), who might bring her to one of the great international cities—Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Jakarta, or Singapore—where she could earn more than she would on the rice farm or in a factory, and where she might eventually come to a better life.
Like her sisters before her, Jin-gen lied about her age, and arrived in Guangzhou with documents, secured from a neighbor on the collective, that validated the lies. On her third day in Guangzhou, she found work in an American factory that made children’s dresses, and though the work was demanding, it was less exhausting than work in the rice fields had been. From conversations with other women she learned she’d been lucky in this first job—that they preferred working in American factories because conditions there were usually cleaner, and more humane, than they were in factories run by companies from other nations. What American firms such as Nike and Gap had discovered was that the better the working conditions and the happier the workers, the more efficient and productive the factories, and the more reliable its products.
Every American company, from the smallest to the largest, had to have a local partner in order to be able to do business, and the American companies did what they could, bribes included, to keep Chinese officials from shutting them down for violations of laws regarding working conditions. Still, the local Chinese officials and inspectors were, to Jin-gen’s surprise, less feared by the American businessmen than their own American inspectors, who didn’t hesitate to give pink slips to anyone found violating even the most minor technicalities.
In the factory, Jin-gen and her sister started out trimming and cutting threads from hems, linings, and buttonholes. Wei-li, more adept at these tasks than Jin-gen, was soon working at a sewing machine, stitching in labels. A short while later, Jin-gen, favored by one of the local Chinese foremen, became a tea-and-water-girl, walking the factory floor all day and dispensing tea and water to workers from a large two-barreled aluminum canteen on her back. She lived with the Chinese foreman, whose status allowed him his own small room so that—a welcome perk—Jin-gen didn’t have to spend her nights in the factory itself, where hundreds of families, many with infants and children, slept on the floor.
The children’s dress factory, which employed fewer than five hundred women, could turn out more than twelve thousand dresses in a day. And a jewelry factory where she worked after this (transferred there, the foreman took her with him), could produce ten thousand pairs of earrings by noon, and could do this from a brand new design given to them at the start of the workday. There seemed no disgrace, despite her age, to being the companion of the Chinese foreman. Rather the opposite, for she had privileges that made her the envy of other women, not the least of which was her ability to send money to her family with a reasonable assurance it would get there.
While she was working in the jewelry factory, the foreman introduced her to an American supervisor, Marty Garfunkel, a married man with a wife and three children in Fort Lee, New Jersey, who took her with him to Dongguan, a city of more than six million people that was situated a short distance from Guanzhou, and had become a center of toy manufacturing. There, Jin-gen lived with Marty and worked in a factory painting cast-iron airplanes, tanks, and soldiers. They stayed in Dongguan for nine months, until her factory was shut down because inspectors discovered it was using lead paint, at which point Marty brought her with him to Hong Kong, where he got her a job as hostess in an exclusive men’s club.
Two months after they arrived in Hong Kong, Marty announced that he’d be returning to the States. Before his departure, he introduced her to a heavy-set man in his sixties who liked to call himself Charles Atlas (his real name was Joe Wanczyk), and who, when drunk and physically abusive, would keep repeating “I was once a ninety-eight-pound weakling, can you believe it?... I was once a ninety-eight-pound weakling...,” the meaning of which Jin-gen didn’t understand until one of her American clients explained it to her.
Joe Wancyzk traded in currencies, and spent most of his days in his hotel suite, smoking and following exchange rates on his computer. He made large profits by taking advantage of small discrepancies in the rise and fall of currencies. He also traded in women, providing companions for businessmen (primarily Japanese, American, and Indonesian) who were in Hong Kong for limited periods of time.
Jin-gen learned that several women who worked at the club had been able to persuade their American clients to arrange jobs for them in the United States as au pairs (American families that had adopted Chinese children were eager and willing, they’d learned, to pay a premium to obtain Chinese au pairs), and when she’d been with Joe for nearly a year and he informed her that he’d soon be returning to New York, she asked if he would get her a job with a family in America. To her surprise, he said he’d see what he could do, provided that if he succeeded, she would find ways on her days off and vacations to service clients he sent her way.
At this point, she explained, her bad luck became her good luck. As Joe’s departure grew near—he’d been living in Hong Kong for four years and, overweight and often short of breath, had become increasingly anxious about his health—he also became increasingly abusive, which made her job difficult, since men—this was particularly true of the Japanese—did not like their women to have any bruises or blemishes. Make-up, she said, only went so far, and the more Joe beat her, the less desirable she became to his clients.
This was when she gave me the news that she had known Larry in Hong Kong.
“Then the two of you were—”
“Shh,” she said, and put a hand over my mouth. Though the news that she’d known Larry in Hong Kong surprised me, what she said next astonished. “We were good friends only,” she stated, “and not in ways I was with other men, but that doesn’t matter, because what you must know first and last and always is that Larry is one of the kindest human beings who has ever lived.”
“Larry?” I laughed. “Are you kidding? Look. I’ve known Larry for a long time, and he may be many things, but—”
“Shh,” she said again. “Listen to me. I am not the only woman to whom Larry has been kind. I can introduce you to others whose lives have been saved by him. If not for him, we...”
Then she began to cry, and the next thing I knew I was holding her, and telling her it was okay, that I wanted to hear more, that I’d try to believe her.
But Larry? I thought to myself. Larry Saltzman?
When I’d first moved to Newton a dozen years before, Larry and I had hung out together for a while—we were both born and raised in the Bronx, both coming off nasty divorces, both in the hunt for women. Larry had told me about working in the garment business in New York for a while—sales and marketing—and of how he’d spent most of his time after that in the Far East, wheeling and dealing with clothing manufacturers, local businessmen, and customs and tax officials. He’d started out with small firms that made their bundles in one place and then, when labor costs rose, took their businesses to the next place—India or Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia or the Philippines—wherever the cost of labor was cheaper.
Creative accounting was the specialty of these companies: how to hide profits, how not to pay bills or taxes, how to pay off people who had to be paid off, and how to stiff people less shrewd than they were. But for Larry, their most venal sin was that they were vulgar—true garmentos, he said, like guys he’d worked with in New York but without the blunt, no-nonsense New York style he loved—and once he figured out how things worked, he sought out people from companies that had contracts with bigger players—firms such as Macy’s, Wal-Mart, T. J. Maxx—and hooked up with them.
The money, perks, and hours were about the same with the large firms as they’d been with the shlock companies, but working with the shlock companies had taken its toll, and for a guy who’d always prided himself on being fit, he found he was feeling sluggish too much of the time, especially during working hours, when he couldn’t stop daydreaming about being somewhere else. He was also drinking and whoring more, and the more he did, the more obsessed he became about getaways, and about carving out a different life, so that when, at a resort in Borneo—in Sarawak, where he’d gone for a weekend of scuba-diving—he met a man from Amsterdam who owned several palm oil plantations and they hit it off, he’d asked the man to make him an offer he wouldn’t want to refuse.
“I’ve never been famous for what’s in here,” I remembered Larry saying—tapping on his chest with his knuckles—“but the children got to me. Seeing little kids—this was in the factories where I started out, not the more legit places—but seeing kids of two, three, and four years old sleeping in filth, and kids not much older working all day in mud up to their ankles, and then the way the mothers would stare at me with all their fucking pain—and with calculation equal to the pain: ‘Hey, if I look miserable enough, maybe you’ll give me some money, or a chit for an extra meal, or some medicine’—this got to me, and it got to me not when I was there, hip-deep in it, but when I was already working for companies that didn’t allow the worst of these conditions.”
I remembered Larry shaking his head from side to side and saying I probably wouldn’t believe him—that if he heard what he was saying he probably wouldn’t believe himself either, but that it was as if, after the fact—when he thought he was free of the glooms—some huge wave had risen up, knocked him down, and rolled over him.
He’d grabbed my wrist then and squeezed so hard I had to pry up one of his thumbs. “Sorry,” he said. “But you can’t know what it’s like to see people living in their own puke and diarrhea, with women and older kids cleaning up the younger ones every morning so a foreman won’t kick them out. To see kids going around begging, some without hands, or only two or three fingers, or one eye, or none, and having to wonder if they were born that way, or if that was just some ordinary part of getting with the program...”
I’d gotten a law degree at Fordham Law School, had married and moved to Newton to be near my wife’s family, and taken a job working in Boston for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. When Larry suggested we work together, and laid out the plan he had in mind, a plan whereby we’d go into the Boston ghettos, set up clinics for which I helped write and oversee contracts—contracts designed to suck money from Blue Cross Blue Shield through a series of holding companies that would finance the buildings and the start-ups for the clinics—I told him this wasn’t the kind of work I was interested in.
He shrugged. “The way I see it,” he said, “the insurance companies have more money than brains, we do good things for some poor people, and take modest third party payments that help us to live the kinds of lives guys like us are entitled to.”
I told him thanks but no thanks, and after that—at the time, we were each dating the women we eventually married—we were civil whenever we met, as we did at the synagogue, especially when our children were going through what he several times called, in a phrase that amused Jin-gen, their ‘suburban coming-of-age games,’ but no more than civil, and Larry never again talked about us working together.
“Tell me what happened,” I said to Jin-gen.
“You will believe me then—about Larry?”
“Maybe,” I said, for even as I said it, I was remembering that though Larry could go on and on about how much he felt for Asian kids on the other side of the world, he rarely said a word about his own son, who lived with Larry’s ex-wife, and who Larry saw on alternate Sundays. Then, by way of apologizing for the sharpness of my response, I added that Larry had talked to me about factories in China where he’d worked, and about how seeing the way children lived there had gotten to him.
“That is not what I am talking about,” Jin-gen said. “You should listen more carefully. Larry did not save children. He saved women—women like me—but if you are too jealous to want to know about this, and of his kindness to me, I will say nothing else.”
“Talk to me,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “But we should get dressed and, as you say it, be on-our-way so our children will not have cause to suspect.”
We dressed in silence, and about ten minutes later, when we were heading back to Newton, she talked about Larry again, and about how, when he was in Hong Kong, he’d had many girlfriends.
“They were often college-age women,” she said, “generally Chinese but not only Chinese, and they were in Hong Kong to work or to study. Sometimes he went out with older women who were in the city on business. He met them in bars of fancy hotels—married woman usually, because, he said, they came with the fewest complications, and were always very grateful. Mostly, though, he preferred the daughters of wealthy Chinese or Japanese entrepreneurs and businessmen. But occasionally, when he didn’t want to become involved with a woman—or with her family, as one had to when dating the daughters of wealthy Chinese and Japanese—he’d pay elite escort services.”
The night she met Larry, he was with a woman who worked for one of these services—a friend of hers, Cai-yu—at the men’s club where Jin-gen worked. This happened about three weeks before Joe Wancyzk was scheduled to leave, and Jin-gen was on a break from hostessing, sitting at a table near the bar with Joe, Joe ragging on her about complaints he’d been getting from clients, and warning her that she’d better not disappoint him with the guy she’d be meeting later in the evening.
While Joe was going at her, she glanced at Cai-yu, who smiled brightly and pointed to Larry, making Jin-gen understand that this was the man she’d been talking about—the man who could help her get to America. The man was watching her and Joe, but without expression, and when Joe went at Jin-gen again—calling her a two-bit, bad-weather cunt, and shaking a finger in her face—and when, lowering her head, she glanced toward Cai-yu, she saw, to her amazement, that Larry was smiling at her in a way that encouraged her to go ahead and do what she wanted to do.
So she did. She pushed Joe’s finger aside, told him she expected him to talk to her with respect, and that if he didn’t, she would leave.
Joe stared at his finger as if he couldn’t believe she’d touched it, and then he reached across the table to slap her. Fortunately, he was drunk and missed completely, then stared at his open palm as if trying to understand why it had not done what he’d told it to do.
Jin-gen giggled, said she had giggled that night too, and that when she looked up, there was Larry, who put out his hand to her, gave her his name—Lawrence Saltzman—and said that he understood she was a friend of Cai-yu and was looking for a reliable sponsor so she could become an au pair in the United States.
Larry did not look at Joe, or offer to shake Joe’s hand, and Joe told him to get the fuck out of there and mind his own business.
“And who are you?” Larry asked.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” Joe said, and grabbed Jin-gen’s arm. “She works for me,” he announced. “Got it? So get lost, mister.”
“Do you own this club too?” Larry asked, and he sat down next to Jin-gen.
Joe again ordered Larry to leave, but Larry just smiled back at him, which made Joe even angrier than he already was. He grabbed Jin-gen and tried to pull her from her chair, but Larry put his hand on Joe’s and told him to be polite to ladies—that one should always be polite to ladies because they were softer and kinder than men were.
“What are you—some kind of nut?” Joe said, and he pulled on Jin-gen even harder, and this was when—but so fast Jin-gen said she hardly saw his hand move—Larry did something to Joe’s chest—like a karate chop where you try to break a board with a single blow, but with the flat of his hand instead of the side—and Joe’s head snapped back, and he fell face first onto the table.
Larry took Jin-gen’s arm and helped her up, and she stood between him and Cai-yu, her legs trembling. The owner of the club stood next to them, two of his security men with him, though it was clear they were not going to keep Larry from doing whatever he wanted. When Joe finally got his breath back, and put an ice pack over his nose that a security man gave him, Larry leaned down and whispered that he hoped there was no next time, because if there was, they would have to crack Joe’s chest open in order to fix the damage. Then Larry put a business card on the table and told Joe to have Jin-gen’s things sent to the address on the card, along with what he owed her, and a bonus to cover her air fare to the States.
The owner of the club offered to call an ambulance, and Joe, one hand on his chest as if to make sure his heart was still beating, shook his head sideways, but didn’t speak. “We will have somebody escort you home,” the owner said, “and since you are a good customer, I would also suggest that, in order to remain healthy for leaving to America, you do as Mr. Saltzman wishes.”
“I stayed with Larry and Cai-yu for five weeks while Larry arranged things,” Jin-gen said, “and then I left for America, with all my papers in order, and I arrived in Boston, where the Gottlieb family—Anne and David and their two young children, both Chinese—met me at the airport. They had a large house in Newton, and I lived there with them for eleven months, and during that time I became friendly with David’s brother, Mark, who had lost his wife two years before. He was considerably older than me, and had a daughter—our daughter now—and although I did not love him in the romantic way people here are brought up to love in order to marry, I felt respect and affection for him, and when he asked me to marry him, of course I said yes.”
Two weeks after Jin-gen told me her story, my son attended her stepdaughter’s bat mitzvah, and three weeks after this, Jin-gen’s stepdaughter attended my son’s bar mitzvah. Since our children no longer had to attend their class at the synagogue, Jin-gen and I no longer saw each other on Sundays. Although we would meet occasionally—at the synagogue, at the mall, at our children’s public school—and exchange small-talk, neither of us ever talked about arranging to meet again, just the two of us. That June, several months after our children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, when we attended their graduation from middle school, Jin-gen greeted me warmly and, kissing me on the cheek while she offered congratulations, whispered that we too, it seemed, were coming of age.
Copyright © Jay Neugeboren 2012
This story is adapted from Jay Neugeboren's forthcoming novel, The Other Side of the World, and is published here with the permission of Two Dollar Radio. The Other Side of the World may be purchased through Two Dollar Radio.
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 18 books, including two prize-winning novels (The Stolen Jew and Before My Life Began), two prize-winning books of non-fiction (Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival and Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness), and four collections of award-winning stories. His stories and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, Black Clock, The Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares, and have been reprinted in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. His most recent novel, 1940, was long-listed for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award.