The Great Canadian American Chinese Jewish Novel
By Wendy Zierler
Welcome to the Hotel Furama Kempinski, Hong Kong!
470 rooms and 43 suites
Non-smoking and handicapped rooms
Individual thermostat control
Television with satellite channels, bill review and pay-movies
IDD - International Direct Dial
Individual thermostat control
Television with satellite channels, bill review and pay-movies
IDD - International Direct Dial
Dedicated data communications line
In-room fax machine (on request)
Shoe polishing service
Mini-bar, coffee and tea making facility
24 hour room service
Daily turn-down service
24 hour security patrols
Electricity: 220V/50 cycles (transformers and adaptors available) Check-in time: 2:00p.m.
Check-out time: 12:00 noon
In-room fax machine (on request)
Shoe polishing service
Mini-bar, coffee and tea making facility
24 hour room service
Daily turn-down service
24 hour security patrols
Electricity: 220V/50 cycles (transformers and adaptors available) Check-in time: 2:00p.m.
Check-out time: 12:00 noon
It’s 4:13 a.m. Hong Kong, 4:13 p.m. New York, and here I am, on jet lag patrol, playing peek-a-boo with 9-month-old Dina on the floor of our “Superior” room. For now, until our shipment arrives and we move into our “flat,” this – wood paneled room with its mauve velvet headboard and matching mauve velvet curtains is home. Everything we need is tucked into closets or corners. Books, toys, clothes, cosmetics, a small fridge stacked with drinks. The staples of portable life. Dina’s exersaucer and high chair sit in one corner of the room, her port-a-crib, in the other, the TV, the vertex of an acute angle. David, who has to work tomorrow, is snoring across the room. I’m cranky and tired and tempted when I pull my hand away from my face to flash Dina an expression that more accurately reflects my mood. But when I peer through my open fingers, I see her two-teeth smile and smile back.
Dina’s now onto these stacking cubes that she likes to heap into a tower and then knock down. Whenever they fall, she giggles, and as a first-time mom, I worry what this says about her character. While she’s busy, I once again flip through the red leather binder that says Guest Services. After three previous nights of jet lag patrol, I have mastered its contents, attaining a kind of critical perspective. I question, for example, why the list at the front of the binder isn’t alphabetical and if there’s another kind of order at work. What explains the decision to put Shoe Polishing before Minibar and Room Service? If I were writing the list, I’d include the white terry robes, the three fruits, arranged on a fern leaf in the middle of a black square plate, and the lily bud floating in a bowl of water that they change every afternoon at 4 p.m.
I draw the curtain slightly, sit on the window ledge, and look out on Hong Kong harbor, the view cut in ungainly pieces by towering cranes and tractors that pound and clobber the earth all day but sit tilted and silent at night. While the cranes sleep, the neon signs, perpetual insomniacs, blink out company names that seem to advertise (aspired) states of being: Sincere, Fortune, Elite, Success, Double Happiness. A lone junk boat floats in the distance. I reach out my hand and cup the boat; it looks like a bath toy floating in the calm sea of my palm.
When David and I first got married we dreamed out loud about traveling the world. In the hallway of our Upper West Side apartment, we plastered the walls with huge maps and played “pin-the tail on the country.” He’d blindfold me, kiss me and wish me a “good trip” and then spin me round. All tipsy from the spinning, I’d stumble over to one of the wall-maps and push in a pin. Then I’d do the same to him. By this process, we compiled a list of fantasy destinations. My pin landed on Suriname, his, on the Ivory Coast. His pin landed on Brussels and mine on Tibet. We’d joke about how Orthodox Jews never moved to these sorts of places—how they chose to cluster in Brooklyn or Queens instead of Maui or Bali. Would we be pioneers and build the first shul in Fiji?
When Dina is about five months old, we begin to bring her into the game, spinning around like tops with her as our audience and using her chubby index finger to point out faraway places on the maps. “See, Dina, this is Toronto. This is New York. This is Bangalore. This is Nigeria.” Dina squeals as David twirls around before her in his blindfold, his pin finally targeting Hong Kong. “Ah, I always wanted to go to China. The Forbidden City! The Great Wall! The Terra Cotta Warriors!”
The next day David returns from work with the astonishing news that his firm has asked him if he’d be willing to transfer to the Hong Kong office.
“No way,” I say.
“Way! Is this a sign from God, or what?”
“You think God is a partner at Goodman, Mackenzie, Brown and Weiss?”
“He used to be an associate, but he got passed over for partner; not enough of a rainmaker.” David has these thick, girlish eyelashes that flutter slightly when he laughs or gets excited. He is buoyant and beefy, towering over me in his curly-haired enthusiasm.
“But David, our parents will kill us! Taking their only grandchild to Hong Kong? That’s just plain cruel!”
“They can visit! The whole Jewish family can come to shop and eat authentic kosher Chinese food. In the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, ‘I am in the West, but my heart is in the East.’”
“He meant the Middle East,” I say.
“Look who’s being so literal,” he retorts.
That night David is so excited that he wakes me in the middle of the night to make love; I sleep like a log, but slowly, insistently, he rouses me from my sleep. “We’ll make more babies in China,” he whispers and nuzzles his nose into my cheek.
And now here we are on our adventure, but with Dina here in the room, we’re not making love, at least not for a while. Right now all I can think about is how much I want Dina to fall asleep, so I can sleep too.
8:00 a.m.: This is our fourth breakfast in the Chater Café, named for Chater Garden across the busy street, which you’d better be careful crossing because of the hundreds of red and white taxis and yellow and green minibuses that whiz by every second. Spread out over three counters on the other side of this room is the Asian breakfast buffet. While Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean businessmen eat Thousand-Year-Old eggs, Chicken Congee, various salty sauces and meats, prawn cakes and crackers, David and I eat Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies, internationally kosher breakfast food. A preposterous number of hotel staff tend to our Kellogg’s morning. Tommy Tang escorts us to our table. Packy brings over a high chair for Dina and delivers the cold cereal. Winston fetches a bowl of hot water for Dina’s instant oatmeal and a plate of sliced bananas, while Tinky pours coffee for me and tea for David. Mabel brings two glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. “May I hep-choo wif somefing else, Mr. and Mrs. Nerner?” asks May Wong, the woman in the maroon hotel blazer who greets us every morning when we enter the café. Dina crushes the bananas between her fingers and smears the mush on the plastic tray, on her face, and on her clothes. May Wong motions to Packy who motions to Tinky to bring over a damp cloth. Winston pours coffee refills while Horace clears away the empty bowls and plates. I ask David why there are so many waiters and where they got these unusual English names, but with his nose in a document, he doesn’t hear my questions. I swallow another sip of coffee and mindlessly shape the condensation on my juice glass into a Happy Face. His brown curls still wet from his shower, David looks up from the document, glances at his watch, and says, “Ooh. Gotta run.” And off he goes, dodging the cabs as he bolts across the street and walks through Chater Garden to the Bank of China Tower, a colossus of glass angles that dominates the Hong Kong skyline.
Dina and I, who have nowhere in particular to go and have been up for what seems like forever, stay behind to finish. Horace has refilled my coffee and so I keep on sipping. Dina bangs her red rattle against the tray of her highchair. Every morning since we’ve arrived, Packy has been teaching me something new in Cantonese, which I repeat to Dina in sing-song cadence. We already know “Mgoi saai” (Thanks), “Doh je” (another way to say Thanks!), “Jo san” (“Good morning!”), “Gei do chin a” (How much does it cost?), and “Yau lok mgoi” (Stop here, please).
Yesterday Packy asked me, “Why not eating from buffet? Congee too good for baby! Too good!” I explained to her that we have these dietary laws. She looks at me curiously. “Diet? You not need diet. You small like Chinese person.”
“What I mean is that we’re Jewish; some foods are forbidden in our religion.”
“Ah, Jewish! Schindler’s List!” she says, and promises to look up the word for Jew in Cantonese. So this morning she teaches me “Nei sun mat ye gaau ga?” (What’s your religion?) “Yau taai gaau” (Jewish). While I practice, two or three more waiters stop by the table to coo at Dina. I sign the check and one of the cooers (Candy? Mable?) packs up the remaining banana slices in a plastic container, which she places in a white hotel shopping bag with braided string handles.
9:30 a.m.: The room has been cleaned and since Dina has still not fallen asleep I’d like to go out and take a walk, but it’s raining. Hot August rain, office towers melting in the window. It has rained every day since our arrival with gloomy predictability. The South China Sea emptying itself daily into the sky and filling up again. Two days ago, Dina and I got caught on Connaught Road without an umbrella, a hundred yards from cover. The stroller, a leaky bucket, my feet trailing mist. And not the slightest bit cooler. Of all things— to move across the world in August to this weather.
I know I shouldn’t complain. How bad is it really to live for a few weeks in a five-star hotel, all at the expense of Goodman, Mackenzie, Brown and Weiss. Someone cleans the bathroom, straightens around the toys, mails our letters, launders our clothes, prepares the breakfast, fetches our fruit. When I ring, room service brings hot chocolate in a teapot, enough for four cups. At six o'clock someone comes to turn down the bed. At six-thirty a bellman is sent up the mountain to Mid-Levels to the Jewish Community Center to bring us dinner from the kosher coffee shop. At seven, a woman comes to change the ice in the bucket. Not much to do except to diaper the baby, feed the baby, wash and play with the baby. During the time-slivers of no rain, we go for walks on Des Voeux Road and Queen’s Road Central. I keep looking for the rickshaws and pagodas, but what I see instead are European designer clothing shops—more in these two blocks than any I have seen in Toronto or New York, combined: Chanel, Ferragamo, Gianni Versace: is it pronounced Ver-sace, as in “race” or Versuss as in “truss” or perhaps Versa-chi as in Liberace? What with the economic downturn in Hong Kong, I have seen SALE signs in the most upscale of boutiques. Many stores have closed down, their windows covered from the inside in white paper; hollow, gift-wrapped boxes of space. I think of all the shopkeepers crouched over their unpaid bills. What are they doing during business hours? Are they up like us at night?
At the farewell party my parents host at their house in Toronto the day before our departure, my Aunt Mina, who had gone to Hong Kong five years earlier on a kosher tour of China, will not stop talking about the shopping: “You’d better remember us when you find those bargains and buy four or five of each,” she says. My sister Mimi takes me aside and hands me a stack of self-addressed postcards and says, “Forget the shopping. If you’re abandoning me here in the Arctic, you better write. Not just to me, though. Write.” My father, who loves public speaking, gives a “dvar Torah” in which he compares our move to Hong Kong to the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. “First Leah moved from Toronto to New York to marry David: that was Egypt. Now Leah and David are moving to Hong Kong: that’s the midbar.” My father means to say that in the same way that the Children of Israel moved from Canaan to Egypt to the desert and back to Canaan, after this wandering in Hong Kong, we’ll finally move back to Toronto. “Let’s hope they don’t stay there for forty years,” says my mother. “Are there any Jews in Hong Kong?” asks Uncle Moishe, with a worried expression. I assure him that there is a synagogue and a Jewish school, a kosher restaurant and store, though we have found, since our arrival, that because of the dismal weather most of the Jewish community clears out of the territory during the month of August. My eldest sister Tova, who lives down the block from my parents, calls us “brave,” which I know is a euphemism for what she considers our depraved detachment from family. She, personally, “could never move so far away from everybody.” David overhears and tells me not to let Tova get to me. “You know what she’s like.” “But what if we hate it there so far away?” “Trust me, we’re going to love every second,” he repeats throughout the evening, though I continue to worry about how I’ll fare in a place that is so far from all the regular structures of my life. “You'll have to tell us all about your life there in Japan; after all, you have such a way with words,” says my Aunt Esther, before I can even respond to David. “Sure, I'll write all about it,” I say, wanting to explain the difference between China and Japan, but not quite knowing where to begin.
Since arriving, we’ve been so jet lagged. We sleep during the day and watch whatever English-language TV we can find at night: lots of Australian and American reruns and repeating ads for Valentino push-up bras and record collections by Air Supply and Celine Dion. And another nauseating ad for a product called Miracle Food Repair that cures flaky, itchy feet.
When we’re stuck in the room, Dina spends a lot of her time trying to stand up, leaning over as if to touch her toes and trying to push up on her own so she can start to walk. There’s a round coffee table in the room, which she clutches with both hands and courses around and around; any day now, she’s going to let herself off this loop and begin to walk in her own straight line.
And now for the tourist segment of our program: Yesterday we joined a hotel tour of Hong Kong Island, and listened to a tour guide who told us that Chinese people eat anything with legs, with the exception of the table, ha, ha! And we should all try Snake Soup, a delicacy, and very healthful, though for many foreigners very disgusting, ha ha! The tour took us first to the Peak, with its views of the skyline, its ultramodern shopping mall with Häagen Dazs and a chain restaurant called Delifrance; it could pass for any mall in Toronto, minus the palm trees in front. The next stop on the tour was Repulse Bay Beach where we saw a McDonald’s right next to a red and gold painted temple that seemed like it was put there for the tourists. At Aberdeen, we boarded a small fishing sampan and did a circle in the waters of Old Hong Kong past the Floating Restaurant lit up in two stories of colored lights. An old lady with leathery skin held the rudder; about five minutes into the ride, it began to rain, which sent us hurrying back to the dock and van. “August, not so dry in Hong Kong, ha, ha!” the tour guide said. Yes, we have gotten that impression. Hope you’re not feeling too abandoned.
2:00 p.m.: Dina and I just got up from a long nap; I have a deep cosmic desire to sleep some more, but I fear that if we don’t get up, we’ll be caught in this jet lag orbit forever and ever and ever. I feed Dina some carrots in a jar, nibble at some leftovers from last night’s kosher coffee shop dinner of Moroccan cigars and vegetable samosas, and then we head out of the room. On our way to the “lift,” I notice an old Chinese man wearing a collarless grey shirt, black pants, and flat black Chinese slippers, sitting by the elevator bank in the rosewood arm chair, the polished emptiness of which I’ve gotten used to seeing every time I get on and off the elevator. He looks so quaint, so Chinese, almost like a postcard. Looking more closely, I notice he is sleeping. I wonder who he is, and why he, unlike the Chinese people I see in the hotel or on the street who all dress in Western clothes, is wearing this traditional garb. And what is he doing sleeping out here in the hallway? If he works for the hotel, where’s his maroon blazer? Is he some kind of elevator guardian? If so, are there guardians like him on every floor? I press UP instead of DOWN and push Dina onto the elevator to check. This ride has a mischievous feel and I am reminded of Eloise, the six-year-old in the children’s book, who goes scampering and skibbling up and down all the elevators and stairs of the New York Plaza. Up and up, we ride, stopping at each floor and holding the elevator door open long enough on each floor to see if there are any other old men sitting and sleeping in the rosewood chairs. “None on this floor!” I say. Dina chuckles in response to the back and forth and the rapid openings and closings of the elevator. All of this until Twenty-Four when two straight-faced Japanese men in business suits step into the elevator, and gasp at all the lit-up number circles on the elevator pad. Embarrassed, I push Dina off the elevator at Twenty-Three and seat myself in the empty rosewood arm chair, waiting for a minute or two until I press DOWN and wait for another elevator to come.
Day 5, 8 a.m.: Last night, David worked late again. I know that he is working hard trying to fit into the new office. Still, he didn’t bother to call to say when he was coming home, and no matter how many times I called his office number, all I got was voicemail. The one saving grace: for the first time since our arrival in Hong Kong, Dina slept through the night. I am angry, but because I am rested, it is a measured anger, which I can modulate and control. At breakfast, David apologizes for not calling to say he’d be late; he was at meetings out of the office, and when he got back to the room, Dina and I were already “out like a light.” He crunches his Corn Flakes as he talks, and I mumble that he should close his mouth when he eats. He flashes me a look as if to say, “What’s that for?” This morning, I have decided to order waffles, in part because David will consider it borderline unkosher, and watching me eat it will make him squirm. In general, he is stricter about these laws than I am, more unwilling to explore the idea of leniency. If he asks me why I’m ordering this I’ll say, “David, they don’t make anything in this waffle iron other than waffles, which are eggs, flour, butter and milk, and really, with all the trouble in the world, you really think this is something that God notices?” Before the waffles arrive, though, David’s already folding his white napkin and gathering up his stuff to go to work. I am crestfallen, because when he leaves, I will once again be alone with Dina in this strange hotel, and since she slept well last night, she’s not going to need such a long nap during the day. I regret not having provoked a full-blown argument, because that might’ve made him stay a least a little longer at breakfast; the realization of that regret makes me feel all the worse. Could it be that I’d rather fight with my husband than spend a whole day in a foreign city alone with my baby? I remind myself that I hold a graduate degree in literature and that my current ability to have long breakfasts with my daughter, i.e., my lack of a job, does not mean that I have become a non-person. David reads my mind, and as he gets up to leave he says, “Perhaps, you can get some writing done today.” Peck on the cheek. I nod and he’s off. I sip more coffee. Dina drops her rattle over the wooden ledge next to her seat. Tinky picks it up, washes it off, and hands it back to Dina. This morning’s phrase from Packy is “Nei ho ma?” (How are you?). “Gei ho, nei ne?” (Fine, and you?).
8:45 a.m.: After breakfast I see this sign by the elevator.
For all Guests of the Furama Kempinski
And for the Public (Fee, HKD 200)
Hatha Yoga: The Secret to Inner Peace
12 noon in the Tycoon Room
Instructor, Adam Masterson
When I think of yoga, I picture a man in a turban standing on his head, with his legs folded into an upside-down pretzel. Since I have the native flexibility of plywood, I cannot imagine how this can be the path to inner peace.
When Dina and I get off the elevator on Fifteen and turn right toward our room, we see him again: the Chinese man, who sleeps by the elevator. Dina babbles noisily and bangs the cymbals of her red rattle, but the man doesn’t even stir, so deep is he in his sleep. I walk down the hall a few doors and stop to insert the white card into the slot of 1508. The green light flickers, the lock clicks, I push down the door handle, and open the door. Before going in, I look back over my shoulder to the elevator bank to catch a second look. To my surprise, the armchair is now empty and the man is gone.
“You’ve reached David Lerner at Goodman, Mackenzie, Brown and Weiss. I’m away from my desk right now, but if you leave a message with your name and number, I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can. Josun. Beep.”
“Um, David, it’s Leah calling. This might sound like a strange question, but do you recall seeing a Chinese man sleeping in an armchair next to the fifteenth floor elevator? I saw him yesterday, and then, for an instant, today, and I’m wondering if maybe you’ve seen him, too. It seems strange that he sleeps there by the elevator. Anyway, maybe Dina will let me read this morning, and then there’s this yoga class in the hotel at noon. Might give it a try. Call me back. Love you. Click.”
12:00 NOON: After being pushed around a glitzy mall called Pacific Place, Dina is finally napping in her stroller against the wall by the door, and I’m waiting in the Tycoon Room for yoga class to begin. The only person in the room besides me is a middle-aged Japanese woman with maroon highlights in her hair and a pink leotard. Enter Adam Masterson, carrying a boombox: tall, slender, athletic but not bulky, a graceful vertical line in basketball shorts and an orange T-shirt that says, “Breathe.” I try to breathe but truly, I am half-stunned by his lean beauty and the naked provocation of his closely cropped blonde hair. He must be in his early twenties and looks more like a varsity athlete than a yoga instructor; I find myself blinking in disbelief as he plugs in his boombox, and begins playing his yoga soundtrack with tinkling bells and cymbals, and people singing Ohm, and the sounds of trickling water. He speaks in a sultry, almost whispery tone, and I can’t decide whether to laugh out loud or to move up to the front of the room so I can be closer to the sound of his voice.
“This is Tadasena, or Mountain Pose,” he says, as he stands with his arms by his side. It seems strange to me that standing with your arms by your side is a Pose and that it has a name other than Standing With Your Arms By Your Side. There’s other terminology too: Asana, Prana, Sadhana: we do Asanas in order to stimulate our Prana, and this practice is called Sadhana. I mentally note that all these words end in “ana” which, in liturgical Hebrew, means “please,” as in “Ana Hashem hoshiya na” (Please Lord send salvation) and “Ana Hashem hatzlicha na” (Please Lord make us prosper). We stand that way for several minutes, first with both legs together, and then with one leg wrapped around the other; I keep on listing to one side, but each time, Adam reaches out his hand to prod me back into balance. When he tells us to raise our arms in a V and to declare Victory, I think he must be referring to my triumph over the blatant desire to stop and stare at him. “Victory for your intentions!” he says. “To your aspirations, your core of strength! Be with your breath. Gather together all your positive energies, relinquish your preconceived notions, all failed belief systems, all suffering, anxiety, all negative intentions. Release them all and be with your breath. Release the need to be right.”
What releasing the need to be right seems to mean is turning upside down on all fours with our butts high in the air in a pose called the Downward Facing Dog—kind of like what Dina has been doing to try to pull herself up into a standing position. I find myself straining while upside down, to glance over in Dina’s direction and make sure that she’s still happily asleep, but I can barely see past my inner thigh. We hold this pose for what feels like twenty minutes, while Adam tells us how and what to breathe: “Inhale the warrior, exhale the slave. Inhale peace, exhale struggle. Inhale love, exhale animosity. I am very pleased with you both,” he says, “very pleased with your focus.” But all I’m focused on now is my shorts that have been hiking up and offering Adam a perhaps less-than-flattering glimpse of my pink backside. Then the Upward Facing Dog, the Cobra, and a whole string of consecutive poses called a Sun Salutation, which Adam calls, “Your prayer to your now.”
Now we return to mountain pose, and all of a sudden I see Adam looking straight at me with these piercing, intent, immensely serious eyes. “Soften your knees,” he says, as we get ready for yet another “Asana.” But looking at him look at me like that, my knees don’t need any more softening. I avert my eyes, stare at my feet. All I can think is, “Inhale, exhale, inhale the common sense, exhale the stupid idiot.” At the end of class, he turns the lights down low and has us lie on our backs. I find myself falling asleep, and then there’s a slight tap on my shoulder. “Jai bhagwan,” says Adam, his hands in prayer position.” “Huh?” I say groggily. “It means ‘I honor the light within you.’” “Oh, thanks,” I say, sitting up and scurrying over to push Dina’s stroller out of the room. I forget to tell him that I honor the light within him, too.
4:30 p.m.: A Postcard I Probably Won’t Mail
Today I went to a yoga class in the hotel. Promise me that you won’t tell this to anyone, but the yoga instructor was so gorgeous that just looking at him felt like a sin. Otherwise, same old same old. It’s still raining. And David’s still working. Remember that show “Alice” about that woman who works in a diner? They show the reruns of that show all the time here on Star TV. I’m afraid that Dina’s first words are going to be Kiss My Grits.
10:00 p.m.: David calls to say that he’s almost ready to leave the office, and no, he doesn’t recall ever seeing a man sleeping in a chair by the elevator; maybe he leaves before I get “home.”
“That must be it,” I say.
“How was yoga?” he asks.
“Weird,” I say.
“Not very active. A lot of holding your body in poses.”
“As in a photo shoot?”
“No. Imagine calisthenics and press Pause.”
“Teacher any good?”
“I guess. Kind of full of shit.”
“He called one of the exercises ‘our soul’s expression.’”
“Expressing the soul is good.”
“Yeah, but the whole time all I felt was an ache in my hips.”
“Maybe you just need practice.”
“Maybe it’s just a crock,” I say. I’m surprised how hard I’m working to sound blasé when all I want is more.
As I hang up the phone I think: Perhaps I should pray. I have all this time to myself; the rabbis exempt mothers from time-bound prayers on account of their domestic responsibilities, but given my limited load at the moment, and my inability to focus on any writing longer than an extra-large postcard, I ought at least to put some of this time to good use and think about God. Thumbing through the pocket prayer book I keep on the closet shelf, I find the bedtime Shema and recite “Hear O Israel” with all the extra prayers: “Whoever sits in the refuge of the Most High” and “Lay us down to sleep in peace, Hashem, our God,” and “May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless all the children” and through to the end that I’ve always skipped in the past, where God fights Satan with the help of King Solomon: “Behold! The couch of Shlomo! Sixty mighty ones round about it of the mighty ones of Israel, each with his sword on his thigh.”I close my eyes to images of slender and taut men flanking my bed, protecting me from wrong as I drift off to sleep.
Day 6, 8:30 a.m.: David’s at a morning meeting, Dina’s rubbing cereal on her nose. Today’s Cantonese expressions are “Are you married?” (Nei git joh fan mei a?”) and “Yes I am married” (Ngoh git joh fan). Tinky and Packy laugh at me because I can’t seem to intone the words properly. Apparently, I’m saying the fāān for rice instead of the joh fàn for marriage.
As I am trying to wipe mashed banana off Dina’s sleeve, the yoga teacher (himself!) approaches our table. I am caught off guard, cannot seem to remember his name, and come this close to spilling coffee all over Dina’s highchair. “Namaste,” he says.
“Nama’s what?” I say.
“I bow to you and your inner light. In other words, good morning. Mind if I join you?” He’s carrying a bowl of chicken congee and another plate with fritters. “Like some?” he asks.
“No thanks, I keep kosher.”
“That’s Jewish, right?” he says, chewing.
“Yes,” I say. “I can respect that: great discipline, great commitment. Must be tough not eating around here, though. You sure you don’t want to try while no one’s looking?” I find myself drifting into a stare as I watch him chew. “Just one bite?” he asks again. It is enticing, but something deep within compels me to shake my head an anxious no.
Apparently the hotel gives him a meals benefit as part of his yoga teaching salary, but he can’t always make it to the restaurant because he also teaches in other hotels. He has just one more week of teaching in Hong Kong; he figures he ought to eat as much free food as he can, and then it’s back to the U.S. to start law school.
“Law school? My husband’s a lawyer,” I say.
“Oh,” he says.
“But he doesn’t do yoga,” I say.
“Perhaps you should teach him.”
“Perhaps you should teach me first.”
“Perhaps I should,” he says, and then asks what we’re doing in Hong Kong.
“My husband’s job. It’s a three-year posting.”
“And what will you do?” he asks.
“I’m a writer,” I say. “Trying to be, that is. It’s hard with a baby.”
“So what’re you gonna write?”
“The Great Canadian American Chinese Jewish novel,” I say.
“Can I be in it?” he asks.
“Perhaps,” I say.
9:30 a.m.: A Postcard I’m Definitely Not Going to Mail
You think I’m depraved. You don’t know the half of it. Here I am, walking along Hollywood Road, which is this antiques district not that far from the hotel, with him, the hotel yoga teacher, whose name is Adam, easily the best-looking and most eloquent, if slightly bombastic, man I have ever encountered. We’re with Dina, of course. I have this quiver in my stomach of the sort I haven’t had in a long time, at least since I was dating David.
Everywhere on this street is something exquisite: Chinese puppets and rosewood furniture, jade statues, antique wedding baskets and rice bowls, every manner of statue and idol, and, in my peripheral vision, his chiseled profile and the spiky silhouette of his hair. Hewn cheekbones and jade green eyes. At one store called Gorgeous Arts and Crafts, Adam tells me of the significance of these statues called Foo Dogs, protectors of sacred buildings and defenders of the law. Their faces have a mischievous look to them, with wide-open eyes flecked in the middle with a tiny speck. This threatening appearance is what gives the idea that they guard against evil spirits. There’s this escalator that runs from Queens Road Central up the mountain to the next neighborhood called Mid-Levels. Adam’s hand grazes mine as we ride up, and I think, I need a Foo Dog, maybe sixty of them, of my very own.
Day 7: 12:00 noon. Dina is sleeping again in the stroller, and I am waiting in the Tycoon Room. There’s no one else here but me. Adam walks into the room in his basketball shorts, this time with a green T-shirt that says, “Bliss.” He stands right in front of me, places my arms by my side and we begin. He lifts my arms above my head together with his own and tells me to inhale. He slides his hands down the side of my body and tells me exhale and to bend over, his palms lingering on my thighs. I have nice thighs, I think. Better than most people. I wonder if they are nice enough. We do nine Sun Salutations, and somehow I manage to keep up the pace. When we arch our backs into the Upward Facing Dog, we face each other, our faces only inches apart, within tasting distance of each other’s breath.
“Let’s go somewhere,” he whispers.
In the lobby, a Filipino trio is playing a perky rendition of “Country Road Take Me Home,” while waitresses in long red silk skirts with slits up to their thighs begin serving the lunch buffet. I push the stroller toward the elevator with Adam trailing close behind, like an engine propelling me on a trajectory that I seem unable to predict. He holds my hand in the elevator and covers my finger with his own while I press Fifteen. When the elevator stops, we get off, turn right and walk down the hall a few doors to 1508, where I stop to insert the white card into the slot. The green light flickers, the lock clicks, I push down the door handle slowly and open the door; Adam follows close behind and suddenly we are alone, staring at each other. Adam reaches over with one hand and strokes my cheek with the back of his hand, tracing a line down to my chin. I am transfixed by his face; I tremble and wait, all the while wondering whether I should move toward him or run into the bathroom. “Breathe,” he says. “You’re too tense. Inhale from your heart’s center.” It suddenly strikes me, though, that I have no heart and no center. I am on the verge of betraying the man I married for no other reason than that this yoga teacher is so beautiful and I am lonely and bored. Adam’s lips are about an inch away from mine, but something burning and bitter rises in my throat and I swallow uneasily. “Don’t worry,” he says, stroking my other cheek. “It’s just you and me. No one will ever know.”
Just then the doorbell rings and I jump up. “Who is it?” I call out toward the door, frantic that it might be David, though it’s unlikely he’d ever come to the hotel in the middle of the day. No one answers. The bell rings again, this time over and over, without letting up. “I’d better answer it; it might be something important.” Trembling, I open the door, and there he is, the old Chinese man wearing a collarless grey shirt, black pants and flat black Chinese slippers. But this time, instead of sleeping in his chair by the elevator, he is standing in front of the door of our Superior suite, his hands clenched on the handle of Dina’s stroller, which I inadvertently left outside the room and which now holds a screaming baby. “Oh my God!” I gasp, realizing what I had done in leaving Dina out in the hallway and in stepping into this room with this strange man. “I’m sorry,” I say to Adam. “You’d better go now.” Adam is opening his mouth to protest, when the Chinese man in the collarless grey shirt, black pants, and Chinese slippers flashes him an angry expression, his eyes wide open and flecked in the middle with a tiny speck. Before I know it, both of them are gone.
For the rest of the day I remain on edge, wondering what is wrong with me that I allowed this man into my room. I must have the moral constitution of crepe paper, letting him trace lines on my face and body, and what if the Chinese man had never rung the doorbell? I should never have agreed to journey halfway around the world to this place where everything I have always thought about myself is becoming distorted, thinning and thickening in astonishing ways, a fun-house mirror version of me. In the midst of all of this self-flagellation, I start to breathe from the center of my body, and it suddenly strikes me that all of this would make a great story if I just found the way and time to write it all down.
Day 8: 8:45 am: This morning, towards the end of breakfast, I look across the room, and in a far corner, partly blocked by a screen, I see him again, the old Chinese man. He is sitting at a table with an even older Chinese man, whom he is feeding with a spoon. Next to the table is a wheelchair with a satchel on the seat, almost like the bag I have for Dina’s diapers and wipes. “Packy,” I say, “do you know who that man is over on the other side of the room? The one helping the very elderly Chinese man?” I try to avoid pointing, using my head as a directional marker.
“Oh, Mr. Chang,” says Packy. “Assistant to Mr. Liu. Because when Mr. Liu comes from Taiwan to visit his son in Hong Kong, he stay here, and Mr. Chang help him.”
“Mr. Liu’s room must be on the fifteenth floor,” I say. “I’ve seen Mr. Chang before, sleeping on a chair by the elevator. One second he’s there. The next second he’s gone.”
“Maybe when Mr. Liu sleeping,” Packy says. “Today Mr. Liu and Mr. Chang leave Hong Kong, return to Taiwan.”
At last, a mystery solved.
Dina bangs on the high chair tray with a spoon and babbles to Horace and Tinky who begin to clear the table. In the midst of the banging and babbling, Dina stops, points up at something and begins to smile. I look behind me and see that she is pointing to Mr. Chang, who is now pushing old Mr. Liu in his wheelchair toward the elevator. Mr. Chang smiles back at Dina and me and waves his hand, as if to say hello and goodbye all at once. “Bebe-ah! Hen piaoling,” he says.
“Baby very beautiful,” translates Packy.
“Mgoi saai,” I say to Mr. Chang, hoping that I have chosen the right Chinese version of thank you, and wanting to convey as much gratitude as the words thank you can bear.
Day 9, 5:00 p.m. Dina and I are sitting in the room, watching Barney. The phone rings and I assume that it’s David, calling to say that he’ll be working late again. I take a deep breath in an effort to normalize the sound of my voice; I am still getting over the “incident,” wondering if I need to tell David what happened even though nothing really happened. Did anything really happen?
It is David on the phone, but he won’t be working late. He knows that all he’s been doing these past few days is work, and so he’s arranged to get off early. I should bring Dina down to the lobby and he’ll meet me there in five minutes. “You’re going to love this,” he says.
Anxiously, I grab a bottle, a diaper and changing pad, and a toy for Dina, and we hurry downstairs to the lobby. David arrives and I try to pry the surprise out of him, but he insists that I have to see it with my own two eyes. We cross the street into Chater Garden and all the way to Garden Road, where we walk up the hill past the Bank of China Tower and the Citibank Buildings. Behind is a smaller highrise building, which has been encased in bamboo scaffolding from the sidewalk halfway up to the top. Two workmen are sitting on a platform about fifteen feet up and are sipping tea from a thermos. It looks like a life-size Tinkertoy structure, but without the red discs with the holes to hold the rods. “Isn’t it amazing?” David says. “No steel or iron in this. Just bamboo that they tie together with this plastic rope. And yet there is nothing that we do in North America that is stronger than this. Wanna climb up?”
“Are you nuts?”
“Why not?” he says. “I asked the guys already and they said it’s okay. Safe and everything. I’ll watch Dina. Don’t worry. It’ll be fun.”
So here I am, climbing up this bamboo jungle gym, amazed to see how strong and flexible these poles are. I feel a slight give under my feet each time I climb, but I am not jostled or thrown off balance. Behind me is the thrum and clatter of a nearby construction site and the swoosh of the cars on Garden Road. I keep on climbing higher and higher as if buoyed by all the sounds. The two workers sipping their tea cheer me on and move over slightly to make room for me when I reach the platform. David yells up his encouragement as well, but I do not look down for fear that I’ll lose my balance. A few more rungs and I am there. “Ho, Ho,” they say. “Good, good.” One of them hands me a Cross pen and points down to David. The other hands me a bound book with blank pages. “For the novel,” David calls up, holding on to the handle of Dina’s stroller. I feel tears welling up in my eyes, but I am afraid to cry, afraid to shake the ledge and fall off, afraid to spoil the moment. “Catch!” I call out, tossing down first the pen and then the book, knowing that I cannot hold these things and also hang on to climb down. As it falls, the blank book flaps open and closed, swelling and contracting, as if taking deep, calming breaths, all the way down to the ground.
Copyright © Wendy Zierler 2013
Wendy Zierler is Associate Professor of Feminist Studies and Modern Jewish Literature at HUC-JIR in New York. A native of Toronto, she received her Ph.D. and her MA from Princeton University and her BA from Yeshiva University, Stern College From 1997-2001, she was a Research Fellow at the University of Hong Kong. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing (Wayne State University Press, 2004) as well as a feminist Haggadah commentary published in My People’s Passover Haggadah, edited by Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights 2004). Together with Carole Balin, she is editor and translator of the Collected Writings of Hava Shapiro, (Hebrew, Resling Press, 2008; English translation forthcoming from Wayne State University Press). She was recently a finalist in the Moment Magazine/ Karma Foundation short story contest.