Maureen F McHugh

China Mountain Zhang


The foreman chatters in Meihua, the beautiful tongue, Singapore English. 'Get he over here. All this trash here! Got little time.' He is a stocky little Chinese man who has suffered disappointments. 'Someone work that cutter, xing buxing?'

Someone is me, the tech on the job. 'Xing,' I say, 'Okay.' Good equipment can't be trusted to stupid New York natives. I heft the cutter, balance it against my thigh. My goggles darken, shutting out the buildings, even the lot we are clearing to build.

'Okay,' he says, backing away, glad to have an ABC engineer. ABC-American Born Chinese, or like the waiguoren, the non-Chink say, Another Bastard Chink. With my goggles dark I can't see anything but the glow at the end of the cutter as it goes through rusted, twisted steel, girders in tangles and laying there like string dropped in a pile. Where the cutter touches it goes through like butter, and where the steel is cut it will shine clean and rust free. Steel drops spatter like quicksilver, glowing metal white. The air smells like a thunderstorm coming.

I swear softly at the foreman in Spanish, but he is too far away to hear anything, which is good. He does not know I speak Spanish. ABC; he knows I speak Mandarin-Poutonghua-and American Standard and the Singapore English Asians call Meihua and waiguoren call Chinglish. (Waiguoren don't get the joke. Meihua, beautiful language, because this is Meiguo- America. In Mandarin, Meiguo means 'beautiful country' because 'Meiguo' approximated the sound in A-mer-i-ca to Chinese ears.)

The foreman is all right, for someone born inside. He speaks English as if he learned it in school in Shanghai, which he did, but at least he speaks it unaugmented. He likes me; I work hard and I speak Mandarin better than most ABC. I am almost like a real Chinese person. My manners are good. An example of how breeding will out, even in a second rate country like this. He can talk to me, and there are probably very few people Foreman Qian sees each day who he can talk to. 'You here what for?' he asks me. 'You smart. You go Shanghai?' Everyone inside thinks that all the rest of us are dying to go to China.

If I went to China to study I'd be doing a great deal better than working as a tech engineer on a construction crew. Maybe the rest of us are dying to go to China, maybe even me. But maybe Spanish is the first language I ever learned because my mother's birth name was Teresa Luis and it's just because my parents paid to adjust the genetic make-up of their son that I look like a slope-head like my father. So Qian doesn't know; my last name is Zhang and I speak Mandarin and when he asks me why I don't go to Shanghai or Guangzhou to study I just shrug.

It infuriates him, that shrug. He thinks it is a native characteristic, that it indicates indifference and a kind of self-defeating fatalism. But just looking Chinese is not enough to get someone to China. My parents weren't rich and tinkering with genes is expensive. Maybe I would map close enough to Chinese standard to pass, then again, maybe something in them would prove me Hidalgo. I don't apply so I don't ever have to take the medical.

Pretty soon the steel is lying in pieces that can be carried away. I shut off the cutter, my goggles lighten and I'm back in the real world. 'Give it fifteen minutes to cool,' I say, 'then get it out of here.' The crew has been watching me cut, they'll stop to watch anything. The foreman stands there with his hands on his hips. Waiguoren think that Chinese never show any expression, so of course, he's not showing any and neither am I. So the crew thinks we are angry because they're not doing anything and drifts back to work. They're a good crew except when Foreman Qian is here, then I can't get them to do a damn thing.

'Zhang,' the foreman says and so I follow him into the office. Inside, over the door it says 'The Revolution lives in the people's hearts' but the paint is wearing thin. It was probably painted during the Great Cleansing Winds campaign. I don't think Foreman Qian is very pure ideologically, he has too much interest in the bottom line. It is like the crucifix in the hall of the apartment where I grew up, something everyone passes every day. I have no religion, neither Christ nor Mao Zedong.

'I often ask you, what you do with your life, you pretty good boy,' Foreman Qian says. 'We each and each respect, dui budui?'

'Dui,' I say. 'Right.'

'Here, you tech engineer, job so-so.'

'Bu-cuo,' I answer, 'Not bad.'

'I have daughter,' Foreman Qian says, 'Request you to my home come, meet her, hao buhao? '

I have the momentary sense that this conversation, which Foreman Qian and I have had before, has just gone way out of my depth. 'Foreman Qian,' I say, stuttering, 'I-I cannot… I am only tech engineer… '

'Not be fool,' he says and drops in Mandarin. 'How old are you, twenty-five?'

'Twenty-six, sir.'

'My wife and I, together we have one daughter. There is no one here for her, I would like her to meet a nice young man.'

'Foreman Qian,' I do not know what to say.

'I have no son, and I will not get to go back to China -' He is a Chinese citizen and if the best he can do is a job as a construction foreman, he's in disgrace. I wonder what Foreman Qian did during the Great Cleansing Wind to get in trouble. 'I have a cousin at Shanghai University. I would sponsor a son-in-law there.'

This is unexpected. This is disaster. Whatever has old Qian thinking that I would make a good son-in-law? It looks great from the outside, offer a 26 year-old a chance at Shanghai University and citizenship-by-marriage which is almost as good as born-inside-citizenship. Maybe I would get a chance to stay inside, then his daughter would have a home there. Foreman Qian and his wife would retire to China and live with their daughter and son- in-law.

'I understand that you have not even met my daughter,' Foreman Qian says. 'I mean nothing except that you should meet.'

'I cannot, Elder Qian,' I am quaintly formal in my attempt to say something, falling back on school book Mandarin, ludicrous phrases. 'I am unworthy.' Mea culpa. I am violently flushed, for the first time in years I am so embarrassed that I actually feel hot. 'I, I am a foreigner.'

He waves that away. 'Accident of birth place.'

I open my mouth to say 'no', but I cannot say it. Not only is it rude, but I can't say it. I am impure, a mongrel. I am an imposter. And there is more that he doesn't know. When I tell him what I am, he will look foolish because he has mistaken me for Chinese, he will lose face. We will pretend that nothing was ever said. Then when this job is finished he will inform me that the company can no longer use me. It is not easy to find jobs.

'You think about it, meet her. Maybe you will not get along, maybe you will. No harm in meeting.'

I should finish this now, explain, but I flee.

I meet my mother for lunch every six months or so. Filial duty. Teresa Luis lives in Pennsylvania and commutes to work here in Manhattan. She has another family, a husband and two sons. She and my father were divorced during the Great Cleansing Winds. Elder Zhang lives out on the West Coast where he is an office manager for a company that builds robots to do precision robotics. I have not seen him for fifteen years.

I meet her in the market, getting off the subway at Times Square.

I don't know why she likes to eat in the market; I think it is a tacky place with all the close streets and the booths and sidewalk sellers. She says it has charm. My mother works at Citinet in International Banking. She is a clerk. She always wears those suits that are almost like uniforms-drab colors with tails to the backs of her knees.

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