Authors: Tash Aw
Tags: #Literary, #Urban, #Cultural Heritage, #Fiction
People say that it is hard to leave your life behind and that when the time comes for you to do so you will feel reluctance and longing for your home. But these are people with nice lives to leave behind. For others it is different. Leaving is a relief.
The emails continued, full of
marks as usual, but they were less frequent, and finally, at the Internet café near East Tsim Sha Tsui station, while waiting for the train to Shenzhen, Phoebe logged on for the first time in four days to find not a single email from her friend. Not even a short message that said,
hurry, too excited
, followed by lots of smileys. When at last she got to Shenzhen, it took her some time to locate the restaurant. The sign was proud and shiny.
NEW WORLD INTERNATIONAL RESTAURANT
, it read above twin pillars of twisted gold dragons—Phoebe recognized it from the photos her friend had sent her. The menu was still in a glass case outside, a sure sign of a classy joint. But as she approached, Phoebe’s heart began to experience a dark fluttering in her rib cage, the way she imagined bat wings would feel against her cheek. It was a sensation
that would stay with her for the rest of her time in China. The glass doors were open, but the restaurant was dim even though it was the middle of the afternoon. When she stepped inside, she saw an empty space without any chairs and tables. Part of the floor had been ripped up, and on the concrete she could see messy patches of glue where the carpets had once been laid. There was a bar decorated with scenes of Chinese legends carved in bronze, cranes flying over mountains and lakes. Some workmen were shifting machinery and tools at the far end of the restaurant, and when Phoebe called out to them they seemed confused. The restaurant had closed down a few days ago; soon it would be a hot-pot chain. The people who worked there? Probably just got jobs somewhere else. No one stays in a job for long in Shenzhen, anyway.
She thought, This is not a good situation.
She tried calling her friend’s mobile phone number, but it was dead. This number is out of use, the voice told her, over and over again. Each time she dialed, it was the same. This number is out of use.
She checked how much money she had and began to look for a cheap guesthouse. The streets were clean but full of people. Everyone looked as though they were hurrying to an appointment; everyone had someplace to go. Amid the mass of people that swarmed around her like a thick, muddy river, she started to notice a certain kind of person, and soon they were the only people she really saw. Young single women. They were everywhere, rushing for the bus or marching steadfastly with steely looks on their faces, or going from shop to shop handing out their CVs, their entire lives on one sheet of paper. They were all restless, they were all moving, they were all looking for work, floating everywhere, casting out their lives to whoever would take them.
So this is how it happens. This is how I become like them, Phoebe thought. In the space of a few hours she had passed from one world to another. One moment she was almost an assistant manager in an international classy restaurant; next moment she was a migrant worker. Her new life had materialized out of thin air like a trick of fate: unattached, searching, alone. Some people say that when you find other people who are just like you, who share your position in life, you feel happier, less alone, but Phoebe did not think this was true. Knowing that she was the same as millions of other girls made her feel lonelier than ever.
She found a standard room in a place that called itself a hotel, but it
was so low-class that it felt like a hostel. The door wouldn’t lock, so she slept with her handbag tucked into her belly, curving into a tight “C” shape.
Those first few months in Shenzhen passed very quickly. During this time Phoebe did a number of jobs that she would rather not talk about right now. Maybe someday, but not now.
You can rely only on yourself. There are no true friends in this world. If you place your trust in others, you will open yourself to danger and hurtfulness
She took the bus to Guangzhou and got a job at a factory for the Guangdong Bigfaith Quality Garment Company, which made fashion clothes for Western brands—not the expensive labels that Phoebe had heard of but lesser ones that sold shiny colorful clothes. The other girls, though, told Phoebe that the clothes were sold in trendy shops, even though they were low cost. Apparently, in the West, even rich people bought cheap clothes. Personally, Phoebe did not want any of the skirts or jackets or blouses that were made at the factory; they looked unclassy even to her. Her job was to match up the orders to the delivery notes and make sure that everything tallied. It was not a difficult job, but still she cried every night. The hours were long and at night she had to endure being in a dorm with the other girls, so many other girls. She hated seeing their underwear strung up on washing lines in every room, even in the corridors, drying in the damp air. Everywhere you went in the dormitory block, all you saw were lines of damp underwear, and the whole place smelled of detergent and sweat. All day and night there was arguing and crying. She hated this, especially the nighttime sobbing. It was as if everyone thought that when it was dark no one could hear them cry. She had to get away from them, she was not like them, but for now she had no choice.
The other hard thing to deal with was the jealousy, the things that were being said about her. (Why did she get such a good job straightaway? Why was she in admin and not on the production line, when she’d only just entered the company? I hear she hasn’t even been out for that long.) Well, Phoebe wanted to explain, first of all it was because she could speak English and Cantonese, the language of all the rich factory owners down here in the south. And, quite simply, it was because she was better than the rest of them. But she knew to keep silent. She was afraid of the large groups of girls who came from the big provinces, especially the Hunanese girls who
smuggled things out of the factory to sell outside and threatened to kill anyone who reported them. They liked to fight. Everyone had their own clan for protection: The Sichuan girls looked after one another; even the Anhui girls were numerous enough to have support. Only Phoebe was alone, but she would rise up above them all, because she was smarter. A line stuck in her head, advice given to her by the self-made millionaire.
Hide your brightness; remain in the shadows
. So she had to endure the jealousy and the detergent and the sweat and the crying. But for how long?
Do not let lesser people drag you down. You are a star that shines brightly
She had a picture of a Taiwanese pop star by her bed. It was just a page torn from a magazine, an advertisement for cow’s milk, but it was a nicer decoration than the strung-up panties that the other girls had. It was a struggle to keep the Scotch tape stuck on the glossy painted walls, because the humidity kept making the top corner fall away. But still she persisted so that she could look at him and dream about a world where there was no sobbing. If she turned her body at an angle, they were the only two in the world. She liked his delicate smile and watery eyes and found even the silly white milk mustache on his lip endearing. When she looked at his face, she felt an eternal hope swell up in her chest. His gentleness made her forget about the harshness of the world and made her believe that she could work hard and show the world her true inner beauty. Maybe she could one day even be his girlfriend. Oh, she knew that it was only a fantasy, but he was so dreamy and reminded her of the boys she had grown up with, whom she would remember forever as teenagers, even though they had now all moved to the cities and were selling fake-leather wallets and probably amphetamines on the side. They had been so happy before, and now they were all growing old so quickly, including Phoebe.
But you are so young, little sister. This is what the new manager of her division began saying to her one day. He was a man from Hong Kong, not fat not thin, not ugly not handsome, just a man from Hong Kong. Once a month he would visit the factory and spend four or five days there. Every time he came, he would call her into his office and show her the gifts he had brought for her—a bag of the juiciest tangerines, small sugary pineapples from Taiwan, strawberries, some foreign chocolate that tasted bitter and floury—delicacies that people bought when they could afford to travel. The hamper of fruit lay on his desk, wrapped in stiff crinkly plastic that made a loud noise when she touched it. She did not know how she
was going to carry it all the way back to her dorm, across the huge courtyard and the basketball courts, did not know where she would keep it or how she would explain it to the other girls. The jealousy toward her had not really gone away; the tide had subsided for now but was waiting to well up like a tsunami at any moment. She knew that the gift was wrong, that she had not done anything to deserve it, but as she looked at the shiny ripe persimmons, she felt special. Someone had noticed her; someone had thought of her enough to buy her nice things. It had been a long time since anyone had done that, so she accepted the gift.
As she carried the basket down the corridor to her dorm, she could feel the other girls’ hot stares burning her with their envy. She was sweating and her heart was heavy with guilt, heavier than the basket she was carrying. But as she walked in to the dorm, she found herself talking freely, the words flowing easily from her mouth.
, everyone, look what I have! A cousin of mine in Hong Kong got married to a very rich man. I couldn’t afford to go to the wedding, so they sent me some tokens of their big celebration. Come, come, let’s all share!
, you did not tell us you are from Hong Kong.
Yes, Phoebe said, from near the border, in the New Territories.
Oooh, the girls said as they reached for the fruit. So I guess it’s natural that you speak Cantonese! We thought you just learned it to curry favor with the boss!
This is how things happen in China, Phoebe thought as she sat watching her new friends share the basket of fruit. Things change so fast. From then on, all the girls knew who she was, and they were nice to her. They took her clothes and washed them for her when she was on a long shift, and some of them began to talk to her about their private lives—where they were from, their boyfriend problems, their ambitions. One day she was talking to a girl, someone she shared meal breaks with in the canteen sometimes, not really a friend. The girl’s mobile phone rang, and the girl looked at the screen without answering. Her face twisted into a pained expression and she handed the phone to Phoebe, saying, It’s the boy I was telling you about, the one who bullies me. Phoebe took the phone and did not even say hello. This is your ex-girlfriend’s older cousin-sister, she said. This mobile phone belongs to me now. Your ex has a new boyfriend and he is rich and educated, not a stupid peasant like you, so go away or else I
will make trouble for you. I know who you are and which lousy place you work at.
, you are amazing, Phoebe! the girl said. Everyone was laughing, and someone even reached out and put her arm around Phoebe’s shoulders.
On her first day off that month, she went with some other girls to the cinema. They stopped at a fast-food place and had bubble milk tea before buying a box of octopus balls, which they ate while strolling through the night market, linking elbows as if they were still in middle school. They turned their noses up at the cheap clothes, far cheaper than the ones they made in the factory, stall after stall of thin spangled nylon. The music on the speakers was loud, thumping in their rib cages and drowning out their heartbeats. It made them feel so alive. The smell of fried food and charcoal grills felt familiar to Phoebe—she did not feel so very far from home after all. They saw posters advertising the latest concert of the Taiwanese singer she liked, and the ticket prices did not look too expensive.
, we should all save up some money and go! someone said. Phoebe, you love Gary, don’t you? Maybe we can share the cost of your ticket, because you are always cooking for us and sharing your food with us. I hear he’s going to sing some Cantonese songs too, since it’s here in Guangzhou, so you can teach us to sing along!
She was happy that they offered, but she knew that these were empty promises and that no one would actually buy her a ticket.
She stopped to buy a shiny black top decorated with beads, but the other girls scolded her. Forty
! Too expensive.
, new girls are always the same, always spending money on useless things instead of sending it home. Besides, you should be buying nicer clothes, something that suits your slim figure better, not some old-mother style! Phoebe bought it anyway; she didn’t care. It had pretty embroidery, a red rose adorned with silver beads that fanned out from each petal.
But as swiftly as the bright cool days of autumn give way to the damp chill of winter, life also changes. Phoebe knew this by now. Nothing ever stood still in China; nothing was permanent. A person who is loved cannot expect that love to remain for long. There is no reason for them to keep this love; they do not have a right to be loved.
She shared her third basket of fruit and other delicacies with her dorm
friends. This time there were bags of dried scallops and a tin of abalone, which none of them had ever tasted before, and they gathered to cook a meal together. It was too luxurious for lowly people like them, one girl remarked—this meal was all thanks to Phoebe.
Really, said another girl, lifting her rice bowl to her mouth, Boss Lin says this kind of thing is not so special in Hong Kong; everyone eats it over there.
How would you know? When do you ever talk to Boss Lin?
Hmm, it’s true. I rarely get a chance to speak to him. The only person he speaks to is Phoebe.
I wish he didn’t, Phoebe joked. He is so boring.
, it’s only because of my stupid job that I have to have contact with him.
It seems he takes a special interest in you. He even calls you into his private office.