The Local Dialect : By Jennifer Lee

Old Yang

I didn’t want to hire Old Yang. That was my husband’s doing. His secretary had set up the meeting but I told John that her recommendation meant nothing; Old Yang was probably a cousin or neighbor or maybe they were from the same ancestral village. John insisted. At the meeting Old Yang was sitting in a cafe cutting his fingernails. All, that is, except for the left pinky. That nail was two inches long and filed to a sharp point. His hair was greasy and he reeked of smoke. He wasn’t even that old, maybe forty, tops, though it’s hard for me to tell. Chinese faces don’t seem to age the way ours do. As I age my face shrinks, the skin becoming papery, but Old Yang’s looks thick, tanned, and full, like a grapefruit.

I told Old Yang I’d give him a try but I was seeing other agents too. You got to make them think you don’t really need them. That’s the advantage they have over us, you know. They know the lay of the land; they have endless resources. They don’t really need us.

On our first outing together Old Yang seemed in no hurry to show me an apartment. He meandered along the road, pausing to talk to the women selling black market DVDs. He thumbed through the stacks of TV series, then held one up: “Friends,” complete with a poorly photocopied picture of the cast. The text read like it had been through Google Translate. “Amidst this frenzy, an eclectic group of friends… where time hastens forward, traffic and the city masses move backwards…”

“You look like Jennifer Aniston,” Old Yang exclaimed. When I told him, with some irritation, that I look nothing like her, he was disappointed. “But,” he persisted, “You seen this, yes?” I said no, I was too busy to watch TV. He signaled to the seller with his hands, signs I now recognize as numbers. A slight shake of the fist for “ten,” pointer finger crooked for “nine.” He handed me a black plastic bag with ten seasons of Friends before I could say anything. “You take this home and watch. It make you laugh!” I resolved not to call him again. I went back to the hotel and threw the bag in the back of the closet, with the still-packed boxes of photos, linens, and kitchenware.

I tried two other agents, both women, but they were too pushy. I like to take my time when I see a place. I like to ask questions about the heat, the light, the neighbors. To close my eyes and smell the air, to listen to the traffic, to feel the sun trace the day from one window to the next. I have to imagine how it would feel to come home. One agent kept opening drawers and doors, explaining features to the minutest detail, trying to close the deal. The other one kept making loud phone calls, either to impress me or to show she wasn’t intimidated by me, I’m not sure which.

So, one month later, it’s just Old Yang. He doesn’t buy me any more DVDs. Each

morning I stand at the entrance of our residence hotel and watch the children get on their school bus. They’re happy to go; there are no young people in this part of Lujiazui. It is a corporate kind of place, all the buildings in that International Modern style and the streets full of bankers. It had seemed safer somehow, close to John’s office, away from the crumbling buildings of the old Concession areas, but now as fall edges towards winter it’s become cold and dark between the skyscrapers. After the children leave Old Yang appears from somewhere between the tobacco store and the place selling steamed rolls. He shows me his list of five apartments, scrawled in his long, straight hand on a piece of notepaper. Somehow even his English writing looks foreign to me, like Chinese calligraphy.

Old Yang likes to walk, and so do I. He avoids the big roads where the fumes from the traffic are the worst. Instead he leads me through alleyways where undershirts hang from balconies and old men and women idle on plastic chairs. They gape and point as I pass, and Old Yang pretends they are staring at him. “I very famous,” he tells me, with a grin that reveals his tobacco-stained teeth. He tries to convince me to taste some animal cooking on a outdoor spit. It smells good, but there’s no running water nearby, and no separation between the sewer and the makeshift restaurant. Can’t possibly be sanitary. Men in white caps and robes turn the spit. “Xin- jiang yangrouchuan,” Old Yang says, then shrugs helplessly when I ask him what that means. I tell myself I’ll ask someone else, I’ll lead them to the same place and ask for the translation. But there is no one to ask, and I’m not sure if I can find the place again.

John says I’m stalling. He says it’s my passive-aggressive way of resisting the move and quitting my job. The kids are settling in, why can’t you? Find a project, he says: collect antiques or help migrant workers or hold babies at an orphanage. I want to smack him.

When I told my friends we were moving I said, “What an experience it’ll be. Shanghai! I could use a break from work. Use the time to see the world. To reconnect with John and the kids. Who knows, maybe we’ll come back in a year or two, speaking the local dialect!” If I hadn’t said that, I could go back next week. Now I’m counting the days, hours, and minutes that I’m stuck in this place.

Today I tell Old Yang, Let’s get out of Lujiazui. Let’s look for something closer to the children’s school. He gestures to a taxi, eyebrows raised. I reach out and lower his arm. He studies me for a moment and takes me to a convenience store, where he helps me purchase a “jiao- tong ka.” We walk past the other real estate offices and the young men handing out flyers greet him with a smile, offer him cigarettes. Sometimes he accepts them, and sometimes he gives up some of his own. I can’t figure out if it’s information being exchanged or if the cigarettes themselves are currency. We stand at the bus stop with a schoolboy wearing his uniform, including red scarf. Old Yang asks the boy questions and slips him a treat. The boys accepts it with a small bow, and tucks it into his pocket.

The man sitting in the front of the bus has a live chicken in his bag. The crowd of people behind me pushes me to the back, where Old Yang indicates an empty seat next to the window. A young woman is sitting in the aisle seat, too busy texting to notice me. Old Yang nudges her, and she moves her legs so I can climb across and sit. They exchange a few words and over the noise of the engine he shouts, “This woman Dongbeiren. Not Shanghairen.” I nod though I don’t understand the judgement behind this. I have lost my bearings.

The apartment is in a complex of one hundred forty-story buildings. The guards at the gate check Old Yang’s ID, glance at me, and wave us in. Groups of ayi push strollers and children with split-bottom pants and no underwear squat in the playground. Two middle-aged woman stroll arm-in-arm wearing pajamas. Men drag the leaves and debris from the miles of fountains that line the paths. “Water makes quiet,” Old Yang explains. “Also have frog, to eat mosquitoes. But frog noisy at night!” He pulls out a handkerchief to mop his brow. He has a thick scar on one hand, clear across one palm. He probably lives in an unheated apartment on the edge of town, with his wife and extended family. I try to imagine him with her, try to imagine them touching each other, in the throes of passion. But all I can picture is a woman as worn as him, her hands thick and chapped from work, her cheeks permanently red, her hair thinning. I see her slurping down noodles and laughing with her mouth open at some variety show on the television. I picture them like livestock, their house dark and crowded and full of smells, the door always open. This image helps explain to me why he is so unfailingly joyful on our excursions. When we enter the apartments he is careful not to sit on the furniture or use the bathroom but he touches the furniture sometimes, rubs his fingers together like he’s checking for dust. I think it’s his way of experiencing the place, imagining what it must be like to live there, maybe pretending he lives there himself. Sometimes, especially if we’re up high, he goes to the balcony and looks down over the city, laughing at the lives of people below like he’s watching a show. Sometimes he looks deep into the distance, as if he’s searching for something, and I wonder about the stories I hear, of babies abandoned, of mistresses kept, of government spies and persecution.

This apartment is currently owned by Americans, he tells me. Maybe it will suit me better than the others. He opens the door and steps aside to let me in first. The first thing I notice is the smell of cinnamon lingering in the air, and something sharp in my heart. The dining furniture is the same set we had at home, the first grown-up furniture we bought after we got married. Everything about this apartment seems familiar, from the photographs and Christmas cards on the buffet, to the books in the bookshelf, to the brand of hand soap in the bathroom.

I go to the balcony where Old Yang stands, looking over the city. Like so many things in Shanghai, the rain has come without warning, at least no warning that I detected. We stand and look down at the rush of the cars, the motorcyclists covered in billowing plastic. “This is not it either,” I tell him, and without looking at me, he nods.

4th of July

“Bu zhi dao, bu zhidao,” I tell the taxi driver as we weave through the compound where Caroline lives. Maybe the guard at the gate made him nervous, scrutinizing my face before waving us through. Maybe it’s the cul-de-sacs of brick homes, white columns, garages. Some have basketball hoops and trampolines. The driver keeps hitting the breaks, keeps asking me “Na li?” His plastic thermos is sloshing yellow and I wonder if it’s tea or urine. We pass each house slowly, peering out the windows, as if preparing for a drive-by. A workman in faded blue overalls tears the plastic off of cigarettes with his teeth.

The same hundred phrases of Chinese get me through almost every day. Sometimes I think: what is all the rest of language for? And other times I feel like one of those restaurant tank fish, scooped out and weighed, eyes staring and gills opening but no oxygen getting in.

I met Caroline at the Jinqiao Starbucks. She was the only other Western woman not wearing yoga pants. As I got in line behind her she turned and winked. “I don’t think they actually work out. Look at them! Their hair is, like, perfectly coiffed.” We both laughed and she invited me to her house for the 4th of July. “We’re having a casual get-together. Just bring a dish to share.” I must have looked uncertain, because she took my arm and said, “Look, honey, finding friends here is like speed dating. You’ve got to meet a bunch of people, try them on, see if you click.”

So here I am, feeling like an idiot with my Pyrex bowl of chili. Finally, up ahead, a cul- de-sac has been blocked off by red, white, and blue balloons tied to a line of folding chairs. “Qing ting na li! Man man de! Xie xie.”

A small army of ayis ferry dishes of mashed potatoes, ribs, and hamburgers to a row of tables covered in Stars and Stripes. It looks like every American in town is here. I deposit my chili and weave through the crowd.

Caroline is arguing with one of the bao’an guards, wearing artfully ripped jeans and a Bruce Springsteen tee-shirt. “Mingbai, mingbai, keyi,” she says, and abruptly hands him something which he pockets. A moment later he’s on his walkie talkie striding away.

“What was that about?”

“Oh, I needed a place to plug in the bouncy house, so I broke into my neighbor’s garage – – they’re on vacation. No worries, I slipped him a hundred kuai. Come on, let me introduce you to some people.”

I wish I hadn’t come. My feet itch the way they do each morning before I wander. I board a bus or a subway train at random, telling John that I’m off in search of the heart of darkness. I ride until I begin to imagine being stranded, kidnapped, injured and left at a local hospital, stuck with reused syringes. Only then do I get off, my throat clogged and my shirt sticky. Sometimes I’m immediately surrounded by beggar children who paw at my clothes and plead, Please, Please. Sometimes the landscape is desolate with bulldozers and steel rods rising twisted from the rubble like dandelions. Characters scrawled in red ink on half-demolished walls run dripping into the sidewalk. Sometimes I get lucky and there’s a fight and I’m just one of the crowd, pushing and jostling for a better view, feeding off the anger, alive with the blood.

Caroline takes me by the arm and leads me into the crowd. “That one over there is Nicole, one of the GM wives. She’s good to know, but don’t talk politics with her. I mean, I don’t know what your political affiliation is…” she leans away and pretends to study me, “but she’s, like, a Tea Party anti-vaxxer. No judgement, just be aware…”

Nicole is wearing a red, white, and blue polo shirt, khaki capris, and white sandals which display her pedicure. Even her big toes are painted blue with white stars. “Caroline! There you are! My goodness, this is amazing! I don’t know how you do it! Did Ted help?”

“Oh, girlfriend, of course not! It was me and ayi.” She turns to me in a theatrical aside. “My husband’s an engineer, and I adore him, but he’s completely dysfunctional. You know how it is, ‘Where are my keys, where are my glasses, what time’s my dentist appointment?’”

Nicole laughs. “Totally. My husband can’t even manage to pack the kids’ lunches without making a mess of things. Really, how hard is a PB and J?”

They both turn to me but I can’t say my lines.

I look down at my flats and my little black dress and smell the magnolia under the burned meat and think, You fool, you dressed for a date and How I hate the Nicoles of this world. This place is mine more because it never was mine. What right does she have to be here. What right do any of us have.

Nicole swats at a mosquito on her ear and her hand comes away with streaks of blood threaded with black. We’re all getting eaten alive. I look up at the deepening sky, at the JinMao building, an architect’s tribute to bottle openers everywhere, and I want to laugh and take Nicole’s hand, and tell her that it’s ok, we’re all one breath away from succumbing to the animal inside us.

“Men are always watching the horizon, looking for big game,” I tell them, “and women look at the branches and between the blades of grass, for nuts and berries.” Caroline nods and holds her beer up. I’m sure neither of us believes it. The glass necks clink. I think of my honeymoon in Africa, being on safari with John, hearing the roars in the distance as we clawed each other in the starry darkness. The enormity of the night, the weight of all that emptiness, the fear that drove us into each other.

Caroline bought enough fireworks to see from space. Maybe we will be friends after all. She piles them in the center of the cul-de-sac and children set off the rockets, one by one. “This would never fly in the U.S.,” I comment to her, and she laughs. We lean back and watch the lines of light conquer the sky, pulse by pulse, and I feel the booms disrupt the rhythm of my heart.


She’s the only one from my extended family to come to Shanghai. It’s for work, of course. Not a separate trip. Sure, I’ll come visit! everybody says. But busy with their jobs and kids and ski trips and all, they put it off. They’re busy running to where they want to be in life. I know what that’s like. You feel like if you take a break to do something that’s not on your immediate path, you might lose an opportunity, you might fall behind. Shanghai is out of the way.

She’s three years younger than me, the perfect age for my hand-me downs. The perfect age for endless comparisons. Four years, maybe, and the relatives would have forgotten my college acceptances, my prom dates, awards. One or two years and we would have been indistinguishable. Three years was enough time for me to graduate with honors, get a coveted job, a hard act for her to follow. But she always did follow. Maybe she never felt the pressure. Maybe she never got the sense that they were waiting for one of us to fail.

I pick her up from her hotel and take her for a foot massage. She dreamy from jet lag, her face smiling like it always does. She was the chatterbox when we were young. The child who’d talk to anybody. I always hung back, determined to say something stunning, while she charmed all the aunties and uncles. As the masseuse slides a finger between two toes, she leans back. This is the life, she says.

Tourist, I think. What do you know?

Living here, I tell her, has given me such a sense of distance. It all seems so silly now, the white picket fence, the promotions, the impossible dream of being perfect at work and home. It’s amazing how liberating the whole thing has been.

She murmurs something, but the masseuse turns me around, pulls on my earlobes, places her thumbs inside the smooth recesses of the channel so that I can’t hear. My cousin seems not to hear as well. She stares off into space. Perhaps she’s sick of getting advice from me. Perhaps she’s just tired.

I take her in a taxi to my apartment. She looks out at the window and I wonder what she sees: is she smelling the sour sewage, or the evening air? Is she thinking of her Corian counter- tops and her playgroup? Is she rehearsing the things she’ll tell her friends about this trip, about exotic Shanghai, about how she’s so glad to come back to a place where the air is clean, where people don’t spit in the street, where you can trust the milk you put in your coffee?

We obsess over the little things, the little inconveniences, I tell her, but as we do that we separate ourselves from the big things. How far we need to travel to wean ourselves from the habits of small talk and playing nice!

Again she stares off into space, seeming not to hear. I try to hide my annoyance. I talk about the upcoming election. I’m ready to mail off my absentee ballot. Do you realize how ridiculous our country looks to the rest of the world? I ask her. Do you realize?

My kids don’t remember her. In their minds, people from “home” exist in playgrounds and ice cream stores. The children can’t remember her name, even though she reminds over and over. She lets them win at Uno. “Call me Auntie Amazing,” she tells them, and they do. This is the name by which they’ll always remember her.

Friends, family, old neighbors: they all exist out there, available, like books on a shelf. I pluck them when I need a familiar emotion, or when I need to remember something about myself. They rarely call me.

My dad calls to tell me the news: they found a tumor in her brain. The doctors said she’ll be lucky to live six months. The family closes around her. They bring her meals, drive her to the doctor, take care of her kids. You don’t have to do anything, my dad tells me. You’re so far away. She is upset that she wasn’t the one to tell me. They’ve taken over all her communications, too. She has faith in God. She believes in miracles. She still plans to go to work, in between the radiation.

I offset my carbon online. I watch the icebergs melt and post images on Facebook of scandalous labor conditions. The world spins on its axis, and I watch it from my citadel. They say, Remember when she smelled lavender, and no one else could? The way she didn’t recognize her friend? The way she used to stare off into space?

Winter is extremely cold; tsunamis and earthquakes and plane crashes are faint tremors from where I stand, occupied in my adventures: fixing flat bicycle tires and being mistaken for a Russian prostitute. “The tumor is huge,” my mom tells me, “She must have had it for years.”

Two years pass. John and I stitch something together in our marriage. He can separate himself from our old world the way that I can. We scan old friends’ Christmas cards with bemusement. With each flight we etch some spiderweb loosely linking our two worlds. We exist in neither and both. We exist somewhere in the coming and going.

My cousin works until she can no longer remember what she was supposed to be doing from one minute to the next. Some combination of tumor, radiation, and medicine tears holes in her memory. Her smile is the same: open, peaceful. By the time I go to see her, she is far gone, her hair like the sparse brittle grass that grows near the beach, pushing up through the sand. She tries to cook us dinner even though a steady army of family and friends bring her take-out, home-made lasagnas, baskets of fruit. Her father follows her around switching off burners and unplugging appliances. I take a seat next to her in a fog of jet lag and can think of nothing to say. She tilts her head and murmurs, “You’re the only one who understands.” I smile at her uncertainly and don’t ask what she means. I’m not even sure she’s talking to me.

I fly on invisible currents of air, pulled by magnetic forces, back to the mystery of my home in Shanghai, and somewhere she is in the hospital, her body refuses to accept nutrition, and she is gone. But it is all so far away, and I don’t believe it. I still don’t believe she will die, even though she already has.


I can’t get used to the California sun. Too bright, it freckles my skin, but its heat is deceptively mild. Not like the heavy wet burn of the Shanghai sun. Not like that feral wind, drawn from the Gobi desert, through the walls of my apartment and deep into my bones, tinged with metallic fire, clinging to the insides of my nose, an invisible cloth over the mouth. Not like the typhoons which lashed the trees. I remember trudging through a sidewalk choked with leaves, hearing the drums in the rain, the roar of a distant dragon. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the rumors were true and Beijing-controlled contraptions fell from the clouds. Here the sky is unbelievably blue, as if delivered from a Hollywood set.

I hate the distance between me and you. I love the distance between me and you.

The turn-off to our house used be marked by Patio World but now it’s Barbecues Galore. Other than that, this place is the same. It’s me who doesn’t fit.

People at the local Starbucks are separated by bubble wrap. The line begins so far from the cashier I am afraid someone will cut in front of me. My face is fierce, my fists clenched, but their eyes pass over me. I drink coffee all day long but lassitude laps at the edges of my mind, leaving an oatmeal of gray malaise.

I dream of meeting you in some urban disaster: taxi accident, stuck elevator. If we had no choice but to share the same space, alone, what could happen? I want to taste the puckered skin, the imperfect stitch marks, the places where your body was salvaged and saved.

Shanghai, I call you. You seep into my bones the way the winter did there. You don’t live in that city, it lives in you. It fills you with its noise and grit and you exhale it, your pores exude it.

I spend my day in a minivan, idling in patient, self-satisfied traffic. First to one baseball field, then another, dropping off one kid, picking up another. Snacks for this game, drinks for another. At one intersection the woman in the Accord next to me presses each radio button in turn. Toxic yum slurp, press. only living boy in, press. want me press. The same sequence, again and again, until the light changes.

I stand on the edge of the field and watch the other parents fumble for something to do with their hands. I imagine them in their columned homes, dreaming of new clothes, different sex, the taste of wine.

How quickly John went back to his easy lunches and accommodating smiles and arm- chair football. How unable I am to do the same. Instead I think of you. Always you, only you. You pull me through my day. You remind me of the extraordinary.

You are a secretive man. You avoid answering the questions I ask, or you tell me that they’re the wrong questions. I cannot say what draws me to you. I am busy like a hamster on a wheel. But I come alive under your imagined touch. With you I am at my fullest, my most brightest being. Our imagined, postponed coming together is an acknowledgement of everything I can and will be. The hairs on my arms wake to you, there is a secret static charge as I wash the dishes, vacuum, brush my teeth, draw the sleeves up my arms, gather the bedding to my chest and smell the must of bodies.

My body has rounded, softened, eroded. Bread, burning leaves, saltwater: these conjure only the tepid echo of joy.

I hunger for the unknown. For those secret channels, those dark capillaries that wind through tendon and bone: the recesses of flesh, which hum with their own dark energy. Shall we bury them, keep them hidden, deny their binary language, their solar cells?

I spent my life yearning for civilization and I didn’t realize I was walking into a trap.

In the bathroom at Safeway a woman pants and moans as she squeezes herself out of the narrow stall. She glares, daring me to judge her inflamed, puffy flesh. Her heaviness infects me. I drag limbs of metal through water back to the car, where I can raise the windows against all conversation. The language is too comprehensible. I hear what they say and I hear what’s underneath it: You think you know me? You think you can judge me? Don’t you know I’m better than you? Pay attention to me, see how I’m special.

I never really knew you but I felt your teeth on my wrists.
I never really felt at home with you and it returned me to myself.

On the paved path to the foothills my feet warn: passion breeds complacency, complacency breeds boredom, boredom breeds fear.

I think of the rhythm of your body as you dash across a street, the angle of your face as you flick the ash off a cigarette, your body coiled the way the city is: Hungry. Disobedient. Defiant. You are the skyscraper built in haste and recklessness, rushing into the clouds, pieced together with bamboo, swaying in the wind.

I was always on edge in Shanghai; I became sharp.

I rage against the perpendicular streets, the equally spaced spruces and maples.

Shanghai, you name my yearning, constant and unending. I dreamed of Shanghai before I ever saw the place. I dreamed of you before I knew your exact shape.

As long as you exist in the world, I can live. I will look into the sky and you will orient me, my distant landmark.

Jennifer Lee grew up in Maryland and lived in Seoul and Shanghai for eleven years before moving to California in 2014. Her short stories have appeared in Your Impossible Voice, Drunken Boat, and the anthology Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia. Recently  she and artist Martha Sakellariou have collaborated to produce the interdisciplinary, site-specific installations Plat du Jour and The Cubberley Project. Jennifer has a BA and MA from Stanford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from City University in Hong Kong.