There are twelve bronze zodiac statues arranged in three orthogonal rows of four in Chinatown Square. James and I were in the center of the square, looking at the statues.
“There! That’s me.”
We walked over to the Ram statue. The plaque below the statue listed the past ten or so Years of the Ram.
“You’re ‘03?” asked James.
“It says Rams are sensitive, refined, passive in nature and extremely pessimistic.”
“Right on the money.”
“Good entertainers or writers. Well that one’s off, your writing sucks.” I didn’t feel like we knew each other well enough for such comments, but I didn’t say anything. “Most happy with a Rabbit or Pig! I’m a Rabbit!” He looked over at me with a big smile.
“That’s cute. Let’s kiss.”
James made a face at me and walked towards the Horse.
“My girlfriend’s a Horse,” I told him. “Hardworking, intelligent, sociable and very talkative.”
“I think so.”
We left the square and turned into an alley. The buildings were red, with green supports and green tiles on top, like pagodas. There was an elevated walkway above us and cheap neon signs hung from the trellises lining the sides of the walkway. One sign advertised katanas, another advertised candy. It looked like the set of a Blade Runner spoof. We stopped at the candy store for a few minutes while I looked for guava candy. There wasn’t any.
“Let’s see, do I feel my heritage here?” James is from Hong Kong. It was one of the few things I knew about him, other than that he was a musician and also interested in literature. We’d met in the pit orchestra for a show on campus. I recognized him in one of my classes and struck up a conversation one day after class. He didn’t remember me.
“No, I don’t think so,” he decided.
“Is there a difference between being Chinese and being Hong Kongese?” I asked.
“Good question.” He stopped walking to consider. His long figure and sharp features made him seem utterly absolute, like some kind of monument as he stood motionless, thinking.
“It’s funny,” he said. “The first three girls I dated were from Hong Kong, the second two were ABC.”
“ABC?” I asked.
“American Born Chinese.”
“Oddly enough, the ABCs were much more traditional than the ones from Hong Kong. Part of it is that Hong Kong is so international, you get all kinds of people there, while mainland China is much less diverse.” A gull flew overhead and we silently followed its arc through the sky. It was strange to see one so far from the water. “From what I’ve heard, you’re always looking around and saying ‘I wanna be like that,’ and your immigrant parents tell you ‘no, you are this.’ The culture is very different. I’m actually from Hong Kong, but I’m basically American.”
“So Andrea was an ABC?”
We left the alley with the shops and walked down a residential street towards the water. There was a fence at the side of the street where a red metal sign pointed left to ‘Ping Tom Memorial Park.’ Behind the fence was some midwestern flora and then the highway. Downtown Chicago was faintly visible beyond the highway. I looked into the yards in front of the houses as we passed by. Most of them were tidy and had little plastic swing sets or jungle gyms for the children to play in. I had always dreamed of a backyard when I was younger; the idea of having your own little green space always made me jealous of my friends who lived in the suburbs. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these houses with Tess. She would probably hate it here. She always says Chicago is too cold.
“What happened with Andrea?” I asked.
“Chris didn’t tell you?”
“He just said you broke up.”
“Well I got accepted into the Royal Academy last week, and I’m gonna go. I told her I didn’t wanna go long-distance and she broke up with me.”
“Congratulations. Or I’m sorry. Sorry.” I suddenly felt incredibly uncomfortable.
“Thanks.” He didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. “Prior to Wednesday I thought I was staying here for my Master's, I hadn’t gotten in anywhere else. So Andrea and I were gonna stay together. I even had dinner with her parents last weekend. Then suddenly: acceptance letter, breakup.”
“Damn. That sucks.” I was beginning to regret having broached the topic. In the distance I could see the gateway to the park at the end of the lane and the wide-set arches of a Japanese shrine gaping at me like a toothless maw. We were still too far away to see what was inside.
“It is what it is. I’m not about to turn down the Royal Academy for a girl. It’s the fucking Royal Academy. I mean, wouldn’t you do the same?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if you got some crazy offer that could change your career?” he asked.
“It’s different for me. I don’t know what I want to do, so there isn’t anything that merits the sacrifice.”
I sensed the question before James had opened his mouth to speak. “So what are you gonna do after school?”
“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Tess’s sure she’s going to law school. She wants to be a judge. I guess I’ll follow her wherever she ends up going, maybe go to grad school or work for a bit.”
We passed through the archway and into the park. The park was in surprisingly good shape. The grass looked freshly mowed and the cherry blossom trees were in full bloom. It felt like we had stepped into an entirely different neighborhood. The park was built along a canal. On the other side of the water there was an abandoned paper mill.
Further down the shore was the highway overpass, and past that a massive, rusty drawbridge on the other side of the canal stood raised, likely forever. Abutting the floodwall was the Japanese-imitation shrine; inside it was empty. James and I stood between the columns of the shrine looking across the water. He pointed out the skyline, which was visible through the gap beneath the overpass. We walked together towards the overpass.
“Are you excited for London?” I asked.
“Of course. New place, new blood.”
“I’ve been thinking of going abroad myself for a quarter.”
“You should go to Hong Kong.”
“Maybe.” I had been looking at programs in Japan and Taiwan. Hong Kong seemed too small.
Someone had painted a mural on the fundament holding up the highway. It was a countryside panorama in the old Chinese style: women in colorful hanfu dresses holding fans, a craggy mountainside, azalea bushes, bamboo groves, nightingales. The mural was badly weathered in some spots and the edges were practically erased. A drainage pipe snaked down from the top of the overpass to the ground. Rainwater was leaking onto the mural from the joint at the top of the pipe. The inscription on the side read:
BETWEEN THE MOUNTAINS AND THE WATER
According to the Analects, the benevolent man finds pleasure in the quiet mountains, but the wise man finds pleasure with lively waters.
James stood under the overpass, across from the mural, looking onward at downtown Chicago. The view was unobstructed now and it was quite something. I’ve lived most of my life in a big city, but still it was staggering to think that behind each of those thousands upon thousands of glass windows somebody I’d probably never meet was living their life – a life that was different and separate from my own. I watched him stand there as the water trickled down the face of the mural, eroding it little by little. He didn’t seem very impressed by the mural, but I was sad to see it going to shit.
“You know, I’m the only person in my family who didn’t go to UPenn,” he said.
“Mom, dad, both sisters, all went to UPenn.”
“They all told me I was making a mistake, but I knew what I wanted. It’s moments like this that I know I made the right call by coming here.” We left the mural and walked further downriver to where we could sit and admire the view. Geese ambled on the grass, giving us questioning looks as we passed by. A few girls were sitting on the steps down to the water at the mouth of the canal; they were passing a joint around and paid us no mind. There was a little garden with a statue of the first Asian-American appellate court justice ringed by yellow daisies. I thought of Tess.
We reached the furthest point in the park. It was on a rise, and from the rise we could see down onto the dust-filled landscape through which the highway ran like a silver eel, the dark waters of the Chicago river, the cars speeding alongside the greenery of Lakeshore Boulevard on the other side, and the skyline, glowing in the afternoon sun. Above it all hung the rusty drawbridge, poised for descent. Something within me desperately wanted the drawbridge to come down, to give us passage across the water, even though I knew it wouldn’t.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, after a lengthy silence.
“Reminds me of Gatsby. Valley of ashes, right?”
“I see it.”
By the time we got back to the station it was golden hour. We climbed the steps to the platform and looked out onto Chinatown. It looked a lot better from above than it had from street level. The neighborhood’s streets and billboards had been brought to life by the sunlight and the rush hour traffic. It was as if the traffic had shaken Chinatown free of its paralysis, and released smells and sounds that I hadn’t noticed before to drift up to us on the platform.
“What’s so special about Hong Kong?” I asked.
James, roused from contemplation, turned towards me. “It’s a melting pot. Like New York, but cleaner and Asian. The food is amazing and there are so many little special things, like the trams – you’d swear they were straight from London.” The train back home screeched in the distance.
“The craziest part is that there’s only so much time to see it before it gets handed back to China in 2047, and then it’s all gonna be different.”
“Can you get around with English?” I asked.
“Sure. Hell, my canto is starting to get sloppy, even I use English sometimes.”
We got on the train and the doors closed on Chinatown. It was a long trip back. When we got off at Davis station the sun had already set and it was dark. We said goodbye and parted ways, leaving me to make the walk through the darkness alone and sullen, visions of London trams visiting my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether the idea of Hong Kong appealed to me because I was genuinely curious or because James had compared it to home. All I really knew about Hong Kong prior to our conversation was what I had seen in Wong Kar-wai movies, though I did thoroughly enjoy what I’d seen. Along the way I picked up Tess from her dorm and took her to my room. We discussed an essay she had written for the law journal. It was hot inside and I opened a window to let the cool air in. It was already late and Tess had a busy morning to look forward to, so we didn’t waste any time getting to bed.
“How was it?” she asked me once we had settled under the covers.
“James made a compelling pitch for studying abroad in Hong Kong.” “That’s halfway across the world.”
“Would we even find time to talk with the time difference?”
“Nico made it work with Anna while she was in Taiwan,” I said, knowing I hadn’t really reassured her. I was not like Nico, and Tess was not like Anna. We were both needy, emotional people, quick to bicker over small hurts. When we were apart the same little conflicts that would have been easily resolved if we were together seemed like insurmountable differences of character. It was so simple: to ignore a text, to screen a call, especially when you felt slighted, or just misunderstood. I would have liked to tell her that she was wrong to worry, that there was nothing a couple months apart could possibly change, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“True,” she replied, and didn’t say anything for a little while. “Well then I think you should go.”
We lay silently for a few minutes in the dark. I could feel her round eyes watching the side of my head as I lay beside her.
“I’m afraid,” she said.
I rolled over to her and pulled her body into my arms. I felt her breath swell her chest and knew that everything that had ever mattered in my life was pressed up against me.
“Don’t be,” I whispered.
The night breeze blew in through the open window and I felt the weight of the day lifting off my shoulders. Slowly, locked in a tight embrace, we fell asleep.
Thumbnail photo by Ariel Gurevich