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Chapter Twenty Three

Markus was still in a drug-induced sleep in his apartment when A Li awoke on Thursday morning. The unrelenting California sun was already shining into her small bedroom, the wind was still blowing and she heard the branches of a nearby tree brushing against the side of the house. Her sense of foreboding returned as she lay in bed. It was 8:15 a.m. and she realized she had overslept after studying late into the night.

Tired as she was, she forced herself out of bed, slipped on her robe and walked down the hall to the bathroom on the second floor of the home of her host, Professor Chen. She had 45 minutes to get to her CHESL class—Chinese English as a second language. Standing in front of the mirror, she touched her face and felt the tender, swollen spot where she had fallen to the floor of the lab Tuesday night. She unclipped her long black hair and gave it a few strokes with the brush. She had no time to braid it.

A Li hurried to the two-story building where her class met. She was ten minutes late and wondered what would happen if she missed a session. In the United States, students were casual about going to class. In China, no one missed instruction; it was not an option. She hastened down the hall and silently opened the door to a narrow classroom with a blackboard in front and a mirror running along the back wall. Nine women and 14 men, all Chinese who spoke Mandarin, sat in a single row. The instructor, Miss Lloyd, stood in front of the class. She reminded A Li of a stork—she was thin and very tall, almost six feet, and towered over the shorter Chinese students. She had a pinched face and never smiled or seemed happy. She was, however, a good teacher. She grew up in Hong Kong, spoke fluent Mandarin and two other dialects and the students respected her language abilities.

When A Li slipped into the classroom, Miss Lloyd looked up, acknowledged A Li, glanced at her watch and looked at A Li again. A Li sat down and took out her workbook.

Miss Lloyd continued with the day’s lesson. “Today, we’re going to practice pronouncing words beginning and ending in R. That’s RRRRR. Your inability to pronounce the American letter R will be the main cause of being misunderstood.” She walked to the front of the room and wrote a three-foot high R on the blackboard, pointed to it and turned to the class. “Pronouncing R at the end of a word, as in caRRR, is difficult. Pronouncing it at the beginning of a word, as in RRRat is extremely difficult. It’s a skill you must master if you want people to listen to you and understand you.”

The class paid close attention. The American R was very difficult and nothing like any of the four different R’s in Mandarin.

“To make the R sound properly, your mouth must come forward and your lips must be tight. Look at my mouth,” she commanded. “Watch me.”

The students looked up and focused on her face.

“Now,” she said, “practice saying OOOO. Turn around and look at your mouth and lips in the mirror. OOOO. OOOO. Now you try it.”

A Li joined the other students. “OOOO. OOOO.”

“Good,” Miss Lloyd said. “Now say the word RAT. RRRat. Push out the R. Your tongue should not be right behind your front teeth.”

The students struggled with RRRat.

“I can hear your tongues are not in the right place. Look at me.” Miss Lloyd walked to the back of the room, stood by the mirror and turned sideways. “Bring your lips forward, like this, and stick your finger in your mouth. About three centimeters inside. It should touch your tongue. That’s where your tongue should be. Push your tongue back.” Miss Lloyd stuck her finger between her pursed lips. “Do it in front of the mirror.”

The students watched themselves in the mirror, inserted their index fingers into their mouths and pushed their tongues back.

“Now, class. RRRat, RRRabbit. RRRock. Let me hear it.”

As A Li gazed into the mirror with her finger in her mouth, the sound of her cell phone interrupted the exercise. Everyone stopped and looked at A Li.

Miss Lloyd exploded. “A Li, your cell phone must be turned off in class.”

A Li reached inside her backpack for her phone. She was surprised, because no one ever called her. Could it be Tanay? She took the phone out, and, before she turned it off, saw a text message: A Li Jian. Please come immediately to the Office of the Dean of Graduate Students.

A Li felt a wave of panic as she hastened out of her class. Why was she summoned to the Dean’s Office? Her sense of foreboding grew. Was there an emergency? Was something wrong at home, where it was 2:30 a.m.? She stopped and tried to call her parents but could not get through. She feared there had been an earthquake. A Li wondered if her recent apprehension foretold bad news from Zhongdian.

Oh sister, what has happened?

The campus, home to almost 25,000 students, stretched for more than a mile. Walking as fast as she could, it took 20 minutes to reach Dean’s Hall. She didn’t wait for the elevator and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor. Her hand trembled as she opened the door to the Dean’s Office. She walked in and blurted out, “I got a message to—”

“Are you Miss Jian?”


“Come in.” A secretary led A Li to the Foreign Graduate Students Assistance Office, knocked and opened it. “Miss Jian is here,” she said.

An older woman, her gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, stood up from behind her desk and pointed to a chair. “Miss Jian, please.”

A Li sat down. Her heart was pounding. “What’s happened?” she asked.

“Ah, Miss Jian…I have bad news. We received a communication last night from your Provincial Government Office. Apparently there’s some problem with the telephones and they forwarded a message from your mother.” She picked up a sheet of paper from her desk and read from it. “Your father has had a heart attack and fell down a flight of stairs. His condition is critical. Your mother requests you come home as soon as possible.”

A Li gasped.

Sister, is our dear honorable Pa Lags knocking on the door of death?

“The Yunnan Government has paid for an airline ticket.” The woman came around her desk and put a hand on A Li’s shoulder. “I’m very sorry. I know how hard this is, especially when everyone is so far away. There’s a reservation for you on a flight to Beijing tomorrow afternoon at four and a connection on a flight to…” She looked again at the paper. “…Zhongdian through Kunming.” She handed A Li the information. “The ticket will be here late this afternoon; you can come by and pick it up.”

“Thank you,” A Li said, stunned.

“Do you want to call home?” the woman asked.

“I’ve tried.” A Li’s lips began to quiver as she tried to control her emotions.

The woman looked at A Li. “The side of your head is swollen. Did you have an accident?”

“I fell in the laboratory.” A Li fingered her temple.

“Why don’t I leave you alone for a few minutes?” The woman took A Li’s hand and squeezed it, then left the office.

Oh sister, our Pa Lags is dying. We must be with him.

A Li sat alone in the Dean’s office. She felt crushed by the weight of her problems: her loneliness and isolation in Los Angeles; her dissatisfaction with the way Dr. Murray treated her; her unrelenting study and work program; her second-rate status among the other Chinese students; her poor English skills; the money she owed her government. Now her beloved Pa Lags was ill and she was halfway around the world. She tried to keep control of herself, but it was too much. All of the insults, slights, and disappointments of her entire life filled her mind. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, then became a torrent. She gave in to her despondency and sat, with her head bowed, letting the tears fall.

A Mei, give me strength.

After several minutes, she stood up, took some tissues from a box on the Dean’s desk and wiped her eyes. She went to the window and tried to compose herself as she looked out at the mid-morning sunlight shining on the campus. Soon she would be back in the cool mountains, in the fields and pastures of her homeland and she felt comforted by the thought.

A Li walked out of the office and down the hall. She had so much to do in the next 24 hours before her flight to Beijing. Pa Lags’ illness meant an approaching tsunami of medical bills. She thought about the gold rush going on in China. The economy was booming and people were getting rich in so many different ways. Everyone in her generation was becoming a capitalist. She knew the value of the stem cell research data in Dr. Murray’s laboratory. She could return home with it and use it to become wealthy and important. She could use it to help her family. The Communist Party might even welcome her as a member. Her friends would call her Big Bucks Jian. She could solve so many of her problems by taking the stem cell information home to China.

She thought of Tanay and felt regret. She would have to tell him she was not staying in the United States.

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