The evening’s performance had been a success. After the finale, Yao Tian and his fellow performers from the People’s Ensemble gathered onstage and bowed to the six hundred people in the auditorium. As he was making his way down the side stairs, he caught sight of a tall man at the end of the front row. The man stood there, smiling at him, while the crowd filed out the back and side doors. Soon he approached Tian. “Teacher Yao,” he said in English, his voice warm. “I’m so delighted to see you in New York. Your voice is as spectacular as it was a decade ago!”
Now Tian recognized him. “Han Yabin, what a miracle!” Without thinking, he cried out in English, which he could speak well.
He paused, hesitant to hug his friend, aware of his colleagues observing them in amazement. Some of them might make a mental note of his warm greetings to this local man and report it to their leaders back home. So, instead, Tian held out his hand. Yabin shook it, then leaned in and whispered, “Can we have a drink nearby, Teacher Yao?”
By rule, Tian could not accept such an invitation without permission from the head of his troupe, so he excused himself and went up to Director Meng. “I just ran into an old friend,” Tian began. “Can I spend a little time with him tonight? I’ll be back to the hotel soon.”
Meng’s heavy-lidded eyes fixed on him, alarmed. Obviously he felt uneasy to let anyone in the troupe go out of his control here. Still, he said, “That’s fine, but don’t be gone too long.”
“I’ll be back before midnight for sure.”
Out in the streets of downtown Flushing, the air smelled of rainwater. It was already nine o’clock. Pedestrians rushed past Tian and Yabin as they walked down Roosevelt Avenue together. Around them, people wove brazenly through traffic to cross the street, heedless of the honking cars. The ground trembled as a semi-trailer rolled past, its side printed with Chinese characters: FRESH VEGETABLES AND FRUITS.
“Heavens, this is like China,” Tian said. “It’s like in the middle of a provincial town.”
“Flushing is like a big county seat, isn’t it?” Yabin laughed and got hold of Tian’s arm to guide him through the bustling thoroughfare.
The laugh reminded Tian of when they were both young in Beijing. Yabin had been dashing, energetic; he organized private concerts, poetry readings, literary salons, art exhibitions. Before his cultural activities were banned by the police, he had often invited Tian to sing at his events, paying him promptly and generously. He’d been one of the few young Chinese in Beijing who could mingle easily with foreigners. His handsome looks opened many doors, and his two years’ studying at Oxford (sponsored by the Ministry of Education) taught him to speak English fluently, with a British flair, like a well-educated gentleman from Hong Kong. Americans and Brits had often assumed his accent was an affectation, and some even mocked him, saying, “Your beautiful English puts me to shame.” But Yabin didn’t bother to acknowledge their slights, and never changed his way of speaking. Last Tian had heard, his old friend had quit his English lectureship at his university because he was not allowed to keep a relationship with a foreign woman teacher and he had gone abroad again, but Tian hadn’t known he had come to New York.
Yabin still looked elegant. He was living here in Flushing now, he told Tian. He’d lost his Beijing residential status—it had been canceled by the police.
He took Tian to a bar called Dreamland at 38th Avenue and Prince Street. The place was crowded and noisy even on a Wednesday night, filled with young professional men and women in suits. Yabin knew the manager of the place, a thin man with brushy hair, who quickly led them to a quiet table in the back room, where a karaoke machine was still on. A tallish waitress turned off the Hong Kong music and pulled an iPad out of the pocket of her orange apron. Yabin ordered Jinmen sorghum baijiu and suggested Tian try it too, saying it was Taiwan’s iconic drink, smooth and mellow—it wouldn’t go to your head. Yabin loved Jinmen even more than Maotai. He ordered it the American way, on the rocks. Tian didn’t drink liquor and ordered a Heineken. He had to be careful and avoid hard alcohol that might hurt his vocal cords.
In no time the waitress returned, holding a tray loaded with their orders, a bottle of beer and four fingers of the sorghum baijiu in a squad glass. She closed the door with her hip and then served their drinks. A thin platinum band flashed on her finger as she placed a bowl of mixed nuts on the table.
When she’d left, Yabin said, “Now we can relax and enjoy ourselves.”
Although Tian was eager to hear about his friend’s life in New York, he was also tired, and nervous about spending too much time with him. He feared that his director might suspect he had an ulterior motive in meeting with a local. Quite often, members of cultural delegations—consisting of artists, musicians, actors, writers, scholars—had stolen away while visiting foreign countries, joining relatives or friends there so as to avoid returning to China. Now their troupe, a group of twenty performers from the People’s Ensemble in Beijing, was on the last leg of its five-city tour in the States. Thus far, everything had gone well, so Director Meng seemed anxious, afraid they might fall short of a complete success if someone walked away on their final night. At this very moment Meng was probably fretting about Tian’s absence, restless like an ant on a hot pan.
Yabin gave Tian his business card, which stated that he had earned his MBA from Fordham University and was an insurance broker now, with an office on Main Street in Flushing. Tian commended him, saying this was extraordinary, a model of success. “Obviously America is a land of opportunities,” he said, though aware how stale those words were.
Yabin shook his head. “That’s just a myth, Teacher Yao. Opportunities are mainly for the rich and powerful here, the same as in China. I’m no different from other FOJs—fresh off the jet. We all have to struggle hard to get anywhere.”
“Please, just call me Tian,” he said. He was thirty-seven, only one or two years older than Yabin, and preferred the American way of addressing someone by their first name.
“All right, Tian. The truth is, I’m just like most people here who have to work their asses off.”
“Still, you’re free and there’s no one lording it over you.”
Yabin laughed, as if Tian had said something vacuous. As Tian was wondering what he wanted from him, Yabin revealed his intention, saying, “There’ll be a celebration of the National Day on October 10, organized by the Great China Cultural Association. Will you be able to sing a couple of songs for them?”
Tian was surprised, uncertain how to respond—that is Taiwan’s National Day, not a holiday in the People’s Republic, whose National Day was October 1. Few people on the mainland even know Taiwan’s National Day, which is called “Double Tens” (October 10). Tian asked, “Who’s sponsoring the celebration? The Taiwanese government?”
“Not at all. Some Chinese immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey are sponsoring it, though a lot of the people are from Taiwan. If you can sing for them, I can negotiate a fee of four thousand dollars for you.”
Tian knew that Yabin was good at delivering what he promised. Four grand was almost a quarter of Tian’s annual salary, and his daughter Tingting was about to apply for an international prep school in Beijing, which required him to pay twenty thousand yuan as the first installment of the tuition—nearly three thousand dollars. The money Yabin offered was significant, worth the risk. He agreed to sing for them.
“Great, they’ll be thrilled to hear this,” Yabin said. “They’ve never had a singer of your caliber before.”
Tian knew they’d surely use his name to promote the event, but there was something else that needed arranging. He said, “Look, Yabin, I can sing for them, but my return flight to Beijing is already booked for tomorrow. I’m not sure I can change it. And also, I’d need a place to stay until the event on Saturday.”
“I’ll ask my secretary to rebook a flight for you. Rest assured, it will work out. You can stay with me after you check out of your hotel.”
“Thank you so much, Yabin. I’m not sure I can get permission from my director, but I’ll do my best.”
Tian had his flight information on his phone, which he took out and sent to Yabin’s phone. They agreed that Yabin would hear from him early the next morning for the final answer. His friend was elated, saying he hoped they could collaborate more often in the future. He told Tian, “Chinese immigrants here are too materialistic and should have more cultural life. Your appearance will make a difference.”
What Yabin said pleased Tian. He promised to consider Yabin’s future offers.
Stepping out of the bar, they said good night. Tian walked back toward the Sheraton, where he and his colleagues were staying. The neon sign glowed atop the hotel building and made it appear more imposing than it did in daylight. Beyond its domed roof a single star was flashing and glittering against a vast constellation.
Copyright © 2021 by Ha Jin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.