The Sweet Sorrows
By Ahming Zee
Carl White passed away. This news has rocked China. My phone never stops ringing. Visitors with cameras are crowding my apartment door for a snippet of White’s life. Too saddened to talk, I have to plan an escape from home. I need a retreat, a hideout to recapture the many stories about Carl that I have kept to myself throughout the years of our friendship.
As we sauntered together to our new apartment on Markiki Heights in Honolulu, which was about four blocks away from the University of Hawaii campus, I found his mandarin Chinese incredibly perfect. If without looking at his face, anyone would easily mistake him for a Chinese native. He was used to any compliments around his command of Chinese, and told me that he once entered for a national speech contest held in Beijing, and the selection process was first based on the tapes submitted. No one made it out based on the tape itself that he was actually a foreigner, and he was fortunately selected to the final round. Those in the last round were guaranteed a job as a media announcer, which he said he wanted to be if hired. He got declined that job due to his foreign citizenship.
“I would have become the first Chinese announcer from abroad,” he proudly said, sniffing out a laugh. We said goodnight, and both disappeared into our separate bedrooms.
Today, Carl came back with a glistened face, and said, “Do you know, we have a Chinese Lutheran Church only one block away from this apartment? Must be the will of God.” First time I knew that he was a Christian. I was not, nor did I care to go to church. My only concern was to get enough funding to bring my wife over. To qualify, I would have to find an on-campus job. It was not easy, took me three months without any luck – reason was simple: lack of experience. Fresh from China, how could I get the American experience required? I was frustrated, and finally came up with an idea. I went to an interviewer and said, “Yes, I got all the experience required for the computer assistant job, with little training needed.” I knew only myself that I could barely type a paper with a computer. Sure enough, I got the job; the rate was $12.50 dollars an hour. This was 1992.
Carl, who normally talked with a smile, frowned when I shared this experience with him, “I don’t think you should overstate your skills. They can easily find out. I do not want to see you plunge into any kind of financial debt, my friend,” he said, “and I think you should wait a month or so before you start paper working on your wife.”
I was stunned, and mumbled, “Why you care?” in a whisper, but he heard it, and walked straight back into his room without a word. For days, we did not talk to each other.
One evening, Carl just returned from the Sunday church service, and started to break the ice, “Mengyu, I apologize for my harsh words the other day, I simply did not want to see my friend stuck in a job that he is not up to.” He said in Chinese just as usual. “How are you with the job?” Carl asked, his eyes showing friendly concerns.
“Well, not easy to start. I have trouble understanding what my boss talks about. Since I got the job, I’ve been thinking nothing but work, yet my boss still presses me to work faster,” I said.
I got the paperwork done to finally bring my wife over to Hawaii, and my wife’s arrival date was unfortunately my last day on that job. That semester, my first one in the U.S., I got a GPA of C, and was placed in probation for the next semester. At the Honolulu International Airport, my wife was all tears with excitement the moment we met.
Carl came up with the lei he made himself for my wife, and said, “My name is Carl, Mengyu’s roommate,” putting the lei on her, followed by a hug, which she was not used to just fresh from China, and quickly and awkwardly ejected herself.
“I’m Fanfan,” she said.
When dark fell, the three of us settled at the Kirin Restaurant by the Beretania Street, and over dinner talked about flights, jetlag, and rambled onto cultural differences between China, America, and Europe.
“What was your first excitement the moment you landed?” Carl asked Fanfan.
“Highway with moving traffic!” Fanfan replied.
“Moving traffic?” Carl was confused.
“Yes, because in Beijing, traffic is bumper-to-bumper, like in a huge parking lot. You can be stuck for hours and still get nowhere.”
“Private cars may not be a solution in such a densely populated city like Beijing,” I said.
Carl excused himself for a bathroom moment, when I said to Fanfan, “You and I will still have to share the apartment with him till the beginning of next month to finish one-month cycle of the rent.”
Fanfan did not seem to care much about all this, and was brimmed with excitement. Carl came back and said, “I am so happy you have brought your wife over this fast, and congratulations,” Carl said with honest eyes. “Today is my last day to share the room with you, and I will be moving out tomorrow.” He took out an envelope from his pocket, “Here is a gift for you as a token of our friendship, but please observe the Chinese tradition and don’t open the gift till I tomorrow when I move out.” He smiled, and Fanfan and I both thanked him.
The night after Carl moved out, I opened the envelope with my wife. In it we found a greeting card with congratulations, with a note that read,
I got so much blessed by God to have shared the apartment with you for a short but memorable six months. It is with regret to know about your current under-funded situation, so enclosed you will find a check of $2,000.00 dollars, and hope it helps. Good luck in your coursework!
I read the letter one more time, my eyes wet.
The beginning of each month came always too fast. With a full rent of $1,000-dollar check in hand, I knocked the landlady’s door.
“Hope all is fine with you and your wife,” the landlady grinned.
“We are doing fine,” I said, and handed the rent over.
“What is this?” the landlady asked.
“Today is day one of the month. How can you forget, my landlady?” I patted on her shoulder.
“Oh, Carl has actually prepaid up to the next three months for you, didn’t he tell you?”
The next semester, I made a turnaround, and got a straight “A” average on all four courses. I found a summer job on campus, and in the middle of the summer, I got a letter from my department granting me both the living stipend and a tuition waver. As I appeared at Carl’s door with my wife, Carl gave me a firm handshake and said, “Congratulations!” Within the year, I paid off all the money Carl offered which he later told me he never expected to have back.
Carl still went to the same church one block away from my apartment, and I went there sometimes just to meet him. Some of those church friends shared with me that Carl had been working on multiple campus jobs to support his own studies after he moved out of my apartment, and throughout the semester he looked pale and at times lethargic.
Carl received dual master’s in a spate of three years, and decided to move to China, where he had spent for six years, to pursue his internal journeys. “One can easily achieve his or her external journeys, like job, marriage, promotion, or raise, but internal journeys are the call of the God, the inner light that is non-exhaustive, and it takes you to the subline,” he would say. As for myself, I stayed on for my PhD program, and Fanfan got enrolled in Asian Studies.
Following the graduation ceremonies, Fanfan and I hosted a dinner for Carl and his whole family – his parents David and Linda and his sister Elaine – at Wankee Restaurant in Chinatown. Carl and David liked Ale for beer, so I asked for Bass ale for all three of us. Carl told me at the dinner that Linda had a PhD in Chinese Studies, and taught in China for over thirty years. She told many stories about China as bed stories to Carl when he was five.
Elaine did not seem to talk much, and only smiled as we talked. Her eyes looked dispirited and dull. I suspected maybe she was still recovering from jetlag from Germany. Chinese custom for dinners is four dishes with a soup. We made double the size to match up with the size of our group, so we had a big leftover that Carl said he would like to bag up.
Prior to his trip to China, Carl was making a leg in Germany. Fanfan and I sent them all off at the Honolulu airport. In a flash, a crowd of people emerged from nowhere surging up to our direction, laughing. We were both surprised and confused, instantly we recognized the pastor, followed by a crowed of church friends. We all cheered. We circled around with hands connected, and sang a song of Farewell together:
Farewell our friends
Life is only so much to spend
We stay together today and part our ways tomorrow
But friendship time and space it transcends
And brings us to countless days of joy shared with no ends.
Today we are seeing you off, my friend
Because there is no banquet that will not end
But leave hearts to each other
And our friendship
To start yet another journey together,
Wherever you are
Near or far
Let’s start yet another journey together
Wherever you are
Near or far
I did not hear from Carl for two years since we parted, today, with a letter from him in hand, I opened it with a trembling hand. Carl said that he got a scarf as a Christmas gift from his mother Linda, and passed away on the Boxing Day. For days Carl could not focus on his work, and he said that her passing must have been a test of God on him. Now every day he had the scarf, he said, to ward off wind and smog, as if Linda were still with him. He indicated that I did not need to write him since he lived out of his suitcases most of the time.
In his second letter another two years after, Carl first time confided about his sister Elaine. She had been suffering from psychosis since childhood, and was receiving good treatment. Everyone, including her doctor, said she was getting better, but one day, when she was alone at home, Elaine roamed around the house, and towards the railway. She saw the train coming, and was laughing till she got hit and died. The letter was a bit crumpled. Carl must have shed tears on it, I thought.
Another two years passed with no news from him. As we rang in the twenty-first century, I wrote a short letter asking his whereabouts, with an added note to ask for his digital contact information. I made a copy of it, and sent both of them to the two addresses I got from his previous letters. One week passed. Then a month.
This day finally came, when Fanfan entered the room, a letter in her hand.
“Guess what,” she said.
“Letter from Carl?” I asked, and felt myself nerving.
Fanfan handed the letter over, and my hands started to tremble.
Dear Mengyu and Fanfan,
After frequent travels across China, I finally settled down in a place called Daliang County in Sichuan Province. I taught kids English, and the local people treated me really well. Here, English instructors are badly needed, but poverty and underrated school systems can hardly keep anyone for long.
I got great news to share with you – I now have a girlfriend named huanmei, and we are planning our wedding on an even-number day in June – since even numbers always bring everything in pairs based on the Chinese custom. Wedding is planned in Hawaii! We will be seeing each other soon. We will let you know when we have the itinerary for the trip.
Look forward to seeing you again,
Now I needed to do something about his wedding. I needed to plan for the wedding here in Hawaii with Fanfan. This night, both Fanfan and I were wide-awake, trying to come up with a plan we both would like.
“I will have my PhD degree this May,” I said, “with an offer already in hand from the Central-Pacific University. And they are coming in June. Good news never comes on a single foot.”
“It seems we will make Hawaii our permanent home,” Fanfan said.
We were doing the countdown, and waited and finally came the letter. The Send address was huanmei, his fiancé.
Dear Mengyu and Fanfan,
Please accept my deepest apology for no longer being able to hold the wedding in Hawaii with Carl, who passed away when trying to save a drowning kid from a nearby pond. The kid got rescued, but Carl died two hours after he was sent to the local hospital from the pond.
Of all the eight years, Carl especially liked this county viewed as the most under-developed in China. His students came from all around not only from the county but also from other counties and some other provinces to attend his classes. He died, without leaving a will. As I am writing this letter, people are waiting outside my door to offer their tributes. I thank you for your friendship over time!
This is June, and I see myself at the ticket counter with Fanfan at the East-West Travel Agency by the University Avenue.
“Need two one-way tickets to China,” I say.
“You know you can make two open tickets round trip. It is cheaper that way,” the agent says kindly in a heavy Chinese accent.
“Thanks, but my wife and I are moving back to China for good.”
The agent looks surprised, and says, “Out of hundreds of Chinese in my experience working here, you are among the few that chose to return. I understand, it is not easy to make a living here. What field are you in?”
“Information systems,” I say dryly, trying not to carry on with the conversation.
“Wow, that is a good field. A lot of opportunities. Did you try hard enough for a job?”
“My husband got a job offer at the Central-Pacific University here, but we still chose to return,” Fanfan says, and I can tell that she is becoming impatient.
The agent strikes dumb, and simply says “Good luck on your return to China!”
Before we leave, the agent asks, “Where are you both moving to in China, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Sichuan Province,” I say.
“A village in Daliang County,” my wife Fanfan adds.
Ahming Zee (pen name) lives in Boston as a naturalized Chinese immigrant, a freelance writer and self-employed literary editor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ariel Chart, Literary Yard, Door Is A Jar, among others; his translation work has appeared in Culture Monthly, China. Ahming holds an English degree and dual Master’s in Liberal Arts, and has served as Lecturer of English, Poetry Editor of Hawaii Review, and Staff Writer for Ka Leo O’ Hawaii. You can find him on Twitter @ahmingzee.