Fiction - Summer 2013

Chatang

By Nathaniel Rich | June 10, 2013

 

Herman Chang depressed me. The pathetic, loping gait, the cagey eyes, the purposeful drabness of his attire—navy trench coat, black ski hat, gray scarf pulled around his face. He spoke quietly, but his colleagues rarely asked him to speak up; no one particularly cared to hear what he had to say. Most of all I despised his loneliness. Nearly 15 months had passed since he’d moved to Chicago, and he hadn’t made any friends or slept with a woman. There had not even been a single date—such a thing would be inconceivable—and he was too prudish for prostitutes. The only people who seemed to know his name were his boss at IDCorp; his half-blind, half-deaf landlord; and, of course, Mr. Head. I’d like to think that I’d never be friends with a man like Herman Chang. At least not in my old life. Now, however, I was stuck, because I was Herman Chang.

But I’d had enough. Herman Chang’s days were numbered. I determined to take it up with Mr. Head at our next meeting. I’d be willing to be reassigned to a different job, change apartments—even move to a new city—whatever it took, so long as I could be anyone other than Herman Chang.

The following Tuesday I left IDCorp at one o’clock sharp and took the El to the Art Institute. I purchased a ticket, climbed the stairs to the second floor, and headed to Gallery 214. Why Gallery 214? I doubt you’ve been inside it, even if you have visited the Art Institute. It’s where they exhibit English porcelain from the mid-18th century. No one goes there. I’ve often wondered whether the room is underwritten by the U.S. State Department so that it can be used for clandestine meetings. It is the smallest gallery in the museum, and, crucially, it has a single entrance.

Mr. Head was there, as he was every Tuesday, standing before a porcelain sweetmeat dish made by the Bow Porcelain Factory in 1750. He was looking not at the dish but beyond it, toward the doorway, anticipating my arrival.

As soon as I entered, Mr. Head’s eyes focused. He affected surprise.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But have we met somewhere?”

“Yes,” I said, with a sigh. “I’m Herman Chang.”

This was Mr. Head’s little code. “I’m Herman Chang” meant that I was alone, there was no one in the adjoining gallery, and I wasn’t being followed. If any of these things were not true, I was supposed to answer, “I’m sorry, you must be confused,” and exit the museum immediately. This was our 56th Tuesday meeting at Gallery 214 of the Art Institute. I’d never given an answer other than “I’m Herman Chang.” Tedious didn’t begin to describe it.

Mr. Head handed me an envelope. I had no need to check it. It contained a $20 bill and two singles—reimbursement for the price of admission to the Art Institute ($18) and my roundtrip El fare ($4). Leave it to the American government to figure out novel ways to waste taxpayer money. You would think that, given my weekly visits to the museum, they’d at least want me to buy an annual membership, but Mr. Head said that registering my name, even the false one, was an unnecessary risk.

“Have any strangers contacted you?” said Mr. Head.

“No,” I said. “Listen—”

He interrupted me brusquely. I realized there was no point trying to discuss my request for a new identity until we’d completed our weekly catechism.

“Have you noticed anything suspicious?”

“No.”

It occurred to me, for the first time, that the ticker on the hygrothermograph in the corner of Gallery 214 was not moving. Maybe it never had.

“Have you departed at all from the routine?” asked Mr. Head, staring blankly at the sweetmeat dish.

“On Wednesday afternoon, I left work early and went to the movies. Landmark Century Centre, on North Clark.”

Mr. Head’s jaw moved in a subtle way.

“What film?” he said.

The Melon Patch.”

“Never heard of it. Describe.”

I’d debated not telling him about the movie. But if I were to be honest with myself, I had to admit that the only reason I bought a ticket was to irritate Mr. Head.

“A political documentary,” I said. “It’s Chinese.”

He turned suddenly to look at me. A red star had exploded in his cheek.

“Are you insane?” He was struggling to maintain his composure. He glanced at the doorway. Big surprise: no one had come to look at the chipped dessert basket or the dog-shaped teapot.

“I sat in the back row. No one saw me. There were only six other people in the theater. Nobody suspicious.”

“Do I need to remind you that your life is at risk? They have more than 200 agents in Chicago. If they found out that you were here, you wouldn’t last a day.”

“I’m sorry. I did enjoy the movie, though.”

“Attending that film will be interpreted by the department as a deliberate provocation.”

“Mr. Head? I don’t want to be Herman Chang anymore. I would like a new identity.”

His voice tightened. “Do you have any reason to believe that ‘Herman Chang’ has been compromised?”

I loved the way he spoke. It was like he had been programmed. I’d seen that before. I guess governments are the same all over the world.

“I have no reason to believe that my identity has been compromised.”

“Then we can’t do anything. We don’t have the budget.”

“I’ll change cities, jobs, anything.”

“Do you know how much a transfer like that costs? We’re stretched. If your cover is secure, there’s no reason to destroy it. It can only introduce unnecessary risk.”

“Can I at least change my character? Do I have to be such a loser?”

“I don’t follow.”

“A slovenly dressed zero, a mumbler, a loner.”

Mr. Head checked his wristwatch and made as if to leave. He even began walking to the door. But then, as if something had just occurred to him, he pivoted and walked back to me. He came very close. I felt his whispery breath on my neck.

“Everything about Herman Chang has been designed to deflect curiosity,” he said. “Even if we gave you a new identity, these aspects would need to remain the same. Certain character traits are shared by every informant. It’s for your safety.”

I nodded, defeated.

“No more movies,” he said, and walked out.

I was left alone in the gallery, staring at the sweetmeat dish. To minimize the chance that I might be seen with Mr. Head, I was supposed to count to 100 before leaving the gallery. I was so upset on this day, however, that I stormed out at 58.


I have been trained to be suspicious of coincidences, so my first thought upon seeing Wen was to run.

It was the following weekend, and I couldn’t bear to spend another Saturday reading a book in Winnemac Park, which was my normal habit. Besides, it was early October and the weather was sharpening. On cold days in Beijing I had been in the habit of eating a yogurt called chatang, or “tea soup,” a kind of sweet sorghum-flour mush—fine, smooth, and sticky. The true test of an excellent chatang is that it will not become dislodged even if the bowl should be turned upside down. If you conduct this test on an inferior chatang, you risk dumping your breakfast on the floor, but devoted chatang enthusiasts will tell you that such slop isn’t worth eating anyway. The memory of the chatang I used to order at a stall on Jiaodaokou was almost enough to make me burst into tears.

I knew that they served chatang at Empire Chengdu on North Lincoln, but Mr. Head had expressly forbidden me from walking within three blocks of that restaurant, as it was a common meeting place for émigrés. He had never said anything, however, about the Wu Zhou Oriental Mart. It was several neighborhoods west, in Albany Park, a 40-minute walk from my apartment. On the Internet I had read that they made excellent hot chatang. Would this one excursion to a Chinese market kill me? If it did, no matter: I was in such a state that it seemed worth the risk.

As soon as I entered the Wu Zhou Oriental Mart, I was overwhelmed by a syrupy aroma, tinged with vinegar, that took me back to Jiaodaokou. I was so enraptured that I didn’t realize I had neglected to shut the door behind me.

I looked to the counter and almost screamed. It was Wen Huapeng. I was sure of it. His hair had receded, and his eyes were duller than I remembered, but he had the same funny pug nose, mournful posture, and orangutan arms, long enough for a man a foot taller. He was helping an older woman with her order, and he didn’t seem to have recognized me yet. I would have left then, but the sight of this familiar face from the Doomsday Computer Club was so improbable—and so joyous—that I hesitated. Not long, mind you. Just long enough for the chill of the Chicago air to reach the counter.

“Hello? Sir? We would like to avoid a draft.”

I shut the door behind me, but I knew it was too late. Wen had stared straight into my face. There was nothing to do but come out with it. Deep down, I admit, I felt a sense of relief.

“Wen?” I said.

It was as if he hadn’t heard me.

“Wen. It’s me.”

He turned sharply toward me then, a dark film passing over his eyes.

“Sir?” he said. “My name is Michael. But I will be with you after I help this lady.” Those were his words, anyway. His eyes said another thing.

After an agonizing conversation over the differences between soy and sorghum paste, the woman made her selection. When she finally left, though it seemed that we were alone in the store, Wen maintained his act.

“Sir, you wanted me to help you select some lotus roots?”

“Yes,” I said, playing along, but unable to keep from smiling. Still, he appeared not to recognize me, though I couldn’t be entirely certain. It had been 15 years, after all, and I was just a child then. Older boys rarely notice younger boys anyway. It is safe to say that Wen had been a far more significant presence in my life than I had been in his.

He walked around the counter and led me to the far corner of the store, near a row of bins filled with dried persimmon and abalone.

Wen,” I said, below my breath.

“I don’t use that name anymore.” I noticed he was perspiring heavily. He sighed. “You’ve come for me.”

It was the most reassuring thing he could have possibly said. The fear in his voice was the purest possible indication of his innocence. If he was afraid of me, I figured, then I had no reason to fear him.

“I didn’t come for lotus roots,” I said. “I came for chatang.”

“What?”

Chatang.”

He smiled awkwardly. “You must really be hard up.”

“Doomsday,” I said. “The clubhouse on Shanyuan Street.” I mentioned some of the projects we had worked on together. They were simple, trivial hacks, but significant ones, especially to a kid learning for the first time about basic techniques: Denial of Service, Man in the Middle, Trojan Horses. It was Wen, after all, who had taught me how to circumvent the great firewall and access the Internet’s forbidden cities. He had a subversive streak even as a teenager. As I spoke, his features softened.

“I left six months ago,” he said. “They arrested Pixian from the old gang. Nan too. Why are you here?”

“Why do you think? I was a dead man.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Of course. Me too.”

I knew that after college Wen had stopped hanging out at Doomsday and accepted a boring IT job for a firm in Beijing. But over the years I’d heard rumors from some of the guys at the club. They didn’t want to speak too openly, which was reasonable, since they knew I worked in the highest levels of the Ministry of Information. But I could glean that Wen was involved in some form of covert, antigovernment activity. If he was forced to leave the country, he must have been good at his work. That came as no surprise. I’d always thought that a corporate IT job was beneath him. I had privately hoped that he had been up to something bigger. Knowing Wen, I imagined that he was probably more helpful to the United States than I was.

“To think, the last time I saw you—”

“May ’96. Right before you graduated from university.”

“You have a good memory,” said Wen uneasily.

I grimaced. I didn’t want to scare him away.

“I was a kid back then. I looked up to you and the others.”

Wen was silent for an uncomfortable amount of time.

“I can’t really talk now. My boss is in the upstairs office.”

“Can I see you again sometime?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I can’t give you my address.”

“No, you shouldn’t. Nor your telephone number.”

“I don’t even have a phone,” he said, and for some reason we both burst into laughter.

I suggested we meet the following Sunday at three o’clock, at the Columbus Park Refectory. It was the only landmark I could think of that was neither in my neighborhood nor near my office. He agreed.

I was so worked up that I forgot to buy the chatang, a fact that didn’t occur to me until many hours later, when I awoke in the middle of the night.


I arrived 10 minutes early to the refectory. Wen was waiting for me.

“I didn’t think you’d show,” I said.

“To be honest,” said Wen, “I didn’t think I would either.”

We walked around the lagoon and avoided discussing our past. We focused instead on trivial subjects—the high cost of living in Chicago, the impossibility of finding quality rou bing (even the ones at the Oriental Mart were shameful, the ground meat greasy), the long distances between places, the silence of the night. And, of course, the bonecracking weather. Having spent the previous winter in Chicago, I explained that the air would soon become even colder. It wasn’t even November yet. Just wait until January.

There was a grasping, tentative quality to our conversation; we both sought to assure each other of our good intentions, while at the same time trying to determine whether we could trust the other. But now we had reached an impasse. We were suffocated by the vastness of the things we were afraid to say. Three brown ducks glided in the lagoon beside us, oblivious to our presence. Only when I picked up a branch and hurled it at the ducks did they flinch.

“Do you have any friends?” I asked finally.

He smiled. “They’re all dead. The ones I care about at least. There are others, who I thought were my friends, but they might as well be dead. They are dead to me.”

I nodded. It was like he was reading my thoughts.

“This,” he said, pointing to the lagoon, the gray sky, the trembling trees, “this is an afterlife to me. An afterlife where I have to wake up at five in the morning and walk—” he caught himself here. He didn’t want to reveal how close he lived to the Oriental Mart. “Walk to the station and take the train to knead dough and cook overgreased meat.”

We had agreed to speak in English—it was safer that way, should someone overhear us. But the expression he had used for “overgreased” was a pun in Mandarin. Its secondary meaning was sexually profane; it described a part of a woman’s anatomy in an excited state. It was just the kind of dirty joke we used to make in the Doomsday Computer Club late into the grueling overnight hack sessions, when we’d become delirious. I grinned, perhaps too eagerly, but not because of the pun, which was a bit too vulgar for my taste and not even logical. I grinned because it was the first time I’d been addressed in Mandarin since moving to Chicago. Having received my college education abroad, I am fluent in English, albeit with a slight British squeakiness. This may sound silly, but being addressed in Mandarin, I felt an inward stirring that I can only describe as an awakening sense of fraternity.

We started meeting every week, always on a different day, at a different time, and in a different neighborhood. We told ourselves that we were exploring the city, and I found myself spending many of my free hours researching whatever neighborhood we were going to visit next. I enjoyed this—learning about Jane Addams, Catherine O’Leary and her cow, Louis Sullivan and the other architects who designed the city’s magnificent buildings. But on a deeper level I knew that in my sojourns with Wen I was rediscovering something that I’d thought had been lost forever: my inner architecture.

“Peace be with you, Gan,” he would whisper to me as we said our goodbyes. That’s my real name, by the way: Gan. Li Gan.


“I’m sorry. But have we met somewhere?”

“Yes. I’m Herman Chang.”

“Have any strangers contacted you?”

“No.”

“Have you noticed anything suspicious?”

“No.”

“Have you diverged at all from the routine?”

“I’ve been visiting different neighborhoods,” I admitted.

“Which ones?”

“There’s no real logic to it. Bucktown. Ukrainian Village. Old Town. Wherever strikes my fancy.”

“That’s good. Better to keep your movements unpredictable.”

“I thought you might think so.”

Of course I wasn’t going to mention Wen to Mr. Head. He would have disapproved and forbidden me from seeing Wen again. But it had also occurred to me that Wen was most likely enrolled in the same relocation program for federal informants that I was. If he hadn’t discussed me with his agent—and he hadn’t, for if he had, I’d surely have been punished by now—then I’d return the courtesy. Why get him in trouble? We were being extraordinarily careful, besides. As the weeks went on, and we each filled in the details of our stories—tentatively at first, then with increasing candor—nothing happened. Nothing detrimental, at least. Even Mr. Head noticed the change in my demeanor.

“You appear to have adjusted to life at IDCorp, Herman,” he said, in his toneless voice.

I was in such an altered condition that when he said my false name I actually had a moment of confusion. It was as if he were talking to someone else.


I shouldn’t say that Wen and I were extraordinarily careful. Or rather, we were careful until the Wednesday evening in January on which we had agreed to meet at Graceland Cemetery. It was a stupid idea, and I have only myself to blame.

On recent outings Wen and I had gone to look at Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments and his buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Wen appeared to admire Mies greatly. So when I learned that the architect was buried at Graceland, it only seemed right to visit his grave.

I arrived at Graceland 30 minutes early and, with the help of a cemetery map, reached Mies’s grave marker—a minimal, unadorned black granite rectangle that lay flat on the ground. Wen was always punctual, but by six o’clock, the agreed-upon meeting time, he was nowhere to be found. I cursed myself. How could I have expected him to find this place? All around me the slate slabs stood in their tidy rows, but I could see nobody living. And it was nearly pitch black: a starless night, no fresh snow, and the nearest lamp roughly a hundred yards distant, beyond the cemetery fence. I began pacing up and down the aisle, the air arctic, sweat trickling from the hem of my ski hat and freezing when it caught in my eyebrow.

After nearly 20 minutes, I saw a form approaching, flickering in the gloomy slits between the graves like a stop-action figure. I exhaled: it wasn’t Wen. The person was too slumped over and walked convulsively. I saw that he was coughing. But then I recognized Wen’s orange parka. I waved.

“I’m so sorry, Gan,” he said. “I got lost. And I had a late start. Flu.”

“It’s my fault—”

“I didn’t want you to think I stood you up.” He wiped his nose with a green handkerchief on which there was printed a map of Chicago’s main tourist destinations: Sears Tower, Hancock Building, the silver lima bean. These handkerchiefs were cheap items, sold in every novelty store in the city. “I count on our meetings,” he said.

I put my hand on his shoulder—our first physical contact. It was one of those things that just happen, a kind of behavioral spasm, I suppose. I don’t think it violated any of the unspoken rules that governed our relationship, yet Wen seemed uncomfortable. I withdrew my hand. I wanted to apologize, I felt guilty, but more than that, I felt an amorphous yearning. I wanted to help him. I owed him. His friendship, I felt, had saved my life.

“I live nearby,” I said, and felt myself skidding past some invisible border.

He waited, patient.

“In Ravenswood.”

“Good,” he said, nodding. Then, as if surprised by the eagerness in his voice, he turned away and blew his nose powerfully into his handkerchief.

During the 10-block walk to my apartment we didn’t speak. I’d like to say that we were silenced by the cold, but it was the illicitness of our transgression that stymied us, and the anticipation of what would come next.

As we turned onto my block, I wavered a final time. What if, indeed, it had all been a charade—if Wen had been corrupted by the Party, or even blackmailed, and he was hoping gradually to win my confidence before disposing of me? But one look at his hunched form and runny nose, and I wiped the thought clean from my mind.

“Is this it?” asked Wen outside of my building.

“Let’s see if the key fits,” I said.

The stairwell was muggy and thick with the smells of domestic evenings. The family in #2A was cooking chicken, and there was also the burnt odor of the industrial heater, which the super seemed to have turned all the way up. When we paused on the landing in front of my apartment (#3B: Chang), I noticed that Wen’s face had been disfigured by a strange, sad smile.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s just—this is nice. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t really want this. But it’s nice.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

“I haven’t confided in another person for so long. Without human contact—well, you can get confused. You can get so you don’t know what’s right anymore.” He laughed awkwardly, a hitching kind of chuckle that I’d never heard before. “But you know what that’s like.”

I smiled, waiting. I could tell that he wanted to say something else.

“I have been withholding certain things,” he said, growing serious again. “But I won’t any longer.” His lip trembled. “I’m done with this, Gan. I want to tell you everything.”

“Very well,” I said, laughing. “I’ll make a pot of tea, turn on the heating, and we can have a real conversation.”

He nodded vigorously, as if trying to convince himself of something.

That’s what I try to remember when I think of Wen now. His face shadowed by the staircase, the balled-up handkerchief in one hand, his watery, compassionate eyes.

But I can never hold the image very long. For as soon as I opened the door his face fell, as from a cliff.

“But it’s too late,” he said. He lowered his face, so that I couldn’t see his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

The coward didn’t say anything else. He just pushed the door open the rest of the way. There, sitting in my armchair, facing the door, was Mr. Head.

“Thank you, Michael,” said Mr. Head, to Wen. “You can leave us now.”

Wen, without so much as a final glance, vanished down the stairwell. It was the last I ever saw of him. He was transferred the next day. I have no idea where. I’d prefer not to know.

“I don’t understand,” I said, but already I was beginning to make it out.

“Don’t you?” said Mr. Head, with a disappointed frown. “Li Gan is dead. Your name is Herman Chang. You are Herman Chang.”

And it occurred to me that Mr. Head was right—at least about one thing. Li Gan was dead.

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