Fiction

Joint Ventures

An American in Hong Kong, lonely amid the masses

By Kate Sullivan | March 2, 2011

 

When she met her husband he was a veterinarian. They lived a simple life in their small town by the lake. He would walk to work in his clogs and scrubs; she would ride her bike to her job at the hospital. At night they would canoe to the Dairy Queen for small vanilla cones. Love, a friend had told her, was like two dogs running together down a hill.

These were the things she thought about, looking out the open window of their room on the 15th floor of an old grungy high-rise. She thought about their old life, and she thought about the sound of English words she loved, and she thought about cold air and quiet. In this small room, their home now, there was a small refrigerator and a narrow closet for their clothes. If her husband sat at the desk, which he often did, she had to climb over him to get from the bed to the bathroom. The microwave, which they shared with the other one-room tenants, was out in the hall. The room was dreary: yellowed wallpaper, musty curtains, a pattern of mold on the ceiling in the corner. And yet this was where she felt comfortable now. It was safe, high above the mess of buses and people below—she had never lived up high like this—and from their window, she could see a horse racetrack that lit up at night.

After a series of events that hadn’t quite yet sunk in, she and her husband were in Hong Kong. He had left the veterinary practice and was now a student, with a deep and unforeseen fascination with China and the one-child policy. In the mornings he took a minibus from the middle of the city and across the busy harbor to a university campus near the ocean, covered in fog on the edge of a cliff. He stayed there all day, ate dinner there—meat and rice in the cafeteria—and returned home late at night. She slept while he was gone, sometimes past noon, and then ate cereal in their bed, watching the fog float down over the mountains into the city. When their room grew too warm and dank, she went out into the crowded streets, pushed along in various directions by the massive tide of people.

What will you do? people had asked her before they left. How will you spend your days?

She spent some days searching the crowds for Chinese faces that looked like people she knew. She kept a list of these people—her friend’s mother, an ex-boyfriend, college professors—and imagined mailing them one-sentence postcards that read: You have a Chinese twin. Other days she took photos of the small red and gold shrines where incense burned on street corners and outside shops. She wrote down strange slogans she saw on T-shirts and emailed them to her sister: Pudding Love. Let’s Hug It Out. Late Eighties to Early Nineties. Other days she spent hours at the park, watching old Chinese men doing careful pull-ups and teenage boys playing basketball from morning into the night. She took the Metro to crowded outdoor markets in other parts of the city, looking into the faces of everyone she saw, repeating the lyric “Everyone needs a bosom for a pillow” in her head.

At night she showered the gray grease and city grit off her skin, opened the windows to the heavy breezes and the occasional rising cheer of the racetrack crowd, and studied a book of Cantonese characters, tracing and retracing the graceful lines with her finger. For days, it occurred to her, she hadn’t talked to anyone.

“The people here kind of look through me,” she told her husband one night. He was tired, and drifted in and out of sleep as she talked. “The doorman,” she said, “people on the street. Even the women handing out those Modern Toilet fliers skip me. I’m like a ghost person.” Earlier, in a noodle shop, she had eaten dinner at a small table for two across from a woman her mother’s age. They were so close, their bowls touched, the steam from their soup mingling, but the woman didn’t look at her once. She passed entire days this way, as if she didn’t exist.

She thought her husband had fallen asleep, but after a while he said: “Seventy percent of Chinese people say they don’t trust strangers.”

They were both quiet then, and she knew her husband was thinking of The Policy: that China was going to be a strange country soon, full of only-children—with no siblings, no uncles, no aunts—who could trust only their parents and themselves. Their curtains lifted, and the room was loud with the sounds of the wind and the traffic below. Her husband’s breathing got heavier, and as she felt him twitching at the edge of sleep, she tried not to think about the size of the world—what time it was where her mother and sister were. Instead, she focused on the Chinese characters she had learned that night, picturing each stroke in her head. She loved the way that, together, the characters made little stories. Her favorites were the two symbols on exit signs that translated to: “leaving the mouth.”

As her husband slept she thought about all the things he’d told her: the factories up the river in Guangzhou blasting smoke and chemicals into the dirty air, the high-speed rail that would displace thousands of farmers. She thought about the one-child policy—all those baby girls being aborted or abandoned, and all those boys growing up alone. She tried to lie very still, but her husband sensed she was awake and ruminating. He reached for her under the covers, pressed his hand on her chest.

“What’s going to happen,” she said, “to all those men? Thousands of lonely men, with no women to marry?”

She expected her husband would talk then about the problems of too many rootless young males, “bare branches,” as the Chinese called them: prostitution, high crime rates, bride trafficking, female suicide. But tonight he knew to say, simply, “I know. It’s so sad.”

They lay there, his warm hand calming her heart, and after a while like this in the dark, he said, “Maybe there’s some kind of group you could join. Some American friends.”


The next day she walked along the harbor, where ferryboats and tugs and old fashioned sampans crisscrossed to Kowloon and back, keeping the water in an endless churn. Her father had come here in 1983. He brought home thick coins and jade figurines and matchbooks with golden dragons embossed on the flaps. He ate chickens’ feet, he told them, and he told them about the harbor—the busiest waterway he’d ever seen. How foreign and far away this place must have seemed to him. There was no email then. There were no cell phones, no American newspapers online. The postcards he’d sent arrived three weeks after his return. Watching the ferries cut across the water, nearly plowing into one another, and the humble sampans chugging along, she felt little of her father’s sense of amazement. She thought instead about something her husband had told her—that 700,000 cubic meters of sewage and chemicals poured into the harbor every day. The water was a strange, metallic gray color and had a strong sour smell. It wasn’t really even water anymore. It was just a chemical the boats floated on.

She wondered how long her husband wanted to stay here. There was talk of continued work with his professor, of writing a book. She envied the monks she saw in the streets, with their dull, red robes and placid faces. She envied their quiet lives and the fact that they probably would never have to make a decision again. She thought maybe she should become a monk. Or maybe she should have a baby. Pregnant women moved as slowly as the monks and looked as content. There were so many maternity shops around the city. Sometimes she took photos of the headless, pregnant mannequins in their bright, pretty clothes.

Maybe her husband was right. There were Westerners around, sprinkled here and there, appearing like little surprises in the crowds. Maybe she should meet some. Whenever she spotted them coming toward her, she was always prepared to smile and wave—it was like being on a boat and waving to other people on boats—but they only reluctantly waved back. They were called gwailos, according to her guidebook—foreign devils—and she noticed that there was something harried about them, the women especially, as if their bodies were too big and awkward, as if their clothes didn’t seem to fit. Their eyes were bright and anxious, unlike the flat, calm eyes of the Chinese. She had felt like this, too. Like the clothes she wore back home didn’t fit her right here—like she was always a little bit off.

“You are full of garbage,” her Chinese therapist had told her, and she suspected that this is what she told a whole string of lost and weary Western women who found their way to her chair. “So full of too much garbage. In here.” She moved her small, pretty hand in front of her chest. “You see? It’s like you eat something bad, and now you need to go to washroom and get it out.”

Back in their room, she thought of using the old phone out in the hallway, but it was the middle of the night at home. She thought of her mother, dozing right then, upright against her pillows with the radio on, and her sister, in her messy room, safely asleep in the big arms of her fiancé. She wrote them emails, telling them about the fresh fruit juices she’d tried that day at a market stall. She surfed around on the Internet for a while, finding a photo of the house she grew up in on a real estate site, Googling people she used to know. She found some sites about living in Hong Kong, too—advice about how to beat the Chinese to a seat on the Metro, advice about whether to tip, whether to drink the tap water. She looked at a speed dating site for Chinese twenty-somethings, and an article aimed at over-40 expats looking for love. The best way to meet people in Hong Kong, it said, was to volunteer at an animal shelter or take a cooking class.

When her husband got home she was eating dumplings and looking at an Asian porn magazine she’d bought at another street stall.

“They have these sweet, little-girl faces,” she said. “And then these giant, shiny tits.” Her husband looked tired—more tired than usual—and his hair was getting long and unruly. He seemed to have aged since they arrived.

“I got this for you,” he said. He dropped a small slip of paper into the crease of the magazine. “A website,” he said. “I heard about it from a friend at school.”

The site was for Western women whose husbands worked in Hong Kong. There was a photo of a group of women smiling in front of the Big Buddha, and a schedule of events—dinners, foot massages, boat rides, and shopping trips to Shenzhen.


On Saturday night she was on the Metro, gliding through the tunnels underneath the city in a car packed with Chinese businessmen and groups of well-dressed Chinese women and teenage couples cuddling, looking at themselves in their window reflections. There were white women, too, and she wondered if they were part of the online group, traveling toward the meeting spot. It was her first time out alone on a Saturday night and her first time since they’d arrived that she’d put on any makeup. She had cobbled together an outfit from the sad mix of clothing she’d brought to Hong Kong: black yoga pants and a black T-shirt with a gold hummingbird on it. Her only shoes were the old sneakers she’d been wearing every day to walk all over the city, but no one would notice, her husband assured her. Her outfit was a good one for the occasion, he said. Black makes everything seem dressed up.

She was nervous. The rudimentary, static look of the website had made her wonder if the group even existed anymore. It was a surprise, then, when looking through the window of a bar called Insomnia, she saw a group of fresh-looking Western women sitting on cushions. She thought about things she could say to them. She could talk about Melvis, the Chinese Elvis, who serenaded her on her birthday, and about the turtle tea she drank by mistake. She could talk about her husband, when he was a veterinarian. Everyone loved a veterinarian.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I joined your group online?” Immediately, there was a flurry of activity. The women hugged her, they kissed both her cheeks, they found her a cushion to sit on, they put a tall, pink drink in her hand.

“You’re lovely!” they said in their pretty British accents. “She is, isn’t she? Just lovely.”

“Her hair,” they said. “Yes. Beautiful. And her eyes.”

She smiled, perched on her cushion, sipping her drink. These women, not at all like the white women she’d observed in her neighborhood, dressed with style, in short, flowing dresses and classy heels, and their haircuts were sharp and trendy. Their skin was tan, and all of them smelled clean and flowery and fresh. Her outfit, which had seemed fine in her reflection on the Metro, was completely inadequate and sad. She knelt, hiding her sneakers underneath her, and wished she’d put on more makeup, as the women told her about everything: the international schools, the hookers in Wan Chai, the best places to eat brunch on Sundays. They were so nice to her, it made her want to cry. Earlier that day, at the noodle shop, the waitress had yelled at her and waved her back toward the door. “No fork!” the waitress said. “We have no fork here for you.”

Their husbands were engineers and bankers and consultants and pilots. They all had children—some of them even had four or five—and all of their families lived together on an island they called Discovery. Their husbands rode into the city on a high-speed ferry every morning, and the women and children met them on the pier when they sailed back in at night. They had their own beach and their own pool and their own Western grocery store. “We love our life,” they said. “It’s almost not real!” This was so funny to them. They opened their wide, pretty mouths and laughed and laughed.

“They were so beautiful,” she imagined telling her husband. What she would not be able to tell him, however, was how weightless the women seemed, as though they had mastered something other women had not.

The Chinese waitresses delivered bottles of champagne, and cosmopolitans with spears of lychee fruit instead of cherries. The women ordered mojitos, and strawberry wine, and shots made with coconut milk. She sipped champagne, watching pomegranate seeds shuttle up and down with the bubbles, and she drank something strong and sweet out of a coconut shell. Soon, the ladies were up off their cushions, collecting their things. It was time to move on, they said.

They left the bar, and she followed, the line of them in their bright dresses like a string of flags moving down the sidewalk ahead of her. The night had come alive while they were in the bar, and the streets were loud with music and crowded with Westerners—the men in suits and slick hair, the women sleek in short, black dresses. They walked down through an alleyway night market where Chinese women called to them, selling feather boas and party hats, clock radios, shoes, lightsticks. She followed the women to the end, and they disappeared into another bar—this one with huge, wood doors, like a castle. One at a time they went through the doors, and she followed them a few steps into a room so dark she couldn’t see. The base of the music pounded in her chest, and in a flash of a strobe light, she saw that there were dancers in wigs and lingerie dancing on platforms. She turned then, feeling her way back to the heavy doors, and pushed her way out again. Leaving the mouth, she thought.

At the night market, she found a woman selling shoes, and took off her sneakers in the street and tried on pair after pair of high heels.

“Look good for you,” the woman told her, and she bought a pair of black ones for five American dollars. She stuffed her socks into her sneakers and hid her shoes behind one of the stalls in a crevice in the stone foundation of a building. The heels gave her new life, and balancing on their pinpoints, she returned to the dark castle bar and found the women inside.

All night she followed them from bar to bar to bar. They sipped Russian vodka in a room made completely of ice, and they went to the top of a hotel and drank tequila against a backdrop of foggy, city light. They piled their purses in the middle of the dance floor and danced in a circle around them.

“Come live with us,” they yelled to her, over the sound of the music. “You need friends! You need Western food! You need yoga!” She would have loved to tell them, Yes! She would join them! She would have loved to be one of them, dressed so smartly and waiting on the dock for her husband to come home. She felt so good, moving freely in their tight circle, their purses safe in the middle. She vowed to dance more, even in their tiny room, and to get a better haircut, and to wear pretty clothes. How lucky their husbands were to have wives who dressed up day and night. They were truly happy, and she wondered if it was Discovery that made them this way, or whether all the world’s truly happy women somehow found their way to Discovery.

They danced and danced like beautiful maniacs, oblivious to the men that closed in around them, and when they collected their purses and she followed them out of the final bar, she had no idea what time it was. She couldn’t tell whether the sky was purple from the dawn or purple from the lights of the city. She followed them down the steep, cobbled streets, past the gated noodle shops and closed market stalls, toward the harbor, where at the end of a wide pier, a brightly lit ferry was waiting for them. There was pilates the next day, they called to her, and horse races on Wednesday, and ladies’ night, as shoeless, drunk, and laughing, they walked down the pier away from her. Yes, she said. Yes. Yes. But all the while she was wondering what it was that she was missing. All her life she had felt like everyone knew something crucial that she had yet to figure out. And as she watched the bright ferry back up and turn itself toward the open water, she knew she wouldn’t meet the women again.


Her sneakers were gone. She had hiked back up the hill and looked behind the market stall, but the little stone crevice where she left them was empty. She was too tired, too drunk to be sad or to care what her husband would say. It was time, she thought, to let certain things disappear. She imagined her sneakers on the feet of someone who needed them now—maybe the beggar with no fingers she had seen in the street.

It was approaching dawn, but the trains hadn’t yet started running. She sat on the steps of the Metro station. Soon, the Chinese, clean and morning fresh, would appear, and she would feel garish in her black heels and makeup. Chinese people thought Westerners were modern, the guidebook had said, but also barbaric and vulgar, and she thought then of her therapist in her small shoes and pencil skirt. Her therapist’s accent had been getting heavier, it seemed, and the last time she was there, she had to ask the woman to repeat herself again and again. Toward the end of the session, when the therapist said something she didn’t understand, and then asked “Is that true?” she simply answered yes, to make things easier. The therapist leaned toward her, then, looking straight into her eyes, and told her: “This is very important.”


At 6 a.m. the first train arrived, taking her back to her neighborhood, where she walked the underground tunnels to the exit that came up into the park.

There was a day, when they’d first arrived in Hong Kong, before classes started, before they knew their way around, that she and her husband slept in together. They bought shrimp dumplings and coconut juice from a dumpling stall and then wandered here, to this park. It was a Sunday, the one day of the week that all the Filipino maids had off, and thousands of them were sitting on small mats and blankets, talking and sharing food. With not an inch of space left on the grass or even on the cement paths, she and her husband sat on a bench among all the women, amid their loud and happy chatter.

Coming up through the tunnel now, she hoped for the surprise of them again. Like a flock of birds that had flown in and landed there during the night. But it was barely dawn, and when she came up the stairs into the smell of grass and trees, the park was quiet and empty, save for a few Chinese people working slowly through the movements of their tai chi.

Her husband rarely told stories. But on that day when they first came to the park, jet-lagged and peaceful, he told her the story of a school dance he went to when he was 11. Their house was across the street from the school, and the music had been too loud, and his father had appeared in the middle of the dance and took him home. Alone in his bedroom, her husband said, he could hear the music as it floated across the street and through his window. It was the first time, he said, he’d heard the Beastie Boys.

“That is so sad,” she told him, holding his hand as they sat on the bench. She inched closer and asked what made him think of that now? But he didn’t know. It was one of the few things from his childhood he still remembered, he said.

Around them the Filipino women’s chatter was like a children’s lunchroom—so many voices, like water over rocks, mothers and sisters and cousins and aunts talking and talking and sharing their food, forgetting for the moment their hard lives and their homesickness, too. She would have done anything to have a day like they were having, with her mother and her sister, their heads bent close, telling each other all the stories of the week.

Now, in the park, the sun’s rich, early light shone between the skyscrapers. The heavy air grew warmer, and for a long time she sat on a bench under the trees. It was quiet except for the sound of birds and, here and there, of a jogger’s rhythmic steps on the path behind her. Her husband, she knew, would be getting worried. She imagined him in the hallway outside their room, trying to figure out how to call the police using the dusty phone. She knew she should leave. But she didn’t want to move. It was so beautiful here, and she felt like maybe she was on the cusp of something. Like there was something, if she sat still just a little longer, she might come to understand.

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