For as long as she had lived, Susan never forgot the time she looked at herself in the mirror when she was four years old and was startled to see a stranger with narrow eyes, broad cheeks, and straight black hair staring back at her. Her mother had blue eyes and a long nose and yellow hair. What had happened? Who was this intruder living in her own skin? It was a long time before she allowed herself to look in the mirror again.
When she was five her mother pulled down a heavy book from the shelf and opened it to a page with a drawing with lots of colors in it and pictures of tiny little houses. “This is China,” her mother told her. “It’s a land far, far away. You have to travel far across the ocean to get to it.” She looked at her mother quizzically. “Your father and I once did this. We travelled all the way across the world and stayed in China for a long time. Do you know why?” Susan was as puzzled as ever. “Because we wanted to find you. We wanted to find a beautiful little baby girl with long black hair. And that’s where we found you. In China.”
Susan considered this for a moment. “Do all babies come from China?” she asked.
“No, just some.”
“Did my brother Brandon come from China?”
“No, had him right here in America. We found him here.”
“Is that why he looks different than me?”
“All babies look different, dearest,” said her mother. “There are white babies, black babies, brown babies, fat babies, thin babies. There are all kinds of babies. But we liked you the best. That’s why we picked you and brought you home all the way across the ocean. And we were so happy to have you.”
She looked at the tears welling in her mother’s eyes and realized something was going on that she had never seen before. She did not quite understand. But Susan took these things into her heart and thought about them.
It was true what her mother said about babies. At school there were all kinds of children. There were raucous black and white boys who ran around the playground playing tag. There were black girls who sang hand-clapping songs as they jumped rope. There were conspiratorial girls who stood off in the corners giggling with one another. And there were boys and girls like herself who stood off by themselves and did not try to play with the others. The teacher often came by and asked if she did not want to join the other children but she said she did not mind. She was content to be by herself.
What she liked best about school was drawing. From the beginning she become lost in thought whenever she had a pencil in her hand. She would draw elaborate curves and swirling lines and then try to make them connect into a pattern. Then she would try to draw little flowers and birds in the middle of them for decoration. She would choose an object on her desk and try to draw it perfectly, line by line. The teacher would hover over her work, obviously impressed. “You should take lessons,” she would say, and then whisper to her aide, “She’s so calm.” But Susan was content to draw on her own. She brought all her drawings home to her parents, who put them up on the walls and the refrigerator until they filled the kitchen.
Her brother Brandon was a source of both fascination and annoyance. She had enjoyed having the sole company of her parents and was unhappy when he arrived. Although she didn’t remember it, her parents told her they had invited a magician to her fourth birthday party and when he asked what trick she would like him to perform she had pointed to her baby brother and said, “Make him disappear.” But she had quickly become fascinated with his gurgling and endless efforts to put everything in his mouth and by the time he was able to walk she became his constant playmate. They devised an endless game where she would build elaborate structures with his blocks, towering up three feet off the ground, Brandon watching in fascination with a growing gleam in his eye until on a nod from her he would charge in wildly and knock them all down, laughing uproariously. The first few times he did it she had cried inconsolably and gone to her mother but as she grew confident in her ability to reproduce these intricate kingdoms and as Brandon honored the rule of waiting until she was completely finished before letting loose his destruction, the ritual became a secret that bound them together.
One afternoon when she was nine years old her mother and father called her into the kitchen. “Would you like to learn Mandarin?” her mother asked.
“What is Mandarin?” Susan responded.
“It’s the language they speak in China.”
“Why do I have to learn it?”
“You don’t’ have to learn but we thought it would be helpful. One day you may want to go back to China to meet some of the people and see where you were born.”
“I don’t want to go back to China,” she said. “I want to stay with you.”
“We’re not saying we’re going to send you back to China,” said her father, gathering her in his arms and giving her a kiss. “We want you keep you here right with us. But we thought you might meet some Chinese people some day and it would be fun to be able to talk to them.”
“Do I have to go back to China if I learn to talk Mandarin?”
“My dear, you don’t have to do anything,” said her mother, joining in the embrace. “But there’s a big wide world out there and we want you to be part of it. There’s lots of wonderful things about China that you’ll be happy to know.”
And so she began taking Mandarin on Saturday afternoons. It meant giving up soccer but she had never really enjoyed the task running after the ball all the time. She was more content to stand and watch the others play. The class was all girls and for the first time in her life Susan found she was like everybody else. She like the way the other girls concentrated on the subject just as she did, although there were a few girls who seemed to have adopted the ways of the older children at school. They had their hair dyed different colors, wore makeup, talked loudly and even using bad words when the teacher wasn’t around. Susan felt embarrassed and wished these girls were not in the class.
On the third day of class, after they had learned to say “nǐ hǎo.” “zàijiàn” and a few more basic phrases, the teacher announced they were going to learn to write in Chinese. Susan knew her ABC’s well and expected to see some new arrangement of the alphabet. Instead, the teacher drew out a card and showed the class a beautiful drawing that seemed like a small house. “This is the word ‘you’ in Mandarin – ‘nin,'” she said. “You see in Mandarin we don’t use letters the way we do in English. Each symbol stands for a word. This means ‘you.’ And this means ‘good.’ See, ‘you – good,’ which means ‘are you good?’ which is what we mean when we say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ in Mandarin.”
Susan was hypnotized. It seemed as if she had never seen anything so beautiful. “Now let’s see if you can draw a few of these yourselves,” said the teacher and handed out paper and small brush pens. “See if you can copy these figures for ‘hello.'” Susan set to work and it was as if her pen moved for her. Every line quickly fell into place. She copied the first character, then the second, then looked around for more. “That’s very good, Susan,” said the teacher when she came around to look at everyone work. “Have you ever done Chinese calligraphy before?”
“No, Miss, I don’t think so,” she said quietly.
For the next year Susan spent more than an hour every day copying one symbol after another until they covered the walls of her room and were emblazoned on her memory as well. She began adding her own personal touches, something that couldn’t be done in English. “I love China,” she told her mother and father. “Can we go there someday?”
“I want to go back,” said her mother. “We didn’t have enough time to see any of the sights the first time we went.”
“Can I go, too?” asked Brandon, who was beginning to think he was missing out on something. He had tried copying some of the signs himself but his pudgy hands had no aptitude for it. Susan felt a mild sense of superiority although she loved him all the same.
“When we go there you’ll be able to read all the signs for us,” said her father.
“I can read them now,” she said quietly.
IN SCHOOL, THE GIRLS were beginning to get interested in boys and say things that weren’t very friendly anymore. One day a big freckle-faced girl stopped her as she walked the halls after school and pushed her against the wall. “Let me see your nose a minute,” she said, pushing her thumb up against it without asking. “You have a very flat nose, don’t you?” she said, examining her like a doctor. “You see how I have a bump on my nose? You don’t have that, do you?”
Susan did not know how to respond but tried to pull away. “Your name isn’t really Susan, is it?” the girl persisted. “It’s really” — and she pulled her own face outward to give it a slant-eyed look — “Ching Chow Chong, isn’t it?”
Susan broke away and ran down the hall. “Ching Chow Chong,” the girl called after her. After that, she did not allow herself to be caught in the halls alone again.
As teenage years took their toll, Susan found herself desperately wanting to be like everyone else. Mandarin was forgotten. She began dressing more scantily and neglecting her studies, eager to spend time at the beach and be with the crowd. Whenever she disrobed, however, she was reminded of how much darker than the other girls she was. They would were more bronzed but hers was a tough, dark tan that never seemed to fade. She wondered if any boy would ever like her.
Then at the beginning of junior year a tall, wispy boy with blondish hair moved into town. He was shy and the other kids didn’t take much interest in him but Susan noticed him and it seemed he noticed her. One day they found themselves standing in the lunch line together.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” Susan asked.
“How did you know?” he answered, apparently amazed that anyone had noticed him.
“Oh, I keep track of things,” she said cheerfully. “My name’s Susan, what’s yours?”
The young man was strangely silent for a moment. “Steven,” he finally said.
“Did your family just move into town?” she asked innocuously.
“I don’t have a family,” said Steven.
After many lunches spent together, Susan finally heard the whole story. Steven was a “lost child,” a 17-year-old who had been abandoned by his family, members of a polygamous Mormon cult on the Arizona border. The group leader, a charismatic preacher who already had seven wives, had condemned Steven when he objected to the preacher taking his older sister as his eighth wife. Calling Steven the “spawn of the Devil,” the preacher had demanded Steven be expelled from the group. His family, devout followers, had dutifully complied. One an overcast afternoon in November, they had packed Steven a suitcase, driven him to a deserted spot in the countryside 50 miles from their home, put him out of the car and told him they would never see him again. A stranger had picked him up on the road and driven him to Denver. After living on the streets for six months Steven had finally been taken in by a halfway house in Boulder. They were trying to place him in a foster home. Meanwhile he was attending Boulder High School.
For once Susan felt like the insider. She guided him through American culture as if he were a visitor who had just arrived from outer space. He knew nothing of history, religion, or popular music. He didn’t know that there were comic books or that Catholics believed in Jesus Christ or that there was a President of the United States. When a foster home finally took him in, it was another Mormon family and they were not enthusiastic about Steven and Susan dating.
“Isn’t this all a little difficult?” her mother asked. “Wouldn’t it be better if you dated someone who was more like us?”
“But mom, he’s so sweet,” she said. “And I think he needs me.”
They became lovers but it was most discreet. Neither set of parents really wanted them in the house. They met secretly in parks and gardens during the summer but when winter arrived it became cold and difficult. Neither of them had a car. The best they could do was sit together in the lunchroom. Susan realized she had abandoned most of her effort to fit in with the other girls and was devoting all her time with Steven. She realized it was not good for her. As Steven became more acclimated to the outside world it was becoming clear he would not go to college. His knowledge of the world was just too hopelessly behind. He had signed up for a carpenter’s apprentice program and was thinking of dropping out of school.
“You can do better, I know you can,” she told him. “I can teach you.”
“Nah, I think I like this kind of work better,” he said, lowering his head so she could not see his face. “I like being outdoors.”
By graduation, it had become clear their lives were diverging. Susan had been accepted at Stanford. She would start in the fall. They now had the opportunity to see each other again but Steven was working lots of overtime during the summer and began to beg off. He was saving to buy a car. She feared he was losing interest in her. When she left for Palo Alto in the fall they wrote passionate letters for a month and then he seemed to fall off the face of the earth. She saw him once more in Boulder a year later, driving a car with an attractive woman at his side.
Susan now immersed herself once more in her calligraphy. She knew Mandarin now almost as well as she knew English and picked up several translation jobs from the chairman of her department. Most of the important scientific papers were being written in China now and the Chinese were becoming more lackadaisical about translating them into English. Instead, they were pushing to have Mandarin made the international language of scientific thought. Most translations of newspapers and diplomatic correspondence were now performed by computer, but there was still room for individuals who had her special skills.
“You’re really in an ideal position,” the chairman told her. “There’s going to be a huge demand for people who can write and speak both languages.”
Her parents were thrilled at her success. But Brandon, three years behind her, was falling into the maw that seemed to engulf so many young men these days, skipping school, playing video games, experimenting with drugs.
“You’re going to ruin your mind,” she told him when she found him lolling in his bedroom with a group of friends at Christmas. “Brandon, you’re only given one brain when you arrive on this earth. You’re abusing it.”
“That’s my high-and-mighty sister,” he drawled to his friends as they giggled in a stupor. “She goes to STAN-ford. She’s studying Chinese. She’s going to be an ambassador or something.” He giggled along with them.
“Hey Susan, when you get over to China how about bringin’ home a couple of those Chinese girls, eh?” said one of his friends, a sallow, stringy youth with long hair. “I hear they make great girlfriends.”
Susan looked at Brandon, expecting him to speak up for her. But Brandon said nothing. She felt the quick. She had always felt protective of her younger brother, honoring his place as the natural child in the family, expecting him to defend her as well. Now she felt he was betraying her in a way she had never experienced before. She felt very much alone in her own house.
SUSAN JACOBS GRADUATED with honors from Stanford. She had no trouble landing a job in a trading firm in Denver that did most of its business in Shanghai and Hong Kong. As soon as she learned the business, she would probably be sent there. Amazingly, after all these years, China still remained a huge unknown to her, a great world hovering on the other side of the Pacific to which she felt tied by everything she had ever learned about the world but she had not yet experienced. She felt like a bride in an arranged marriage, waiting to meet the bridegroom that her parents and fate had chosen for her.
Then on May 5, 2064, she turned on her screen and read the headline, “CHINESE SEIZE PEARL HARBOR.” The photo showed two huge green naval vessels with the Hawaiian mountains etched behind them. Reading open-mouthed down into the story, she came to the following lines:
One of the more bizarre demands put forth by the Chinese is that they have returned to them some or all of the 300,000 Chinese children that have been adopted by American families over the past 30 years. The Chinese say these adoptions have severely limited the possibilities of young Chinese men in finding brides. American officials said that China had previously agreed to all adoptions and there was virtually no chance they would comply with this demand.
A cold hand reached down into Susan’s breast and seized her heart. There was no doubt about it. She knew they were talking about her.