The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Luck of the Chinese
By Angela Tung
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
When I began writing “The Luck of the Chinese,” I thought I was in trouble – beyond a startling revelation from my cousin, I began to think not much happened during my trip to Ireland. We went to Robert’s Cove, saw the Cliffs of Moher, drank a little, ate a lot, and kissed the Blarney Stone. The end.
But when I began to think more about my trip and that time, I realized that while I was relieved to have finally left my adulterous husband, I was far from at peace; that it wasn’t till I was in the calm and quiet of Cork, away from the noise and distractions of New York, that I heard the loudness of my anger; and that I didn’t know how alone I was feeling till I learned my cousin had gone through almost the same thing.
The first time I went to Ireland, I traveled on a plane, and brought back pictures and a shamrock necklace. The second time, I traveled through words, and brought back insight and revelation.
I was going to Ireland because I was tired. It had been four months since my husband and I separated; we still had yet to file the divorce papers. But we were done for, that was for sure.
A mental health questionnaire I took at work told me I was “mildly depressed.” I didn’t believe it. Sure, I wasn’t happy but I wasn’t miserable either. I was just tired of thinking, of having to make decisions.
So when my cousin Huang Lei emailed me, “Come to Cork! Shane’s job is transferring us next month,” I took her up on it. I wanted to escape the heat of New York in August, the loneliness of my one bedroom apartment. I wanted to be taken around, to be taken care of. I wanted not to think.
Except for one minor detail. Huang Lei was married, her geologist husband on sabbatical in Moscow.
Our family wouldn’t hear that she had left Guochen for Shane for another year. By then she and Shane were already married, her paperwork already in to get her to the States. At the time, we were appalled. How could she do that Guochen? He was so smart and patient and kind. He had taken my grandmother and mother around when they visited; he had helped me out my first few weeks in Beijing when I was so homesick, I cried every night.
She just wanted to get out of China, the more gossipy family members said. As soon as she met someone handsomer or richer, she’d leave Shane too.
I didn’t believe it – she seemed too innocent for that – but at the time, I didn’t understand, if she had done nothing wrong, why she waited so long to tell us.
Now I did.
I took the red eye from JFK into Heathrow. By the time I got on my connecting flight, I was exhausted and starving. I thought about shelling out some cash to buy a “traditional Irish breakfast,” but I still had only dollars and not pounds.
When we landed, I was so distracted by fatigue and a grumbling stomach, I almost forgot I hadn’t told my cousin I was coming alone.
“Where’s Joe?” she asked as she hugged me.
“Um,” I said. “He couldn’t make it. His parents – you know.”
She looked disappointed, but nodded.
“That’s too bad,” said Shane. “We had a whiskey factory tour planned.”
“I’ll still go,” I told him.
“Hm, I never pegged you for a whiskey drinker.”
As we walked to their car, I prayed they wouldn’t ask me anything else about Joe. I knew I’d have to tell them eventually, but not right now. Right now I wanted to pretend that part of my life didn’t exist.
For a short time, they seemed to forget about my soon-to-be ex. We drove back to their place, dropped my stuff off, then walked to breakfast. It was cool, much cooler than Manhattan. I breathed in the clear, damp air.
“It rains a lot here,” Huang Lei said. “Not today though. Not yet.”
I got my traditional Irish breakfast – bacon, sausage, eggs, white and black pudding, toast, fried potatoes, and lots of coffee. We ran into one of their friends, a young blond woman who told a long rambling story about getting so drunk the night before, she passed out and woke half-dressed on her bedroom floor. “I don’t remember a thing!” she cried joyfully, or so I thought. I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying, and, guessing by his expression, neither could Shane.
“That was English?” I whispered after she left.
Shane chuckled. “You’re telling me,” he said. Then he pointed at his wife. “Lei can understand though.”
She smirked. “No problem.”
It was true. In China she had understood Mandarin in all sorts of accents. Mine, the other English teachers, the Korean students on campus. Now she had moved onto English when just a few years ago, she had barely understood it at all.
We drove out to Galway, passing hills greener than I had imagined. I was tired but relaxed. After Joe and I split up, I sought peaceful places. The Buddha wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. John’s the Divine, the Central Park Mall. And now Cork.
But while we were shopping, Shane mentioned Joe again. “Will he be shocked by the credit card bill?” he joked.
For the first time I was annoyed. “I pay my own credit card bills,” I said. I paid them when Joe and I were together too.
“You hear that Lei?” he said. “She pays her own bills.”
My cousin looped her arm through mine. “Angela’s a working woman,” she said. “I’m a housewife.”
That night Huang Lei asked me, “Do you want to call Joe now?”
“I can just email him,” I said.
“Call him. Use our phone. We don’t mind.”
“No, that’s okay.”
I had my own room, where I snuggled under a down blanket. It was so quiet, my ears rang. Then the rain started, pattering against my window. I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off.
I was slowly telling people about my divorce and Joe’s cheating. I didn’t tell my parents till Joe and I had already separated, and I had already moved out on my own. I waited so long because I had expected my parents to blame me, which they did. I hadn’t been watching Joe carefully enough, I was too trusting, I wasn’t a good judge of character. I never should have married him in the first place.
Now I was letting friends know what happened, a couple face-to-face, some by email. It was hard to tell the same sad story over and over. I thought I could get away with not telling Huang Lei, but obviously I couldn’t.
“Huang Lei, I have to tell you something,” I said. “Something about Joe.”
We were in the kitchen making coffee and toasting bread. She looked at me with wide eyes. “His mother?” she asked.
Huang Lei knew my mother-in-law was sick with Parkinson’s disease. I shook my head. “We split up.”
Her eyes filled. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured, then grabbed me in a hug.
But I wasn’t finished. As she released me, I said, “He cheated on me, and the woman got pregnant.”
All at once, Huang Lei sucked in her breath, her tears dried, and her face hardened. “Forget him,” she spat, and began furiously rinsing the French press. “You know, Guochen did the same thing.”
My mouth fell open. “Guochen?” I said, as though there must be some mistake. “Guochen did that?” She nodded.
For years Guochen had been having affairs. Huang Lei never knew with whom – a fellow professor maybe, the wife of a fellow professor, a student – only that they were happening. He’d disappear for hours. Someone would call at night and hang up. There were strange numbers on his beeper.
“Once I threw it – ” she said, and pantomimed, flinging water everywhere – “I was so mad. But he never admitted it. He just got angry when I asked him. ‘It’s none of your business!’ he’d say. None of my business! Huh!” She shook her head.
Guochen. I couldn’t get over it. And the whole time she had let everyone think she was the bad one, that all she wanted was to get out of China.
That day we drove out to Robert’s Cove. The day was gray and drizzly but no real rain fell. Shane skipped rocks across the water, then Huang Lei, who was surprisingly good at it. She was always good at things like that – badminton, bowling, dancing. My cousin was a beautiful dancer. Once at a party in China, I saw her waltzing and was amazed: her hands were light and graceful on her partner’s shoulders, her face serious, then at a pause in the music, she threw one leg out – there – like a tossed rose.
“You try,” Huang Lei said, handing me some stones.
I hurled one. Ker-PLUNK.
“You throw like a girl,” Shane said.
At one time I was jealous of Huang Lei. In China I was the scared and helpless little kid, and she, the capable adult. Then she was with Shane, who treated her like a treasured doll. While he took her around China, I was taking care of my sick mother-in-law every weekend. In America he let her live her dream of taking English classes and dance lessons, while I was chastised for not earning enough money. His love for her was so easy, while I felt I had to earn every bit of Joe’s.
Even our family eventually approved of her decision. “Huang Lei hao neng-gan,” my grandmother said. Neng-gan, Mandarin for talented, capable, and clever, as though it wasn’t just luck that had brought Shane her way.
In the meantime, my family felt only pity for me – used and betrayed, and now all alone.
We saw the Cliffs of Moher, which were like something out of Lord of the Rings. Driving we encountered a herd of cows crossing the road. “Quick!” Shane told me, jumping out with his camera. I followed and posed by the car.
We ate surprisingly good Italian food, and afterward hit a pub, which unlike bars in New York was spacious and well-lit. We drank hot toddies and whiskeys and water, and ran into one of their neighbors, a young pregnant woman sipping a glass of wine.
“Just a bit of light drinking for me,” she told us.
We walked around some more, and soon found ourselves hungry. We got fish and chips, doused liberally with salt and vinegar, and walked back home.
“This is Cork life,” Huang Lei said. “Eating, the pub, and walking.”
“Sounds like a lovely life to me,” I said.
“We’re on our own for the Blarney Stone,” Huang Lei said.
That day Shane had to work so we hopped in a cab. The driver, a spry white-haired man, told a long story I could barely understand, but of course Huang Lei had no problem.
The stone was harder to kiss than I thought. I had imagined at most bending over to pucker up. I didn’t expect to lie supine with a strange man holding my hips as I hung my head upside down. Huang Lei stood over me, giggling and snapping pics.
“What do I get again for this again?” I asked as the man helped me up.
“The gift of the gab,” he told me.
That was all? I’d have preferred a bit more luck.
Afterward we stopped in a cafe for coffees and scones. Since the morning I told her about Joe, it was the first time we were alone.
“So how are your mother and father?” she asked me carefully, pouring the milk.
“They’re fine,” I said. Truthfully that was just my guess. I didn’t like talking them much since telling them about Joe. All my mother did was yell at me: why hadn’t I left sooner, why hadn’t I told them.
“It must have been very hard for them.” Seeing my expression she quickly added, “Hard for you of course, but hard for them too.”
I frowned. “It’s over,” I said. “But they keep talking about it.” I was still angry, I realized, but now instead of my husband and his mistress, my parents were the target. Although I had kept Joe’s affair secret from them, maybe I had been hoping they would somehow know, that they’d be able to figure it out from my taciturn sadness, the fights I picked with them, by the fact that Joe almost never came with me when I went home. Maybe I was hoping they’d rescue me, the way that Shane had rescued Huang Lei.
“You’re very strong,” my cousin told me now. “I wouldn’t have been able to do what you did. I wouldn’t have been able to just leave. If I never met Shane – ” She shook her head. “I’m not as neng-gan as you.”
I looked down at the remains of my scone. Was I stronger for leaving or was she stronger for staying? Was she strong or weak for keeping silent when we gossiped about her? Was I strong or weak for keeping my troubles to myself for so long?
“My parents don’t think I’m strong,” I said. When I told my mother I had moved all by myself, had ordered my own furniture and put up my own curtains, she asked only, “Why didn’t you ask us to help you?”
“To them you’ll always be their daughter,” Huang Lei said. “They’ll always worry. They’ll always want to do things for you.”
I didn’t answer. Was I being selfish for not letting them help me? Didn’t I have a right to be?
“That’s good of you,” said Shane, “to take the sun away.”
At the airport they gave me hugs. In a month they’d be back in the States, in a nondescript suburb outside Los Angeles. They’d miss the warmth of the community in Cork, where everywhere they went, they ran into someone they knew. In L.A. they’d never get to know the people in their townhouse complex, not even enough to wave.
But they’d be happy. A year later, they’d have a little girl, named Mia for one of their Irish neighbors. Huang Lei would learn even more English and how to drive a car.
I’d let my parents back in. I’d be ready to give again. I’d start dating. I’d have my heart broken, once, twice, three times. But later, I’d fall in love again. I’d begin to wonder that what seemed like bad luck might have actually been good, that my mistakes weren’t mistakes after all.
On the plane back to N.Y. from Ireland, the pilot told us there was a storm a-brewin’. “But as luck would have it,” he went on, “we’re just ahead of it and will be leaving on time.”
I peered out my window and saw a patch of blue sky in the distance. It didn’t seem too far away.