Chan stood at the bows when the crew dropped anchor. It was almost night in the middle of nowhere. The galvanized scoop-shaped anchor plunged into the blackening sea, drawing a trail like a falling jet until it disappeared. The captain reversed the engines to ensure that the anchor caught on the seabed, then stilled them. Silence.
Emily’s voice came over a loudspeaker. “Sorry to do this, but everyone’s all over the place. Rumor has it that we’re all hungry, including me. So I thought we’d eat early. Like in twenty minutes on the upper rear deck?”
She repeated the sentence in Mandarin.
The crew folded the awning away from the upper rear deck, unwrapping the first stars. Chan watched Emily light candles along the center of the table. She used a gas cigarette lighter, which illuminated her features from a different angle at each candle. Chan saw the determined jaw, tired eyes, the beginnings of age, flashes of incandescent energy, the pursed lips of regret, raw lust. Before each small explosion of light she paused to make sure he was watching.
The others drifted up from the berths below to take their places under Emily’s direction. Xian sat at one end next to the stern; Emily sat at the other. Chan found himself sitting opposite Jenny, who avoided his eyes. The Sri Lankan cook arrived with the hors d’oeuvres, climbing silently up the stairs, her face so black it was invisible against the night except for her wide white eyes.
Xian cleared his throat, said something in Mandarin.
“Mr. Xian is going to say a few words,” Emily translated.
“Thanks to the gods China is rising. It is my opinion that with China, the world also will rise. China is the world’s new destiny. I am glad that all of you from different countries are here with me tonight to celebrate this new destiny.”
“Here, here,” Cuthbert said, before Emily had finished translating.
“Here, here,” Jonathan repeated loudly, apparently to please Xian and Emily. Jenny also repeated the phrase, without conviction.
“I’ll drink to that.” Emily let a beat pass to see if Chan was going to speak, then: “To China.”
Chan nodded. “To China.” From the corner of his eye he saw the old man look at him and smile. He leaned over toward Emily. “Did he really say, ‘Thanks to the gods’?”
Emily hesitated. “Yes, that’s what he said.” She held up a hand. “I know, that phrase was banned during the Cultural Revolution. Let’s not push the point. He didn’t say, ‘Thanks to the Revolution.’ Can we leave it at that?”
Xian spoke again. Emily translated into Mandarin.
“He understood what you said. He says, when he said, ‘Thanks to the gods,’ that’s what he meant.”
Chan looked at Cuthbert, who sat quietly, smiling.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Just think, how international everyone is these days. Any one of us could be in a different country this time tomorrow. Take me, five days ago I was in Beijing.”
Emily translated into Mandarin, listened to Xian’s reply, then laughed.
“Mr. Xian says that there may not be national boundaries in the future, but there will always be China. China was there at the beginning and will be at the end. Didn’t you feel so very Chinese when you visited Beijing?”
“Definitely, it was like a spiritual homecoming.” Catching the sneer on his wife’s face, Jonathan looked down.
Chan cleared his throat. “The only time I went to Beijing I felt very Chinese.”
“Oh, yes?” Emily sounded surprised.
“Yes. It was late autumn. The peasants had brought all the cabbages in from the countryside. Everywhere you looked, all around Tiananmen Square: cabbages. All along Wangfujing you saw barricades and even mountains of what they were calling aiguo cai-‘national vegetable.’ It was that dark ugly green cabbage that they use for bitter soup. All over the city stalls were selling bitter soup. Even the rich were drinking it, as a kind of fashion. The party said it should remind people of the bitter years before communism. But it was nearly fifty years after the Communist Revolution, and almost everyone still had to drink this bitter soup for the vitamin C. Of course I had to have some. It was really the most bitter thing I’ve ever tasted. I’ve never felt so Chinese.”
He saw that Emily had stopped translating and everyone except Cuthbert was avoiding his eyes. He leaned forward again, this time turning toward Xian and looking him directly in the eye. At each question and answer, Emily translated.
“You must have been in the Communist party for a long time?”
“And I’m sure you impressed senior cadres with your grasp of Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thought?”
“Certainly, one had to know a lot about such things.”
“But now China is in the hands of the gods again?”
“When you were a young cadet in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, did you take your oath to the queen of England?”
Chan twitched and ignored the question. “Does it worry you that China is becoming increasingly corrupt?”
Xian leaned back in his chair. “We’re learning capitalism. Corruption is stage one-personalized profit motive. Does it worry you that England and the United States used to be extremely corrupt and probably still are? Hong Kong owes its origin to the enforced sale of opium to our people. More than one half of the income of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century came from the sale of opium. Capitalism has won; now the West must pay the price for forcing this system upon us.” Xian leaned forward, smiled. “But don’t quote me.”
Only Cuthbert laughed.