“Do you like living here?” she asked, picking up the earlier topic again.
Nathan sighed, fishing a cashew out of the tofu sauce with his chopsticks. “Do I like it? That’s a difficult question. I guess liking it is not how I would describe it. It’s an interesting place to live, always with something new to see or experience. I suppose one day it will be more frustrating than interesting, and then it will probably be time to move on. But contentment is a state of mind. The air is crappy, and I miss winters with snow. But I can ride my bike anywhere, and there are always interesting people to meet. The expat crowd is kind of a self-selecting subset of humanity. They seem to fall into one of three groups: They are either at the weird, oddball end of the spectrum—”
Helene laughed. “Oddball,” she repeated.
Nathan smiled, bashful to use a term his mom had favored when he was a kid.
“Yeah, oddball. So you’re either an oddball who becomes an expat because you don’t fit in back home, or you’re on the upper side of educated, seeking to jump-start your career, or you’re a thrill seeker—eschewing the normal nine-to-five life teaching English to fund your adrenaline rushes.”
“So which group do you fall into?” Helene asked with a teasing smile.
“I dunno,” Nathan laughed a little. “I guess I present as a thrill seeker—tutoring English with no proclaimed career wishes. But perhaps I’m just an oddball. In a lot of ways, I feel more comfortable here than I do at home. China wasn’t the only place I lived growing up so I never really attached to one home. In the US, I’m supposed to be a local somewhere, but I’m not really from anywhere. Here I’m among a lot of people who are living outside their country of origin. We’re all foreigners, but we’re all foreigners together. We’re all figuring out how to tell the taxi driver where to go, or where the best bread can be bought, or how to deal with Chinese landlords. And sure, we each have our own cultural heritage, but we have created common ground from the mere fact that we’re all different. It’s very pleasant.”
“What about the Chinese? Do you fit in at all with the locals?”
Nathan sighed again, and picked at another piece of tofu. He patted some of the sauce onto the small mound of rice in the bowl in front of him. Only after he’d eaten the tofu, followed by the sauced up bit of rice, did he answer.
“It’s difficult. Of course, sometimes expats stick with expats because they are unable to make new friends, or are scared to venture out on their own. But much of it is just that you can’t be a foreigner with the stipulation that you will soon leave, and expect to get into the culture like a local. The Chinese know you’re leaving, you know you’re leaving, and to put a lot of energy into breaking into an already established norm is a lot of work.”
“But you do speak the language,” she countered. “That’s different from most of the others. Surely you have an easier time making local friends.”
“Easier than most—I have that going for me. I do have Chinese friends. I want to meet the locals, and make friends and learn new things, but my purpose in being here isn’t to change who I am—I’ve no intention of replacing my own culture with the local one.”
“But you do feel at home here?”
“I do,” Nathan replied. “There are days when I think, ‘it’s time to get out’. And I do sometimes miss American grocery stores, and American common sense, but in a lot of ways, I feel more like an outsider in the US than I do here.” Nathan smiled, “But one has to be careful; it’s the little things that draw you in: having a cleaning lady for almost free, getting dinner for 50 cents, the general excitement of living in a city that’s constantly changing. Some people get addicted to those things and then can’t ever go back to the so-called real world.”
She pushed the last bit of the rice around her teacup-sized bowl. “So you don’t live in the real world?”
“Certainly not!” Nathan said in self-mockery. “I’ve successfully created my own parallel universe, and live firmly rooted in it.”
“So you are an oddball.”
They both laughed. Nathan leaned back on his purple velvet bench. “But enough about me!” He paused, trying to look as if he were intently studying her. Did she blush at his scrutiny?
“You know,” he said slowly, “In the US, the only Helens I know are old women.”
Helene laughed a full and infectious laugh.
“My mother was a literature professor—a romantique,” she said, emphasizing the last syllable. Her voice flowed over her words, running over and around each phrase, making the hard corners smooth and pulling them together into one fluid stream. She could read the Works Cited in the American Physical Review and make it sound elegant and seductive, Nathan thought.
“She was into the classics,” Helene continued. “When she became pregnant with me she was in the middle of The Iliad.” She sat back in her chair, as if that were all the explanation that was needed.
“Helen of Troy,” Nathan said, pronouncing the inspired heroine’s full name. He couldn’t help feeling satisfied, linking her name with his. Then, embarrassed to have done so, he tried to shift the attention quickly. “It’s a lot to live up to.”
To his relief she didn’t seem to notice.
“One could see it like that. How could I follow in the footsteps of the most beautiful woman known to man and the archetype of all beauty from thenceforth? But if you think about it, it is also rather freeing.” She shifted her position, chopsticks poised in the air. “They say the worst goals are those you could never reach. If you know an ambition is unattainable, you’ll never attempt it in the first place.” She looked down at the meal and chose another piece of tofu, blotting a bit of sauce with the piece before letting it float over the plate as she finished her thought. “Since I know I shall never be the most beautiful woman in the world—never launch a thousand ships, so to say—I can let go of the ambition before I even try. I am free to be who I am.” She brought the piece of tofu to her lips, gracefully and deliberately pausing as she savored the food. Nathan studied her every movement. “I suppose it is like being a foreigner in Beijing. At first glance, everyone knows you’re a foreigner. No one expects anything from you. It was a similar sense of freedom for me. I don’t think my mother planned it that way, but when I became aware that whatever ideals she had placed on me from my namesake were irrational, I felt free to make my own future. It wasn’t just about shedding standards of beauty—I could model my path just as easily as if I had been named Athena, after the goddess of wisdom, or Metis, for cunning.”
“When you free yourself from the expectations of others, you are at liberty to pursue your own ambitions,” Nathan said, finishing the thought for her. He had eaten his fill and set his chopsticks across his empty rice bowl. She had spoken about being free from expectations of beauty, yet he couldn’t help thinking he had never met anyone more beautiful. Her ideas were put into words so smoothly and coherently.
Helene broke into his reverie, “Unfortunately for me, or perhaps my mother, I didn’t make this realization until after university. I spent much of my childhood trying to live up to her unattainable goals for my life. My mother was very beautiful herself, but she had no courage. All the things she felt she’d missed out on because she didn’t have the bravery to take the necessary risks, she expected me to fulfill—to have the courage for both of us.
“I spent my childhood trying to fulfill her dreams, then the years after my baccalaureate and well into university, rebelling against them. It wasn’t until after I’d completely left home that I realized both responses were driven by her expectations, not my own.” She sighed, her chest and shoulders affected by the release of a full breath of air. Then, as if realizing she had exposed herself in her candor, she straightened her back. “We should get the check,” she said, something closing off in her expression.
“You’re going to leave without one of their famous Bing Shas?” Nathan asked, voicing the first excuse he could think of to keep her seated longer.
“Their what?” she asked, putting her hand over her abdomen, as if to preemptively decline.
“This restaurant is famous for them. A mountain of shaved ice with various creams, syrups and fruits poured over. It’s quite the show.”
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