Twenty years ago, I took my daughter, Sara, to the ocean for her fourth birthday. She just learned to dog paddle, and proudly walked up to anyone in sight, saying, "I can swim." The sea was calm, so ... [+]
"Are you Ken?" she asked.
To my acknowledgment, she said, "I'm Mia. We play now."
Mia had a challenging tennis style—she returned shot after shot until her opponent made a mistake. She would grunt with each shot as if to will the ball forward. I hit with pace, and if I made a good shot, Mia would applaud by slapping her palm against her racquet. With my flashy shots and her steadiness we were evenly matched. We agreed to play regularly.
During breaks in our matches, we sat on the courtside bench and in bits and pieces shared details of our lives. Mia held a visa that allowed her to stay in the United States for six months, at the end of which time she had to return to China. She was sixty-one years old and had one daughter, completing a doctorate at Columbia University. She grew up in Kunming, China, known as the "Spring City" for its year-round temperate climate. Her husband died of cancer ten years ago; she has not remarried. She learned that I was a retired attorney, married for nearly forty years—"you are lucky," she said—with two grown daughters living nearby, and that in retirement, I write fiction and have short stories published in print and online. Most of our conversations during the first year I knew Mia were small talk—about tennis and minor details of our days. By the end of Mia's six months in America, a friendship had begun.
Mia and I were to play tennis and get to know each other for three more half-years. In each of those years, a mutual affection grew stronger. She was a very proper woman. We never hugged as I do with many friends, rather shared high fives after every match. I had some sense of our cultural difference, but not until our friendship deepened did I appreciate the gulf between growing up in China and growing up in America.
Mia despised the Chinese Communist Party, the "CCP," and China's charismatic dictator, Xi Jinping. When she mentioned either, she set her face in a fierce expression and kicked at the air.
"You wouldn't do that in China, would you?" I asked.
She laughed. "I would be taken to prison."
Mia had been a high school physics teacher. When I asked how she enjoyed teaching, she said that she hated teaching physics. She had wanted to teach literature, but was identified in childhood as having scientific aptitude. Her career path was chosen by the CCP and she had no ability to change it. Her dream was to live in the United States and become a U.S. citizen.
I got the sense from Mia that the Chinese—at least women of her era—had strong views on class and race. Mia is a good person, yet showed little empathy for China's rural poor, who she believed held her country back. She told me that many Chinese people resented the CCP for its efforts to curry favor and expand its influence in Africa, and disliked African students brought by the government into the country.
"The CCP provides African male students with pretty young Chinese women," she said. "Sometimes they get pregnant and have to get abortions," she added with disdain.
Chinese urban legend? Bigotry on the part of my friend? I hope not. When Mia learned I was Jewish, her reaction made me smile.
"Chinese people respect Jews," she said. "They are very smart and successful."
I allowed that while Jews have traditionally valued education and achievement, we were varied, as are all humans. I did not ask Mia what people she thought the Chinese did not respect. I'm not sure I wanted to know.
The last year that Mia was in the United States was 2019. She would return to China in mid-October and was due back to America in mid-April. The Covid-19 pandemic derailed her return. A month before Mia was to depart, we were taking a match break. She became somber.
"Do you know," she said, "that I was ten years old when Mao Zedong began his `Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.' I still have nightmares of that time."
History teaches that Zedong's Red Guard beat and murdered untold numbers of Chinese citizens suspected of being "bourgeois," and that twenty million or more people died of starvation as Zedong tried to impose his Communist paradise. What Mia described to me most vividly was fear, a fear that stalked the Chinese countryside, that invaded her sleep and that her parents could not hide.
"Americans don't understand," she said.
Mia loved America and could not abide Americans who criticized their own country. I explained our tradition of protest and challenging authority. She would not have it. To her, America was a miracle, and Americans who did not cherish their country, ungrateful fools.
The week before Mia was to return to China in 2019, she brought me a lanyard with multi-colored baubles that could be worn around the wrist. She said it was a friendship bracelet.
"We are good friends," she said.
I said that I realized I never asked her how to say "Mia" in Mandarin.
"Mia is the name I chose for America," she said. "Many Chinese people in America choose American names. My Chinese name is Chu Hua."
I told her that Chu Hua was beautiful and asked if I should call her by her given name.
"No," she said. "In America, I am Mia."
After Mia returned to China, we exchanged several emails. She asked to hear "news of America," and said she enjoyed my commentary on American politics. I got a picture of her life in China—a privileged one with friends, travel, and much tennis. In the last email Mia sent me, she expressed frustration with the Chinese who applauded Xi Jinping's nationalism despite his repression of dissent. I'd read of the CCP's massive electronic surveillance of its citizens and wondered if writing that was safe. Mia also asked me to send some of my stories, my "books" as she called them.
I regret the email I sent her in return. I wrote that "Xi Jinping makes the gamble of all tyrants—that most people are unconcerned with freedom if they are materially comfortable." I sent her several of my published stories including "An Appointment with Julie," about an older widowed man whose loneliness drives him to see a prostitute. During sex, he feels shame. The story is not erotic, but there is a reference to sexual intercourse. The moment I clicked "send," I worried that a CCP algorithm might magically see "Xi Jinping" near "tyrant," flag Mia's emails, and find hers in which she criticized the CCP. I wondered if "An Appointment with Julie" would offend Mia's sense of propriety. The editor of the website that published it was a woman, but American.
Four months went by with no communication from Mia. I emailed that I would enjoy hearing from her. Five more months passed—nothing. When nearly a year had transpired with no word from Mia, I sent a final email asking that even if she no longer wished to communicate, could she let me know that no harm had befallen her. There has been no response. I have no way to reach Mia in China and doubt I will hear from her again.
Did I lose my friend to a fatal accident, to internment by a tyrannical regime, to my crossing a forbidden personal or cultural boundary with my story, or to the simple reality that most friendships end? I had a dear friend in a country far away and different from my own. For reasons I may never know, that friendship now is gone.
Chu Hua, I pray that you are well.