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"It's out of the question!" said Father. I was usually able to coax him into seeing things my way, but this time he was firm. "Shanghai is one of the most disorderly cities in the world! Even in England, I heard people use the term 'to shanghai,' and it means . . ." He stopped, looked embarrassed, and then continued. "Anyway, it's an evil place. I can't allow a daughter of mine to be exposed to that wicked city without protection."
We continued eating, and nobody spoke for some minutes. Having lost my appetite, I just picked at the grains of rice in my bowl.
In a few days my dearest friend, Tao Ailin, was leaving on a steamship from Shanghai to America. It was possible that I would never see her again. I desperately wanted to say good-bye to her before the ship sailed.
Then Mother spoke, and to my surprise, she took my side. "Yanyan and Ailin were very close, and I can understand how much she wants to see her friend one last time."
Father thought for a while. "Very well, Yanyan can go to Shanghai if we find someone to accompany her as protector," he said finally. After a moment he said, "How about my secretary, Xiao Lin?"
"We cannot have Yanyan go to Shanghai accompanied by a man who is not a relation!" cried Mother, shocked.
"Besides, he's not much of a protector," I said. The secretary was a meek little man who would cringe in alarm if a cockroach crossed his path. "If a bully showed up, I would have to protect him!"
Help came from a most unexpected source. Eldest Brother cleared his throat. "Actually, I was thinking of going to Shanghai myself. My friend Liang Baoshu has some people he wants to meet there, and he asked if I would like to accompany him. Maybe Yanyan can come with us."
I had heard Eldest Brother mention Liang Baoshu before as a fellow student in his martial arts class. According to tradition, a well-educated gentleman should be good in both wen, meaning book learning, and wu, meaning martial skills. My two elder brothers had taken martial arts lessons from a master. Second Brother had dropped out after a while, but Eldest Brother continued the lessons, and we knew he was one of the best students in his class. The class had another outstanding student called Liang Baoshu, he had said.
My parents decided to invite Liang Baoshu for dinner the following night so that they could meet him and judge for themselves whether he would be a suitable companion for the trip to Shanghai. I was overjoyed. I had always been interested in the martial arts, and now I would meet one of the best students in the class. Best of all, I would have a chance to go to Shanghai and see Ailin after all.
"This is Liang Baoshu," said Eldest Brother, introducing his friend.
The boy bowed to my father first, then to my mother. He did not turn toward me, nor did Eldest Brother introduce me.
This allowed me to study the visitor. He was very tall, which made me suspect he was a northerner. Our family, the Zhangs, had lived in Nanjing for generations. Our city is about halfway up China, and Nanjing literally means "Southern Capital," while Beijing means "Northern Capital." So we tended to think of ourselves as southerners. Most northerners were tall, with high cheekbones, and they had a reputation for being taciturn. They claimed they were people of deeds, not words. We southerners said they just couldn't express themselves very well.
Liang Baoshu was not only tall but moved with easy grace, and I could well believe that he was one of the best students in the martial arts class. When he spoke, I became certain that he was a northerner, because he had the accent of Beijing City.
We sat down to eat dinner, with the men on one side of the table and the women on the other side. I had heard that in some families, men and women were placed in alternate seats. We were modern, but not that modern!
As usual, I gave Mother my arm as she walked to the dining table. She had bound feet and tottered a little while she walked. After I had helped Mother sit down, I straightened up and found the visitor looking at my feet and then straight into my face.
"Didn't my brother tell you?" I said. "I don't have bound feet."
Liang Baoshu blinked at being addressed directly but recovered quickly. "Manchu women don't have bound feet, either," he said.
Father dominated the dinner conversation. Sometimes my brothers openly contradicted him, for unlike many Chinese fathers, he permitted his children to do this. He actually enjoyed arguing with us. Of course, he enjoyed winning the argument even more. Tonight he started talking about vehicles that were not pulled by men but powered by engines.
For once Mother joined the conversation. Usually she was too shy to speak out, especially when there were male guests present. But lately Father had been encouraging her to speak up. (The fact that I spoke out a lot had its effect on Mother, too.) "I thought we already had vehicles powered by engines," she said softly. "Don't they run on those iron roads that are being built all over the country? There's one that runs all the way from here to Beijing!"
"You're thinking of trains," said Father. "I mean something different. I'm talking about motorcars that carry only three to four people. They don't need iron tracks, but can run on regular roads. Mark my words, we'll see our streets full of these motorcars someday!"
The rest of us looked skeptical. I frankly couldn't imagine our streets jammed with these motorcars. The rickshaw men wouldn't stand for it, and think of the mess if one of these things should become tangled up with a mule cart!
Eldest Brother smiled at our guest. "The so-called motorcars might replace your beloved horses one day!"
Liang Baoshu smiled back. "Maybe they will in the city streets, but not in the wide-open countryside. There's nothing more exhilarating than riding a good horse."
His eyes were bright as he talked about riding, and I could easily picture him galloping like the wind. I must have been listening with my mouth open. Again he looked directly into my face.
I blushed and looked down. I didn't often blush, and I was almost never embarrassed, so I made an effort to raise my head and meet his eyes again. What was he seeing when he looked at me? I knew I was not beautiful. I didn't have what writers called cherry lips, moth-wing eyebrows, and plum-blossom cheeks. In fact, I thought my cheeks were too round. Mother liked to call me her cute little dumpling, but I couldn't trust the words of a mother. Besides, I didn't want to be a dumpling; I wanted to be a woman warrior, like the ones in the adventure novels I was always reading. I wondered if our guest liked girls who were bold and active.
When the meal was ended, Eldest Brother said he wanted to show his guest a book recommended by his teacher. Liang Baoshu bowed politely to my parents and thanked them for their hospitality. Before he left the table, he glanced at me once again. It was such a quick glance that I would have missed it if I hadn't been waiting for it.
The next day, my parents gave their approval to my trip to Shanghai with Eldest Brother and Liang Baoshu. I would be seeing Ailin again.
The night before we left for Shanghai, I thought back on my friendship with Tao Ailin. We had first met at the MacIntosh School, which was run by American missionaries. Ailin and I were among the few girls who did not have bound feet, and we had immediately become friends.
But Ailin's unbound feet caused her engagement to be broken. After her father died, the Tao family encountered financial problems, and Ailin's position at home became so intolerable that she left to work as a nanny for the Warners, an American missionary family.
From the Hardcover edition.