We took a train from Xi’an to Shanghai, which was nice, because I was getting pretty sick of planes by that point. The problem was that, unlike airplanes, trains don’t require the passengers to turn off their phones, so the entire trip there were whistley text-tones going off all around me. Margo had her big, noise cancelling headphones on, so she wasn’t bothered. I just had my cheap earbuds, so I could still hear it when cellphones rang. On top of that, Ms. Chen was trying to teach my grandmother to play Go with her portable set, so I kept hearing Ms. Chen say things like “Mrs. L., you cannot put your piece on top of my piece” and my grandmother saying “Don’t be silly, Rosa, I’ve always played it this way.”
Margo fell asleep in minutes. It took me half the train ride to fall asleep. By the time we got off the train, I was groggy and tired. Ruby, on the other hand, was the first one of us off the train, and we all disembarked to find her standing on the platform, glowing with energy and purpose.
“I always forget how much I’ve missed it while I’m away,” she told us in the van on the way to her family’s apartment. “I like America, and I like Beijing, but there is nowhere like here.” I kind of saw what she was getting at. Shanghai felt busy in the same way Beijing did, but it was a lot sleeker, with tall glistening skyscrapers interspersed with the occasional obviously historic building. Ruby’s parents lived downtown, and we drove past a lot of signs for clothing stores, some that I recognized as American.
When we got to the building, Ms Chen dropped us off at the elevator and Ruby stuck a keycard into the elevator before pushing a button to take us to the 42nd floor. We stepped out of the elevator into a foyer that looked like it belonged in a really nice hotel. “Her parents must be loaded,” Margo whispered to me, and I nodded. I’d known Ruby’s father was a hotshot businessman, especially when he got us out of trouble in Xi’an, but this was the first time it had really sunk in. The carpet under our feet was so thick I felt like I was sinking in it.
“Your father and I stayed here once,” my grandmother was telling my mother. “The decor is nice, but the service isn’t what it used to be.”
There was another key to get into the front door, a regular metal key this time. On the other side of the door there was a small, smiling woman who looked like Ruby.
Ruby flung her arms around the woman like she hadn’t seen her in years, both of them making joyful noises. Looking around the room, I was surprised Ruby had ever left home. There was a lot of beautiful and simple dark wood furniture and the walls were covered in traditional Chinese art. One side of the room had huge panoramic windows, the kind a superhero would crash through while fighting a bad guy.
“You should see the view at night,” Jim said, noticing where I was looking. He looked pleased, like he’d built it himself.
“This is my mother’s sister,” Ruby said, tearing herself away from the smiling woman, who was now smiling in our direction. “You can call her Topaz, like Jim does.”
We all looked at Jim. He shrugged. “It was a joke. They just kind of ran with it.”
It was hard to tell, but Topaz didn’t seem that much older than Ruby. The two had gone back to speaking in Mandarin. “Topaz lives in Beihai,” Jim explained. “They don’t see each other very often. She came to meet all of you.”
“Who else came to meet us?” my father asked nervously.
“Phyllis,” my grandmother called. We turned to see a middle-aged woman helping an elderly woman across the room to the couch. My grandmother was ambling towards them. “Phyllis,” my grandmother said, “you didn’t tell me you were coming to visit me in China!”
Ruby stopped talking to Topaz long enough to introduce us. “This is my grandmother, who lives with us,” she said, running to help her grandmother onto the couch. “And this is my mother,” she said once her grandmother was comfortably seated, running across the room to embrace her mother. I had never seen Ruby so animated. Even her voice had become louder. I glanced over at Jim, but he didn’t seem surprised.
My grandmother sat on the couch next to Ruby’s grandmother as though they were already great friends. “Now, Phyllis,” she said, “you must tell me what you’ve been doing these past five years. It’s been so long since we’ve spoken in person.”
“My mother and aunt are cooking dinner for you,” Ruby said. “My father and uncle have taken my cousins out shopping, but they will be back soon.”
“Cousins?” my father asked. “How many?”
“How old are they?” Margo asked.
“Just two,” Ruby laughed. “Seventeen and fifteen.”
“They’re the same ages as our girls,” my mother said.
“No they’re not,” Margo said. “Mom, I’m 16, did you forget?”
“Phyllis is hungry,” my grandmother interjected. “When is dinner?”
“We’re making it now,” Ruby’s mother said, smiling. “It is so nice to meet everyone. We have to go back to the kitchen and finish cooking.”
“I’ll bring out some tea,” Ruby said. “Please make yourselves comfortable.” All of Ruby’s family except for her grandmother vanished into the kitchen, leaving my family standing in the main room, befuddled.
“So should we, like, sit?” I suggested.
My grandmother was the only one who didn’t feel awkward. She and Phyllis were chatting away to each other, my grandmother’s hand placed familiarly on Phyllis’ leg. They were speaking two different languages, but I don’t think they had figured that out.
My family had just finished arranging ourselves in various chairs around the room when the door opened again, this time from the foyer.
Four people entered. Two were men. Two were teenagers, a girl and a boy. The girl said “Hello” and then seemed confused about what to say next. One of the men said something to her in Mandarin, and she looked at the floor, embarrassed. “Hello,” she said again. “You can call me Emily. I speak some English. Welcome to our home.”
“Happy to be here,” Margo said, not looking over at the girl. She was videotaping my grandmother and Ruby’s grandmother, who seemed to be trying to play Go and poker at the same time. Ruby’s grandmother moved a piece on the board. “Phyllis, you clever bitch,” my grandmother said. “I fold.”
One of the men nudged the girl again, who was still looking at the floor. “We’ve brought gifts,” she said reluctantly. “For your family.”
Ruby came out carrying a tray of tea, and we all breathed a silent sigh of relief. While we all drank tea, Ruby and her family members ran around distributing gifts. My mother and my grandmother got jade bracelets. “You put it on your left wrist,” Ruby told her. “It is closer to your heart, and it purifies the blood.”
“Will this interact with my blood pressure medication?” my grandmother asked.
My father got some tea that came in a wheel, like cheese. I got one of those lucky golden cats and a print of koi fish. “Cool,” I said. “The cat can stalk the fish.”
“Look at my hat,” Margo said, balancing a stuffed panda on her head.
That’s when Ruby’s uncle handed me a fork. It was a single fork, packaged individually in a cardboard box with a little plastic window. I stared at the fork in my hand. “Thank you?” I said.
Ruby’s uncle said something that sounded like “everbody fork.” He was smiling like the fork was a present only reserved for the most distinguished, honored guests.
“Okay,” I said.
“I got one too,” Margo said. “We can duel at dinner.”
“No dueling with cutlery at the table,” my mother said. It was one of our family rules, dating back to basically when Margo was born.
We all took our individually-packaged forks into the back room to eat dinner. There was pork and rice and some sort of leafy green thing. At this point, we were all pretty used to eating with chopsticks, but we ceremoniously opened our fork-boxes and started forking rice into our mouths. I swear I spilled more with a fork; the rice didn’t clump the same way as it did with the chopsticks. None of us was sure if we should hold the rice bowl up next to our face the Chinese way or leave the bowl on the table, so we all had our rice bowls at different levels; Margo went for the up-by-your-face option and seemed to be trying to inhale the rice.
Ruby’s family cheerfully conversed in Mandarin over dinner. My mother and my father furtively muttered at each other in English at the other end of the table. Jim threw out the occasional Mandarin phrase. When he did, everyone would clap.
“What is he saying?” I whispered to Ruby.
“He is saying that the food is very good,” she whispered back.
“Why are they clapping?”
Ruby grinned. “The bar for Americans knowing how to speak Chinese is very low.”