Uncles

In the hours before dinner on Sundays, my two uncles would play Chinese chess on the dining table and fill the big room with cigarette smoke. Uncle Strong moved in small, cautious steps with his pawns, while Uncle New Sea dashed his cannons and horses across the board. Uncle New Sea’s red troops would run all over Uncle Strong’s blue territory, knocking down everything in sight like a true conqueror. Uncle Strong defended each of his pieces, no matter how small, while Uncle New Sea didn’t mind sacrificing both of his loyal ministers if he could stab at Uncle Strong’s last horse. Uncle Strong lost most of the time, but he didn’t mind. He just studied the chess board, blinked, and lit another cigarette as Uncle New Sea began raising troops for a new battle.

Uncle Strong was always blinking, as if he were fundamentally uncertain about everything. The rhythm of his blinking was not so much like a clock’s regular ticking as someone tapping out an elaborate telegram, for Uncle Strong belonged with Grandpa in the pantheon of inexpressive men that nevertheless had a lot on their mind, so their silence often relegated them to the backdrop of our family gatherings. Uncle Strong became the cigarette smoke in the room, while Grandpa became the sound of the radio, which he carried around with him during the day like a propaganda loudspeaker and slid under his pillow at night like a spy. Rising above their gentle waves were the chitchats and giggles of my aunts.

If you stay in a work unit,” he was famous for saying, “you could see your whole life spread out in front of you from the cradle to the coffin.” So he decided to become a big boss, somebody who made money give birth to money.

When Uncle New Sea came, he would fill the room with gasps and sighs and make us realize what country bumpkins we were, not to like coffee or mangoes, not to have taken a bath in a white-tiled bathtub, not to recognize the Italian label on the sleeves of his suit. From his first flight on an airplane, he brought us a fruit salad, arranged so prettily in a plastic bowl that we all found it a pity eat it. Instead, Grandpa stored it in the refrigerator and showed it to everybody who dropped by our house as if it were a rock from the moon.

Uncle New Sea left his workplace, a Chinese art agency selling to foreigners for Japan, because he wasn’t content with getting a regular salary and always wanted to “make a fortune.” “If you stay in a work unit,” he was famous for saying, “you could see your whole life spread out in front of you from the cradle to the coffin.” So he decided to become a big boss, somebody who made money give birth to money.

Ever since becoming the president of his own company, Uncle New Sea liked to order people around, especially Uncle Strong, who was a mechanic in a blanket factory: “Come, repair this for me!” “Go, deliver that for me.” On the busy street, Uncle Strong pedaled his bicycle, carrying planks and ladders on his shoulder. Uncle New Sea, for his part, hired a car with a chauffeur in a black suit and white gloves. The chauffeur would get out of the car first and announce in a Peking Opera voice: “President Lu has arrived.” Uncle Strong, too, was supposed to call Uncle New Sea “President Lu” instead of “Brother-in-Law.” “We have to look professional,” said Uncle New Sea. “When I get rich, I’ll buy you a house.”

Uncle Strong lived in a tiny little room with Aunt Gold and Lulu, a room that had barely any walking space after a bed, a table, a three-person sofa, a wardrobe, a refrigerator, a cabinet and a television. There was a flushing toilet outside, but they shared it with three other families, so in an emergency, even a man had to sit down and pee into a chamber pot. They had to wait for three years for a room that little, and during those three years all of Grandpa’s hair fell out from worrying. So everybody was counting on Uncle New Sea.

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