The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: A Novel

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9780312614157: The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: A Novel

Li Jing, a happily married businessman, is dining at a grand hotel in Shanghai when a gas explosion rips through the building. A shard of glass pierces Jing's forehead, obliterating his ability to speak Chinese. He can form only faltering phrases in the English he spoke as a child in Virginia, leaving him unable to communicate with his wife, Meiling, or their young son. Desperate, the family turns to an American neurologist, Rosalyn Neal, who finds herself as lost as Jing--whom she calls James--in this bewitching city, where the two form a bond that Meiling does not need a translator to understand.

With gorgeous prose and a dazzling sense of place, The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai introduces a brilliant storyteller, who shows us the power of language in both our public and our private relationships.

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About the Author:

RUIYAN XU, who was born in Shanghai but came to the U.S. at age 10 without speaking a word of English, graduated from Brown University with honors in creative writing. She won the 2004 Hochstadt Award from Hedgebrook and a 2005 Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists; and has been awarded residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Jentel, Ragdale and the Anderson Center. An excerpt of The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai was published by the Great River Review. Xu lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I
THE SWAN HOTEL
CHAPTER 1
He leaves work early, walks down thin strips of sidewalk, and meanders over the bridge, his hands tightfisted at his sides. It is one of those spring afternoons when the skin begins to pucker in the sun, when the heat of summer hints at the back of the neck, and instead of driving home he forces himself onto slow-moving buses, lets himself be carried along by crowds and their murmurs, gives himself the luxury of time to notice the city around him as he walks under the shadows of high-rises. He looks up: the city is new and strange and the skyline startles him, the way it changes constantly, month by month. His memories are slightly skewed, an older print, already out-of-date; the last time he looked up there was the same city but different—emptier—stretches of sky.
The lobby of the Swan Hotel stretches cool and marbled, and he walks in nodding at the bellhop, the receptionist, the maintenance worker moving a trolley of old bathroom extrudes out the door. The afternoon light saturates the carpet beneath his feet, exposing motes of dust, bleaching navy into a muddy blue. Up the stairs, the glass doors of the restaurant are half shut and streaked with a light layer of grease. Two waitresses shelling lima beans over tea and gossip jump up when he pushes through the door, chirping, “Welcome, Mr. Li!” in his wake.
His father is already sitting in the corner, poring over sketches with his glasses pressed up tight against his face. At the sound of Li Jing’s greeting he looks up and cocks his eyebrows, stretching his thin, angular face even longer.
“So it was you on the phone after all, not an imposter. Tell me”—Professor Li makes a show of looking at his watch—“to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure? How long has it been since you left work voluntarily at five o’clock in the afternoon?”
Li Jing shrugs but does not meet his father’s eyes. “Why not? I felt like a drink.”
Side by side, a subtle resemblance between father and son reveals itself in the same broadness of the shoulders, in the same bulging black eyes. But Professor Li is tall and skinny with a long, horse like face and a pouf of white hair; his son is all compression, thick-bodied, with a broad nose and a locked jaw.
A waiter comes to stand behind their shoulders, angling a long stalk of bamboo with the tip sliced open to pour threads of tea into their cups. The two men tap the table with their index and middle fingers in thanks at the same time and lean back against their chairs, the younger man sighing, closing his eyes.
“Is everything well? You’ve been awfully quiet the last few days.”
Li Jing takes o? his suit jacket and flings it over the back of his chair; his pale blue shirt hugs his body, dark pools of sweat gathering under the armpits.
“It’s just work,” he says. “I got impatient last week and jumped on something without confirming the tip. Ended up taking a pretty big loss—it’s been a rough week. Anyway, things are volatile in the domestic market right now. I really should have stayed with the American stocks. Their market’s booming, but still steady.”
“But American stocks are expensive, and isn’t Wall Street on a bull’s run? It’s going to have to come down at some point.”
Li Jing looks up from the menu in surprise.
“I keep up,” the professor shoots back at him, smug. “I drop by the English department on campus and read the Herald Tribune when I get a chance, and sometimes when I’ve finished everything else, I glance through the financial pages.”
“It’ll be fine. I can handle it.” Li Jing wipes his forehead with his shirtsleeve and gestures with his chin, eager to change the subject. “What’s that? Did you get roped into judging another architectural competition?”
“A memorial this time. They’re going to build it in Hangzhou, by the lake. I wish they’d leave that area alone—it’s already overdeveloped. But if they insist on erecting something, I have to make sure that it won’t be completely hideous.”
“And you say I work too much? You’re the one who’s supposed to be retired.”
“You do work too much.” Professor Li gives Li Jing a slow, assessing look. “You should spend more time with Pang Pang and Meiling. Work isn’t everything, you know?”
“Dad ...”
“Before you know it, Pang Pang will be all grown up.” The professor closes his eyes, sighing loudly before shaking his head.
The restaurant manager sets a covered blue-and-white bowl on the table with a flourish. The inside of the bowl hisses, sounding an occasional wet plop against the porcelain. A waitress brings a tin box of long, skinny matches and takes the cover o? the bowl. The tiny curls of shrimp inside stir, their gray, translucent bodies thrashing in the liquid; some of them jump out of the alcohol and dive back in, their torsos shuddering, their antennae swishing in desperation.
The match tip strikes against the box and a small red flame erupts, contracting and expanding in the manager’s hand. He dips his wrist, and the entire bowl of shrimp is now engulfed in crests of fire, orange and red and tinged with blue. The shrimp dance more desperately now, their shells burnt and crackling, their bodies tossed up through the fingers of the flame and tossed back down into the liquid. The smell of burning alcohol perfumes the air, sickly sweet; the shrimp sizzle and gasp, buzzing in the ear. The manager slides the cover back onto the bowl. The hiss of the fire snaps o? into silence. Professor Li and Li Jing pick up their chopsticks, lean forward, but both draw back in surprise when a phone rings under the table.
“Do you mind if I take this? It’s business.” Li Jing flips open his cell phone and slides out of his chair without waiting for a response, already walking away.
“Should we wait for Mr. Li?” The restaurant manager bows at the waist.
“Business, business all the time,” Professor Li mutters under his breath. “I don’t understand it. He’s on that phone nonstop, nights and weekends. He’s working himself too hard.”
“I’m sorry, Professor.”
“Never mind, never mind.”
“The shrimp?”
“Let’s not wait. I’ll get started now.”
Inside the bowl the shrimp glow a lurid pink. Professor Li dips his chopsticks into the dish and draws slow circles in the liquid.
“Are you expecting Ms. Zhou and Pang Pang to join you this evening?”
“Not today.” Professor Li scans the room for a sign of Li Jing before wiping his hands and turning back to the sketches. “But that reminds me, we were supposed to pick up some dinner for them. No hurry, we’ll take it when we go: winter melon with ham, a big container of seaweed soup, that spicy boiled beef, and some bok choy with mushrooms.”
“It’ll be waiting when you’re ready to leave.”
“And where are our other appetizers? Fried oysters? Scallion pancakes?”
The manager grimaces. “Many apologies, Professor. The gas stoves are being a bit temperamental, but we’ll have it fixed in no time. I’ll head back to the kitchen to check on your food now.”
The floor rumbles slightly. The manager takes a step and his long legs register a tremor on the ground. The professor finds a shrimp and breaks its neck with his teeth, sucking flesh out of the body, spitting its neon shell onto the table.
THE WALLS SHAKING.
The walls shaking again, wildly. Pieces of gold plaster from the ceiling explode and scatter, falling down onto tabletops, gold dust drifting onto plates of food. The lights flash once. Then darkness.
There are screams and gasps. Metallic clatters from the kitchen. People crawling under tables and rushing to press up against the walls. The walls shaking again.
A high-pitched “Keep calm!” rattling out of the manager’s throat.
Then the air ripping apart the ground in uproar and a burst of sound unfurling so loud that there is no pitch, there is no shape, there is only sheer volume, only the black mouth of noise opening, gulping everything into its dark, cavernous belly. The noise swallows the building whole. There is no escaping it.
THE GROUND SHIFTING like a prehistoric animal. Fire in the kitchen stretching out its wings, flapping, frantic. Fissures mutate in the walls, mapping out an eventual collapse. Glass and metal utensils and shattered plates fly up from the tables. Smoke everywhere. The sound of the initial explosion ricochets o? the walls, grows smaller, fades away into silence. A stray car horn howls a lonely blast, and then the noise of the city rushes in from the broken windows like sandpaper across the ear drum.
Everything feels so still for a moment that the people in the restaurant are afraid to move a centimeter, then they let out their breaths, and whimpers and moans fill the dark room. They shuffle their feet and call out to each other. “Are you hurt?” “What happened?” They begin to grab the edges of tables, trying to stand up. A child cries out and his mother mumbles soothing sounds, her voice lilting. “It’s all right,” she says. But then another huge swath of noise crushes down, the floor sags, and they can feel something heavy pounding from above, rocking the foundation of the building, tearing apart the plaster.
LI JING OPENS his eyes and the whole world is extinguished. There is noise everywhere, inside his skull, vibrating in his bones, everything shaking, the walls hysterical against his back. It smells like sulfur. He closes his eyes again—it’s sweet and heady, that smell, and the noise making everything oblivious and he wants to fall back to the ground and go un...

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