Distraught, Pingping begged her in English, "Please check it for us. He is our only child, just six year old. Three years I didn't see him."
"Like I said, I really can't help you. I have work to do, okay?"
Nan wanted to plead with her too, but the woman looked annoyed, so he refrained. In her eyes, which had more white than black, Nan had caught a flicker of disdain, probably because she knew they were from mainland China and suspected they were still red inside, if not red to the bone.
He wrapped an arm around Pingping, whispering in Chinese, "Let's wait a little longer. I'm sure he'll come out soon. Don't worry in advance." Between themselves they spoke Mandarin.
The way his wife had begged that woman upset him. Pingping, though thirty-three, looked almost ten years younger than her age, with large vivid eyes, a straight nose, a delicate chin, and a lissome figure. Perhaps that woman was jealous of her pretty features and liked seeing her in agony.
At last the gate opened and spat out a string of passengers. Most of them looked exhausted, their eyes dull and inert, and several walked unsteadily, pulling wheeled suitcases or lugging bags. The Wus stepped closer and gazed at the new arrivals. One by one the passengers went by. A tall black man in a baggy blazer cried, "Hey, Toni, so great to see you!" He stretched out his right arm, a dark canvas ukulele case hanging from his left shoulder. Toni, a skinny girl wearing a nose stud and a full head of cornrows, buried her face in his one-armed hug. Except for that cheerful moment, though, most passengers seemed groggy and dejected. Some of the Asians seemed uncertain what to do, and looked around as if wondering who among those standing by were supposed to receive them.
Within five minutes all the new arrivals had cleared customs. Slowly the gate closed. A chill sank into Nan's heart; Pingping broke into sobs. "They must have lost him! I'm sure they lost him!" she groaned in Chinese, holding her sides with one arm. Tugging Nan's wrist, she went on, "I told you not to let him take the risk, but you wouldn't listen."
"He'll be all right, believe me." His voice caught, unconvincing even to himself.
The hall was hushed again, almost deserted. Nan didn't know what do. He said to Pingping, "Let's wait a little more, all right?"
"There was only one flight from China today. Don't lie to me! Obviously he was not on it. Oh, if only we had let him wait until somebody could bring him over. We shouldn't have rushed."
Then the gate opened again. Two stewardesses walked out, the tall one, a blonde, holding a young boy's hand while the other one, slight and with smiling eyes, was carrying a small red suitcase. "Taotao!" Pingping cried, and rushed over. She swooped him up into her arms and kissed him madly. "How worried we were! Are you all right?" she said.
The boy in a sailor suit smiled, whimpering "Mama, mama" while pressing his face against her chest as if shy of being seen by others. He then turned to Nan, but his face registered no recognition.
"This is your daddy, Taotao," his mother said.
The boy looked at Nan again and gave a hesitant smile, as if his father were a bigger friend being introduced to him. Meanwhile, Pingping went on kissing him and patting his back and stroking his head.
The two stewardesses asked for Nan's ID, and he produced his driver's license. They compared his name with their paperwork, then congratulated him on the family's reunion.
"He was fine on the plane, very quiet, but a little scared," said the short woman, who looked Malaysian. She handed Nan the suitcase.
He held it with both hands. "Sank you for taking care of him on zer way."
"Our pleasure," said the blonde, who wore mascara and had permed hair, her face crinkling a little as she smiled. "It's wonderful to see a family reunited."
Excerpted from A Free Life by Ha Jin Copyright © 2007 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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