Before Pingping could say anything, the women left as if this were their routine work. "Thank you!" she cried at last. They turned their heads and waved at her, then disappeared past the gate.
Nan had not seen his son for four years. Taotao seemed frailer than in the photos, though he was definitely more handsome, with a thin nose and dark brown eyes, like his mother's. Together the Wus headed for the bus stop, both parents holding the child's hands. Approaching an automatic door, the boy somehow stopped and wouldn't exit the building. He asked his mother, "When are we going back?" His Mandarin had a slight Shandong accent, since he had lived with Pingping's parents.
"What? What are you talking about?" said Pingping.
"Uncle and Aunt are waiting for us in Shanghai."
"Yes, they'll meet us there."
"Who said that?"
"They told me to come and take both of you back. Let's go home now."
"Can't we stay just another day?" Nan stepped in, having realized that his in-laws must have tricked Taotao into traveling with the flight attendants.
"No, I want to go home."
Nan forced a smile and choked back a wave of misery. "Don't you want to see dolphins and whales?" he asked.
"Where are they? Here?"
"No, we're going to make a stop in a city called Boston, where there're lots of whales and dolphins. Don't you want to see them?"
"Yes," Pingping chimed in. "We'll visit a few places before heading for home."
"All right?" Nan added.
The boy looked uncertain. "Then we'd better let Uncle and Aunt know our plan. They're still waiting for us at the Shanghai airport."
"I'll call them. Don't worry," said his father.
So Taotao agreed to return to the hotel with them. Nan was carrying him piggyback on the way to the bus stop while Pingping went on talking with him, asking what food he had eaten on the plane and whether he had been airsick. The din of the traffic muffled the voices of mother and son, and Nan couldn't hear all their conversation. His mind was full, in turmoil; but he was happy. His child had come. He was sure that, eventually, the boy would become an American.
But what about himself? He was uncertain of his future and what to do about his life, not to mention his marriage. The truth was that he just didn't love his wife that much, and she knew it. Pingping knew he was still enamored of his ex-girlfriend, Beina, though that woman was far away in China. It seemed very likely to Nan that Pingping might walk out on him one of these days. Yet now he was all the more convinced that they must live in this country to let their son grow into an American. He must make sure that Taotao would stay out of the cycle of violence that had beset their native land for centuries. The boy must be spared the endless, gratuitous suffering to which the Chinese were as accustomed as if their whole existence depended on it. By any means, the boy must live a life different from his parents' and take this land to be his country! Nan felt sad and glad at the same time, touched by the self-sacrifice he believed he would be making for his child.
On the bus Taotao was sitting on his mother's lap. A moment after they pulled out of the airport, to his parents' astonishment, the boy said, "Mama, there was a big fight in Beijing, do you know? Hundreds of uncles in the People's Liberation Army were killed."
"It was the soldiers who shot a great many civilians," his father corrected him.
"No, I saw on TV bad eggs attacking the army. They burned tanks and overturned trucks. Grandpa said those were thugs and must be suppressed."
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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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