FRIENDSHIP HOTEL

She looked very different from what I expected. She was delicate, as delicate as a Chinese girl, only her hands and feet were bigger. I have seen more Westerners now, especially from Europe and the idea that they can be delicate and small isn’t strange to me anymore, but it was back then. Back then most Westerners I saw were mountains of big, white flesh, oddly shaped. She was nothing like that. I remember exactly where we met, at the Friendship Hotel, in the compound where Mr. Svensson used to live.

Mr. Svensson, from New York, a friend of my father’s, was one of those mountains of flesh that I found difficult getting used to, despite the obvious decency of the person inside. He taught me English once a week surrounded by the threadbare walls of his apartment and avoided talking about home, which he didn’t seem to miss. Once, just before Lea arrived, he expressed something like a point of view by declaring abruptly that he didn’t intend to leave China. He often passed on English books to me, and that week, he handed me a worn copy of Henry James’ The American. He thought reading James would be useful, now that I was going to meet a lot more Americans and Europeans. When I asked what the difference was between them, he laughed so that the layers of flesh shifted and bulged under his chin.

“They’re a different breed,” he said. “Americans,” he added with a little cackle that made his flesh quiver, “are fat.”

It was the first time I had heard someone distinguish so clearly between the two, in such simple terms. Mr. Svensson was no outside observer like my teacher who had insisted there was a difference, but failed to explain what it was. According to Mr. Svensson, the difference was one of size, and when I met Lea I was confused to find her so small-scaled. She didn’t correspond to my newly minted understanding of Americans. It was mid-morning when she arrived at the compound, dusty and tired, wearing long trousers in the stifling heat. She was smoking out the tiny kitchen window when I found her, and she put a finger to her lips to indicate that I should stay quiet.

“He doesn’t like it,” she whispered into the silence, and then offered me a cigarette. She was very polite. She asked me questions, a lot of questions, but she also listened attentively, holding back even when she looked like she was ready to interrupt.

“He means fat as in rich, prosperous, our excess of everything,” she explained her father’s words, studying my expression for signs of comprehension.