They dressed things up in pretty language.
We were lucky, we had honor and power and privilege that others could only dream of.
But I knew what was said about us in the quiet corners of the night.
I knew what the household help called her. Called me.
Ella felt like a completely different person living in the apartment. With Chandler by her side, life couldn’t have been more perfect. They spent their days planning and shopping for the baby’s room. The first sonogram brought tears to both of their eyes. Ella decided not to find out the gender of the baby. She had already had enough of the knowing nudges and the wives tales about how to find out the gender. It was all too clear that a boy was preferable to everyone, even—though she hated to admit it—Chandler. So she wanted to keep it a surprise. That way if the poor thing was a girl she wouldn’t get the sorry looks and pity anytime someone asked. It made her feel horribly indignant.
She had wondered if maybe now that they were alone, Chandler might mention marriage. Or some kind of future. He didn’t, but she decided it was okay. She trusted him, and when the time was right he would ask.
Ella loved taking morning walks at the park nearby. She could get the blood pumping to her feet, which were swelling up more all the time, and she loved watching the elderly people in the park dancing and practicing Tai Chi. Every morning she would pick up an orange juice at the juice bar nearby before heading home and getting Chandler out of bed.
This morning, the bar was especially busy. When she finally got her juice, she was bumped just as she reached for it. The cup spilled all over the counter.
“I’m so sorry, it’s my fault.”
A nice looking Chinese lady apologized to Ella in English.
“It’s okay, I’m okay.” Ella was a little embarrassed. It seemed like the entire store had stopped and everyone was looking at her.
“Take mine. It’s my fault, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Oh…. Um, thank you.” Ella took the juice awkwardly and headed for the door.
“My name is Lisa. Lisa Lin. I’ve seen you around the apartments here before.”
Lisa held out a hand and shook Ella’s. She was maybe in her early twenties, petite and pretty, with long, shiny black hair.
“Do you live in this building?” Ella was surprised.
“Yeah, I live on the 27th floor.”
“I’m three floors above you.”
“Are you going to the tea party?” Ella must have looked confused, because Lisa smiled. “Our building has this tea party every Friday afternoon.”
Ella hadn’t paid much attention to the activities in the building, even though things were always posted on the bulletin board downstairs. Between her limbs blowing up like swollen sausages and the intense language barrier, she pretty much kept to herself in the apartment.
“A tea party?”
“Well, our building is mostly foreigners, so they organize all kinds of stuff for the wives or girlfriends to get to know each other at the Activity Center.”
Lisa grinned. “You’re new, huh? Well, I’m walking back to my apartment so I can show you if you’re going back that way too.”
This girl was talkative and friendly, and it was hard for Ella to say no to her. Lisa was right. The bulletin board was covered in flyers and lists of activities that Ella hadn’t even known existed. In fact, she hadn’t done much of anything on her own since she arrived in Shanghai.
She decided Chandler could survive without her for one afternoon.
Ella showed up for the tea party at exactly 3 p.m. A little unusual for her—she was usually in the “fashionably late” category—but she was a little out of her element here and wasn’t sure what the expectation was. As it turned out, “on time” was really “late” around here, because the room was already crowded. Luckily, Lisa spotted her in the substantial crowd.
“Welcome!” she said with a little excited bow. “You never told me your name!”
“Ella. Ella Page. I’m a musician—or a wannabe musician, anyway. Piano mostly.”
“Ella Page. Beautiful name. I should put you on the activity program in the future.” She smiled and covered her mouth. Ella had been noticing girls doing that. What was wrong with their teeth? “By the way, I’m the activity chair for the building. So I may have had ulterior motives for getting you to come to this. Gotta keep the numbers up, you know.”
Ella chuckled. “So, Lisa, how does this tea party thing work?”
“Come sit by me and I’ll introduce you. We’re doing an official Chinese tea ceremony. Very cool.”
They sat in a circle on little red pillows. One by one, the ladies in the room introduced themselves: Brazil, South Africa, France, Canada, Russia, Singapore, India…. People came from all over the world. Ella felt bad that Maya had to work. She would have enjoyed meeting these people.
“Everyone, I would like to introduce Ella Page from California, America. New to this building, and new to this country. She is a musician; she plays piano.”
Lisa’s introduction almost sounded reverent. It somehow made Ella feel proud of herself.
That weekend at dinner with Landon and Maya, Ella couldn’t stop talking about the tea party. Maya sounded genuinely disappointed that she missed it. It had been so eye-opening, talking to women from all over the world and seeing how very much they had in common—and how much they didn’t. It was like Sex and the City, international version.
She decided she was going to enjoy this experience. It was time to get active, get out there. Have the adventure she had come here for, instead of being encapsulated in an apartment in this busy mega-city.
Clapping erupted loudly. The ladies in the room were up on their feet and applauding. Ella smiled but felt strangely embarrassed at the same time. Maybe this was the reason Chinese women always covered their mouths when they smiled.
“Oh, Ella, that was beautiful. I mean… intoxicating!” Lisa was talking fast and using her hands a lot.
The ladies formed a circle around Ella and the piano in Lisa’s living room. Lisa was quite the social butterfly. She had about ten Chinese ladies there listening to Ella’s private piano performance.
For the past few weeks, Ella had been keeping herself busy giving private lessons and performances to Lisa’s friends. These ladies were young, about Ella’s age, and a couple looked like they might be in their 30s. They all were beautiful, dressed like little movie stars, and constantly talked about their “Misters,” or what they called xiansheng.
The ladies dispersed and someone started pouring cocktails. Lisa took Ella’s hands in hers.
“My friends really like you. You bring them happiness.”
Ella glanced at the ladies, who were murmuring quietly to each other in Chinese.
“What are you guys always talking about?”
Ella was curious, she couldn’t help herself. There was something mysterious about these ladies. They were always having conversations that looked serious. They talked low and quickly to each other. Sometimes someone would cry and the other ladies would nod knowingly and pat her on the shoulders.
“We talk about everything,” Lisa said shrugging. “Shopping, our xiansheng, how to manage our money from them, our lives….”
“Money from your mister?” Ella was puzzled. “Well your… how do you say it? Your xianshengs are lucky to have you in their lives to take care of every single detail.”
“We must be proactive in taking care of our xiansheng and our life,” Lisa said. “We are protecting our assets by sharing and learning from each other. We take care of each other in this circle.” She paused. “Ella, Mistress Club takes care of each other. We are sisters.”
“Yes, Ella. We are all mistresses to our xiansheng and”—
Before Lisa could finish, a few ladies came over and started a conversation in Chinese.
Ella was left there standing and wondering.