Margo and I were lounging on our respective beds in our hotel room when Margo inexplicably said:
“Warning: The Hotel Management Has Determined That SMOKING IN BED Is Dangerous to Your LIFE. Please do not put any clothes on a lamp shade to dry.”
“What?” I said, looking up from my book. Margo says some pretty weird things sometimes, but this seemed particularly weird.
Margo held up a pale beige card. It had pictures of a cartoon man with a lit cigar reclining in bed and a lamp with a shirt and boxers over it. Both images were sort of crossed out with small, decentered red X’s, although they were the least imposing red X’s I’d ever seen.
I took the card from Margo. “This is amazing!” I said. “Where did you find this?”
“It was on the bedside table,” Margo said, gesturing to the table between our beds.
“Is there another?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Margo said apologetically. She took it back from me.
“Damn,” I said. “Well, we ought to show Jim and Ruby.”
We knocked on their door. Jim snorted with amusement, but Ruby said, “I don’t understand why this is funny.”
“Because,” Jim began to respond, but he broke off, his brow furrowing with confusion. “Why is it funny?” he asked us.
Margo and I looked at each other.
“I don’t know,” Margo said. “But I’m keeping it.”
“Maybe there will be another one in the room tomorrow?” I said hopefully. “After housekeeping comes through?”
“If you want one,” Ruby said, “why not go ask at the front desk? They are probably not expensive.”
Margo and I thought this was brilliant, so our next stop was the front desk. We brought the card to the woman and pointed at it. “More,” we said. “More of these, please.”
The woman looked at it, and then looked at us, then looked at the card again. Finally she said: “I do not have that.”
“Damn,” I said, unable to conceal my disappointment.
“Thank you!” Margo said, smiling at the woman as we walked away. The woman was still staring at us suspiciously. “She thinks we’re crazy,” Margo said between her teeth, still smiling. “Thanks again!”
We didn’t have any idea of where else to look, so we headed back towards our room. Margo tried to console me. “Maybe you can snag one off of one of the cleaning carts,” she said. “I bet the housekeepers have them.”
“They probably put them in all of the new rooms, right?” I said. “So if we could just break into a room…”
“Whoah!” Margo held up her hands. “I’m pretty sure we’re already on probation here. Please do not get arrested over an illustration of a man smoking in bed.”
I pointed down the hall, where a door was ajar. “I bet that room is vacant,” I said. “It would just be in and out.”
“I am not going to break into a Chinese hotel room,” Margo said. “…But I will stand guard, if you want to.”
“I’ll be just a minute,” I promised. We hovered outside the door for a moment, but we didn’t hear anyone talking, so I slipped inside, espionage-style, 007’s theme playing in my head. Or maybe it was “Smoke on the Water.” I get the two confused a lot.
I made my way through a small hallway that opened up into a wider room, and I came face to face with two uniformed Chinese women focusing on a game of Go. They looked up as I entered.
“Hi! Haha,” I said, smiling and backing out of the room. “Sorry, thought this was my room. Won’t happen again! Nice meeting you!”
I was single-mindedly focused on extricating myself from the situation; even so, it was pretty obvious that the room wasn’t a hotel room at all. It seemed like some sort of lounge area for the cleaning staff.
“Margo,” I hissed, grabbing her hand and pulling her a little way down the hall. “I’m pretty sure there are cleaning staff in there.”
Margo’s eyes lit up. “Did you ask them for the—”
“There is an approximately zero percent chance that they speak English. Let’s go get Ruby.”
We raced back to Jim and Ruby’s room. Jim answered the door wearing nothing but moose slippers and a pair of sleep pants.
“What’s up?” he said.
“We found the cleaning staff, But we don’t know how to ask for the card.”
“Ruby’s asleep,” Jim said, looking over his shoulder. “Do you want me to run down there and see if I can—”
“Yes,” I said.
“Alright.” Jim threw on a shirt and followed us to the area with the cleaning staff. When we showed him the door, he hesitated. We could hear the women inside talking to each other in Mandarin.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered. I wanted my card.
“Give me a second,” Jim whispered. “I’m thinking of what I’m going to say.”
The women in the room fell silent. I was worried we weren’t whispering very quietly. I whispered as softly as I could: “I’ll go in with you. Come on. Let’s do this.”
“I’m thinking,” Jim hissed. I was sure that the women in the room could hear him. We all hovered outside awkwardly while Jim composed himself.
Finally, Jim stepped forward, and I followed him through the tiny hallway into the lounge area.
“Wait,” Jim said. “I forgot the card.” He left the room, leaving me standing smiling at these two Chinese women, who were starting to look really perplexed.
Jim reentered, holding the card. He pointed to the card and said something in Chinese. The women stared at him for a moment, then one of them pointed at the card and asked him what I think was a question. Jim responded, nodding. The women still looked very confused, but they stood up and motioned for us to follow them out of the room.
Margo joined us and the three of us followed them to a closet down the hall. One of the women unlocked the door and removed a pile of the cards. She handed one to Jim, who handed it to me.
“Yes!” I said, admiring my card that said I shouldn’t smoke in my hotel room. “Thank you!” I told the women. “Xie xie. Xie Xie. Thank you so much!” I nodded vigorously.
The women looked at each other, and the one holding the cards offered me three more cards. Margo and I nearly jumped out of our skin with delight.
We left showering them with thank yous and xie xies. They looked, if anything, even more confused than they’d been before.
Once we were in the elevator, Margo and I doubled over laughing. Jim wasn’t laughing. He stood there in his moose slippers, looking puzzled. “Should I have given them a tip?”
Ms. Chen took a battleaxe to our itinerary, and the next couple of days we mostly spent listening to Ms. Chen and my father arguing about what we were going to see.
“You must see the history museum,” Ms. Chen insisted, efficiently cutting a fish into bite-sized pieces with her chopsticks. Ms. Chen liked to take us to little restaurants where no one spoke English and there weren’t any forks. The food was better, but my father and my grandmother were still having trouble with their chopsticks, so Ms. Chen had started helpfully cutting their food for them.
“What for?” my father asked. “History in China is the same as history everywhere else. There’s just more of it.”
“You were all gung-ho about history back at the terracotta warriors,” I pointed out.
“That was before history tried to get me deported,” my father said.
“You’ll be fine,” my mother told him. “Just don’t touch anything.”
Ms. Chen began moving the pieces of fish into my grandmother’s bowl. My grandmother smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Rosa,” she said. “There’s a box in the garage that I think you should look through.”
“Mom, that isn’t Rosa,” my mother said. “That’s Ms. Chen.”
“She lets me call her Rosa,” my grandmother said, beaming.
“This is seriously the best fish I’ve ever had in my life,” I said. I was eating it slowly, because it came with the bones and the skin and everything, but it was salty and flavorful. “One of the great tragedies of my life is that I will probably never have this fish again after today.”
“What is this restaurant called?” my mother asked.
“It doesn’t have a name,” Ms. Chen said, scooping bite-sized chunks of fish into my father’s bowl.
“Stop doing that,” my father said. “Those sticks have been in your mouth.”
“That’s an indirect kiss,” Margo said helpfully.
“The history museum is very important,” Ms. Chen said, ignoring my father. “We will go there this afternoon.”
“Or,” my father said, “we could go to the Famen Temple, which is what is on our itinerary, which we put together before we even knew you existed.”
“Famen Temple is too far out,” Ms. Chen said. “You only have three days in Xi’an. You need to learn the history.”
“What do you mean, this place doesn’t have a name?” my mother interrupted.
“It doesn’t have a name in English,” Ms. Chen said. “I can’t translate it.”
“Why can’t you translate it?” my mother asked.
“Oh,” my grandmother said, “look at the little Chinese baby!” She pushed out her chair and started wandering away from the table towards a Chinese family of three with a large-eyed baby.
“Wait, mom,” my mother said, standing up.
My father speared a piece of fish with his chopstick. “I can just make a shish kabob. I know how to eat shish kabobs.”
The rest of our time in Xi’an was a neverending argument between Ms. Chen and my father. Ms. Chen kind of held the trump card because she drove the van and if we didn’t agree to go with her she could tell the Chinese government on us. My father knew this, so he went where the van went, but Ms. Chen couldn’t report him for being cranky and passive-aggressive.
I wish I had left Xi’an with clear memories of the City Walls or of the temples or of the art in the history museum. Instead, my most vivid memory is of my father pointing at a caveman skull saying “Look, their prehistoric man looks exactly like our prehistoric man. We could have stayed home.”