An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.
Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.
Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.
The purple Orchid
The cab was already waiting for him. John had the bag with drinks in his hand. He realized that he was about to make a big mistake! “I am such an idiot! I am taking drinks with me and I have no flowers to give to the lady of the house! Unbelievable!” He stopped the taxi and speaking very slowly, he tried to explain the taxi driver that he needs to buy flowers. “This is great! He doesn’t speak a word English…now what?” He looked at the wrist watch and realized that there were just ten more minutes to six. The decision was quickly made: he picked up the phone and called Vic.
-Hey, man…listen. I will be a bit late. I must apologize.
-No worries, man! Are you on your way?
-Yes, I just have to get some flowers and I am heading your way.
-Cool! No rush, we are waiting for you.
-Great, I see you in a few.
-Hey…do me a favor please. The driver doesn’t speak a word of English, please talk to him and make him understand that I need to buy flowers from somewhere.
-Sure, let me speak to him…
John passed the phone to the driver. A large smile flourished on the man’s face as he was speaking to Vic. The conversation was short. He gave the cell phone back to John and stepped on the acceleration pedal in a way one would think that he wanted to make up for all the time they had lost.
“Jesus Christ! He is now racing” The cab driver was making the turns at such a high speed, that the small car he was driving was shaking from all the nuts and bolts, while the tires were squealing as loud as two squirrels fighting each other.
“This guy is crazy! I am not sure I am going to make it to Vic in one piece!” John tried to temper the man by making the universal sign: “slowdown”. It wasn’t necessary anymore. The driver stepped on the breaks as hard as if he was about to hit someone. There were no seat belts in the back, so the hard stop made by the man almost made John pass through the two front seats. “What the hell is wrong with this guy? Why did he step on the breaks so hard? This guy is nuts!” He was at the point of showing (somehow) the driver that he drives too fast, but the smile and the happiness seen on the man’s face, made John realize that in his mind, the driver considered the little adventure a job well done. While getting out of the car, John felt like stretching his legs…the little leg room he had in the back and the suicidal way the driver drove, made him wanting to do some stretches right there in the middle of the walk way. It was Saturday and the night life started slowly to pick up steam in that particular area.
Again, similar to the area where he bought the books from, this particular neighborhood was also a commercial like type of district. Lots of ma and pa shops, selling everything. The flower shop in front of him, was packed with freshly cut, nice flowers. John was baffled! “Now, what do I pick? How do I know which sort of flowers Zhaohui likes?” The owner, a lady in her late sixties (probably) showed up right away…she smelled a good sale as she knew that a westerner never goes cheap when is about buying flowers – especially if they are for the ladies. She didn’t speak any English, so all the Chinese she was using was actually going right by John’s ears while he was looking around for something nice, for something that could have a meaning, an appreciation, a sort of: “my respects”.
All of a sudden, his eyes sight fell on a little shelf which was placed behind the counter…nine stunning orchids in nine separate pots were sitting on that shelf. They were magnificent, to say the least! One was of purple color, one was pink, one was white like the snow, one was red like the maple tree leafs on a nice fall afternoon, one was orange and the next to the orange one there were siting one green like the the grass into the early spring and one dark blue – which one would say it is the rarest orchid color you can find; however, a Chinese story teller would say: “this blue orchid symbolizes spirituality and contemplation”. The last two of the nine orchid batch were a very interesting combination of yellow and yellow with pink and orange. John was stunned! He just couldn’t take his eyes off of the flowers which were sitting on the shelf! They were so beautiful, unique, delicate yet so majestic and the colors were so lively and genuine!
For some reason, John thought that it was enough to whisper around them and they would simply vanish, this is how feeble and delicate they seemed to be. In a blink of an eye he decided: he will buy one for Zhaohui. “Now which color do I get? They are all so gorgeous, that it is almost impossible to pick one over the other ones”
The old lady saw John’s dilemma and with a large smile on her face, walked behind the counter, looked John straight into his eyes and started speaking something in Chinese. It was a move which puzzled John as the shop owner was now standing between him and the flowers, trying somehow to protect them. On top of the fact that he couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, he realized that the tonality of her voice has changed. It was not the same she used when he entered…now it had no commercial, or advertising inflections in it. It was flowing nicely, naturally and almost motherly like, a voice of a person who is giving you advice rather than trying to sell you a product. The confusion he was dipping into reached the maximum level. Finally, John realized that he will be too late for the dinner and he must make a decision: he picked the purple one.
Once again, the face of the old lady was flooded with joy and smile as large as her mouth could hold. John paid and the store owner moved to wrapping the flower. It was a whole procedure she went through: bringing a specially made plastic support (taller than the flower to protect it), then actually wrapping everything into a nicely colored and coated type of paper which was now encompassing the whole vase, the plastic support and implicitly the flower. At the end, she deeply bowed, leaving John with no option but to bow himself. “It must have a meaning…I think it is more than a thank you for your business. I will have to ask Vic” John grabbed the pot, and headed for the car. This time he didn’t want to take any chance anymore. He sat into the passenger seat and placed the pot on the seat, between his legs. He did not want any sort of accident to happen to the precious gift he was holding. The driver followed the same routine: sharp acceleration which made John sink into his seat, sharp turns, and finally a stop on the dime when reaching Vic’s condominium and town homes residential complex. John was fuming from frustration! His bottles in the back seat were all lose now and he was wondering if anyone was broken. But his flower was sitting nicely and protected in his arms. “This guy is mental! I can’t believe I ran into such a nut head! I hope my drinks are all OK”
The security guard at the gate made the phone call and Vic’s voice was heard into the microphone. The barrier lifted up and the driver again stepped on the accelerator in a way which made John tilt his head backwards and hit the head rest at a velocity he felt that his neck muscles went under significant stretching. He was about to put the flower on the floor and choke the cab driver. But the very thought of ruining such a beauty, made him take another thirty seconds of abuse. Finally, the driver hit the brakes again…this time John was prepared: he knew that eventually the driver will have to stop, so he planted both his feet on the floor and pushed into the leg muscles as hard as he could, so he would defy this way Newton’s first law of motions and prevent his head from hitting the windshield. “What a numb nut! What a numb nut! How the hell did I run into such a lunatic?” The smile on the driver’s face made John understand that his driver truly believed that his customer liked the way he drove. It was a sort of excitement on his face, a satisfaction of a job well done. “He is definitely mental” whispered John. Slowly he got off of the car; his legs were shaking like spaghetti as he had to hold on to himself not to hit the windshield during those hard stops. Vic was waiting for him.
-Hey, what’s up? You OK?
-I will tell you…let me find my bottles first. Please hang on to this…careful, it is very sensitive stuff in it. John started collecting both his wine bottles and the hard liquor ones. He paid the driver and he swore that he would never get into the same car with that guy again. But in spite of all the hassle, he put his card into the pocket. It was that cautionary and self-preservation instinct which prevented him from tossing the card.
Vic was living in a complex of condo apartments surrounded by individual townhouses. He owned one of the town homes. In the front, he had a little front yard and a small patio on which he was barbecuing and entertaining guests when the weather allowed. The unit he owned, had three bedrooms, a living room and two bathrooms on a two tier level. One bedroom, the kitchen, a small dining room, the living room and the master bathroom were all on the ground floor, while the other two bedrooms a small office and another bathroom were on the second level, to which nice wooden stairs were taking the guests for the overnight sleep. The open concept of the whole unit was providing a nice overview of the main floor from upstairs.
The living room was superbly decorated with calligraphy written on papyrus; the red and black color of the writings didn’t mean too much to a westerner, but to a Chinese who valued the art of hand writing, these were art, were history and poetry. The black frames (on which the papyrus was hanging from), were made out of mahogany wood which was giving to the whole painting a sense of exclusivity, a sense of nobility, a meaning of aristocracy and fine taste. In the master bedroom, a library full of books was facing the bed and the opening into the middle section of the main shelf was providing a storage space for a TV and the other electronics. The dining room was actually an extension of the living room, as the overall open concept took care of removing all the unnecessary walls which would’ve made the house smaller and less welcoming.
Zhaohui, came to greet John. It was a warm, friendly and inviting welcome and the sincerity in her voice almost made John shed a tear. He gave her the flower and then passed the bag of drinks to Vic.
-No way, man! Why did you have to buy all of these? I have enough buzz in my house to keep us busy for the rest of the night. Both John and Vic burst into laughter.
-It is a small gift, I really didn’t know what to get you…John felt a little embarrassed as he knew that his friend quit drinking and only on occasions he was still indulging in having a glass or two of liquor.
-I thank you for your gesture. I hope you are hungry. Zhaohui has been cooking since this morning.
-Like a wolf, man! Like a wolf.
-Again you are using my line! Another round of heavy laughter came out of their chests and after taking the shoes off, they both headed for the dining room where the table was full of freshly home-made cooked food. The view was stunning and John could help but loudly admire the multitude of dishes laid in front of them.
-These are just the appetizers. I suggest you pace your appetite and eat smartly. The main course will come a little later.
-You are kidding, right? There is food on this table to feed a whole battalion!
-I am not sure if we will be able to feed a battalion, but for sure there is enough to feed three hungry bodies. A large smile flourished on Vic’s face. It was a smile of satisfaction, pride and elation directed towards his fiance’s cooking skills. While chit chatting with Vic, Zhaohui was unwrapping the package which was protecting the gorgeous flower John brought for her. At the very site of the orchid, she covered her mouth in an attempt to stop a sigh of deep surprise. John saw this gesture and attributed it to the fact that she was pleasantly surprised by the gift. But soon, he realized that it wasn’t quite a sign of admiration as her face turned pale and her hands starting shaking while trying to finish unwrapping. John was stunned! He thought that he brought a great gift which will be appreciated. A great disappointment settled on his face. “She does not like it…I knew that I shouldn’t’ve bought orchids! Not everybody likes them!” Almost instantaneously, Zhaohui realized John’s dilemma and with a sincere but yet soft tone in her voice said:
-Thank you, John! It is absolutely beautiful! John put a large smile on his face and a sigh of relief came out of his chest.
-For a moment I thought that you didn’t like it…
-Nonsense! It is absolutely gorgeous! And it is purple, my favorite color. How did you know that I love orchids and that purple is my color?
-I didn’t…and I have to admit that it took me a while to decide.
-Where did you buy it from? Vic asked this question while he was admiring the table and multitude of dishes on it; his fine ears picked up the conversation between his fiance and John and just felt like he wanted to but in.
-A flower shop…don’t ask me where it is because I couldn’t memorize anything from the surroundings. I told you about the nut head taxi driver I picked up at my hotel.
-Hahaha! Yes, you did. I would love to be once in his cab!
-You are crazy! No, you don’t want to be in his cab. The guy is a maniac. John and Vic broke into yet another big laughter, following at the same time Zhaohui’s urge to sit at the dinner table. The scenery was magnificent to say the least! Little bowls and plates filled with all sort of dishes: spicy Sichuan pickled vegetables placed by deep fried prawns and shrimps marinated into a soy sauce (by the look of it), breaded chicken bits sitting right by the side of some lovely looking pickled Korean style cabbage and beets, raw shrimps on the plate with the choice of hot ginger sauce or Japanese wasabi, breaded calamari rings with a garlic sauce of sesame seeds, spring vegetable rolls with a great looking mango sauce sitting right by its side, chicken satay with a spicy peanut sauce and a paste of creamy hot paprika and finally, a fantastic looking grilled salmon and a garlic paste mixed with a light soy sauce; all these dishes were making this table look like heaven on the earth. It must’ve taken Zhaohui a long time to prepare all these dishes, which truly looked magnificent!
The atmosphere at the table was jovial and cheerful and all three of them wanted to enjoy the multitude of the dishes in front of them at the fullest. There was little talking. Back home, John took his family many times to the Chinese restaurants and knew how to handle the chopsticks. However, he was no match to Vic or his fiancé. The food was so fresh and tasty, so well balanced and assorted, so well presented and it looked so good, that one could say: “you can eat it with your eyes”. Vic poured some drinks and “cheers” came right away out of everybody’s chest. The variety and the quality of the dishes on the table, made John wanting to try everything. The vegetable rolls were crispy but not hard, the chicken satay served with the spicy peanut sauce were a delight and the shrimps with Korean pickled vegetables were something to die for!
Soon, everybody at the table felt like having a rest. It was the need for a break after tasting so many different types of entrees. Vic poured some white wine and by raising his glass, he signaled that he wanted to say a toast. Both John and Zhaohui looked at him waiting for the speech.
-Guys…I am a bit emotional right now, so I will keep it short. I would like first and foremost to say: “thank you John”, for accepting our invitation.
-No, I must say: thank you guys for inviting me. You prepared so much food and you truly are the perfect hosts. I really feel like home.
-Thank you, John! Both Zhaohui and Vic tilted their heads forward, in a sign of deep respect and consideration.
-May I continue, please? It was this question that brought a huge laughter out of everybody’s chest, making the dinner night even more interesting, funnier and the atmosphere open and friendlier than ever.
-When I saw you at Pudong Airport, I really didn’t know how to approach you, John. It had been seven years since we hadn’t seen each other anymore. Lots of things are changing on daily basis, leave alone seven years…I didn’t know exactly what to expect from you (as you had your “Texas Hold’em” face on). Another round of laughter broke up and Vic took advantage by pouring some more wine into the glasses. But as days passed by, I learnt that you were still the nice, reliable guy I had the pleasure to be colleague with back home. John tilted his head forward into a silent “thank you”. Now, I am proud to call you: “friend” and I thank you again for accepting our invitation. Vic raised his glass and another round of joyful “cheers” was heard. At this point, John felt like he wanted to say something too. He cleared his throat, stood up and raised his glass:
-Guys, I can only say that I am overwhelmed by your hospitality, by the warmth you are showing me, by the fact that you took the time to prepare such a wonderful dinner and of course by the fact that you are helping me so much with my assignment. Without you, I would’ve never been able to move forward. I hope I can one day re-pay you for your kindness, for your support and for the friendship you are showing me.
-Don’t mention it, John…we are happy to have you over for dinner and that you like the food we prepared. Zaohui’s voice was crystal clear and the softness from the beginning of the conversation completely disappeared. She was now showing that she is indeed the lady of the house and she knows how to make a guest feel comfortable and relaxed.
-The food is fantastic, to say the least, Zhaohui. There is so much diversity on this table that makes me wanting to ask for more…
-There is plenty of it left and the main course will come as well.
-I was just kidding! Both Vic and John burst again into a big laughter and shortly Zhaohui joined in. Everybody was having a blast and the time was passing by fast and very pleasantly.
-Now, we should have a break so we can show you the rest of the house.
-Vic, you go ahead and show John around. I have to wrap up the left over appetizers so we can make room for the main course.
-Sure. John, you can take your glass with you. Vic picked up his glass and started showing John the main level and then the second level. It was a beautiful townhouse, built with a taste for utility and comfortable living. Once upstairs, it didn’t take too long to Vic to show the upper level to John. There were two bedrooms, a bathroom and a little office where Vic and his fiancé were doing their work from home. The bedrooms were nicely painted in lively colors and hand painted canvases inside beautifully carved cherry tree frames were hanging on the walls.
-If you decide to spend the night over, you have two rooms to choose from.
-Thanks for offering, Vic but I will be heading back to my hotel. Tomorrow morning I will have to call my wife.
-I was just offering an alternative in case you decide not to head back to your hotel.
-I know and I thank you for this, but I will stick with my initial plan.
-Very good then. Now let’s sit down and talk. Vic showed John a couch he had in his office, while he took a sit into his chair. So, how was your day? Before you start though, let me tell you what kind of feedback I got from Yuhuan.
-Yuhuan is the handsome guy?
-Hahaha! Yes, he is the handsome guy from our team. Remember he told us that he has a friend in Beijing who is in the same business as he and Zihuan are?
-Of course I remember. This is getting interesting…John put his glass on a table nearby, moved to the edge of the couch and started rubbing his hands showing a deep interest.
-Well, apparently Tony went to Beijing and visited the Forbidden City.
-And what’s so special about this? Anyone can go and visit the Palace.
-Wait…don’t jump to conclusions. Inside of the Palace he met with four people, among them being your neighbor.
-But we know that they are either friends or they are in a sort of boss-subordinate kind of relationship.
-Yes, we know that. But who are the other two persons? Well, Yuhuan got a bunch of pictures and Zihuan’s sister is now working on compiling everything and putting them into a slide show. So, next time we meet with our detectives we will have a lot of viewing to do.
-Fantastic! Well done!
-Hang on, I am not done…after leaving the Forbidden City, they went together to the “Order of the Nine Orchids”.
John startled…he looked deep into Vic’s eyes which made his friend ask if he is alright.
-Vic, I bought today an orchid for Zhaohui…
-So…what’s the problem? Everybody who has a decent income can buy orchids. They are indeed expensive, but…
-Vic…please allow me to stop you right here…John took a deep breath and started rubbing his temples in a sign of deep disturbance.
-Now you are scaring me, man!
-Vic, when I was into that flower shop, the woman who apparently owned the shop looked very insistently into my eyes for few seconds. This made me a bit uncomfortable – I have to admit. She had nine orchids into the store…all placed behind the counter. It seemed like she didn’t want to sell them. I asked her to sell me one; she didn’t do it until she scrutinized me; it was a sort of: “I am only selling these to the right people”. I felt a little embarrassed, but I was happy that I got one as they were all stunning.
It was Vic’s turn to hold his head with both his hands and few moments of silence settled into the room.
-You have to tell this story to Zhaohui!
-While we were chit-chatting, I couldn’t help but watch her face expressions: I am sure she liked them, but there was something else, there was something else into her eyes…I cannot describe it. It was wariness, prudence and nostalgia, it was a sense of avoidance and circumspection.
-You have good eyes, John…I didn’t realize all of these.
-Maybe I am wrong and overreacting because of the peculiar day I had…
-I think you are not overreacting. We shall have a talk after the dinner…the three of us. By the way, did you meet with Wang?
-Yes, I did.
-How was it?
-He told me a story which gave me goose bumps…he told me about the Curse of the General and the Curse of the Emperor.
-What? There is another curse?
-Apparently when the Imperial Palace was taken by the peasants of Li Zicheng, the emperor cursed General Wu Sangui. However, this curse is not due to meet its finality for another twenty years, I believe.
-You must tell all of these to Zhaohui.
-OK then, now let’s go downstairs and continue our dinner. She is calling for us anyway.
-I hope you are hungry…we have: sweet and sour pork, we have deep fried chicken with mango, orange or apricot sauce, we have beef and broccoli with black pepper and chili sauce – be careful with this one, as is very spicy, typical Sichuan Cuisine – or if you would like, I prepared a sauce based on mustard and sesame seeds mixed in sesame oil and soy sauce. We also have fried shrimps with oyster sauce and to top everything, I cooked fried rice with vegetables.
-Wow! This table looks unbelievably attractive! Zhaohui, I extend my compliments again to you. You are indeed an amazing cook!
-Thank you! John I appreciate and I thank you for your compliments.
-I am so hungry right now! Vic’s eyes were expressing his admiration towards the variety and the overall aspect of the dishes, while a mute appreciation pointed towards his fiancé’s cooking skills encompassed his whole face.
-Well, gentlemen…dig in! Zhaohui’s face was expressing a sentiment of pride and accomplishment, it was that great feeling of a job well done as a host. The food was delicious and that could be seen on both Vic’s and John’s faces: joy and delight, satisfaction and appreciation. For the second time that evening, everybody at the table was simply minding its own business: eating. The food was so delicious and fresh, the spices used by Zhaohui to decorate the dishes: from fresh Thai basil, thyme and rosemary (spread on top of the broccoli and beef) to red chili pepper and sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the fried chicken, that one would think a famous chef prepared all this fantastically looking meal. Vic poured red wine into new glasses he brought from the kitchen and a joyful round of “cheers” broke up again into the dining room.
-I am full! This exclamation came from Vic who leaned against the back of the chair in an attempt to catch a breath, to rest or to simply make room for some more food.
-I am full too! The food was absolutely fantastic! Well done, Zhaohui! You are truly a great cook!
-Thanks again, John. Your compliments are much appreciated.
-Hey, how about me?
-What did you do?
-I did the grocery shopping!
All three friends burst into a huge laughter and the atmosphere turned from quiet and sober (as they were occupied with the great food in front of them), into open, jovial and cheerful. It was the moment when they realized that it only takes very little to be happy and that good, quality friends are so hard to find.
-Ready for some deserts?
-I am so full, that I think I will skip the stuff for the sweet tooth.
-Me too…I ate so much of that deep fried chicken with apricot and mango sauce that now I would probably be unable to even walk!
-OK then. We will wait an hour or so and then we will try again. How does this sound, gentlemen?
-Perfect! In the meantime, let’s wrap everything up from this table and let’s have a conversation. We have plenty of talking to do.
In few minutes everything was nicely wrapped, packaged into containers and placed into the fridge. When the three friends found each other again sitting at the table, a sudden quietness settled in. There were a lot of things to talk about, there were so many unanswered questions and a certain level of uncertainty was floating in the air.