Public Relations, Beijing



When Jane fell in love with a Kuwaiti,

the embassy warned him against Chinese


girls. We’ll revoke your scholarship,

they said. He was a student


who ignored the rules

for love (to hear Jane tell it)


and traveled with her that summer,

eating sunflower seeds. Unfamiliar


language rose and broke from their

throats. She calls him


Old Ma still, a leftover

nickname for Madallah.




The sky in Beijing is bland

the day Jane talks


about her love. We said I was his

guide, she laughs, because they were


caught in a hotel with no marriage

or money. In seven months


of self-criticism at school, she never

confessed that she loved him. Anyway,


she says, he went home for American war,

so no one cares about this love anymore.




Every day of 1995 Jane writes a letter

to Lao Ma. He does not write her


because he’s a diplomat and isn’t

allowed to write to Chinese girls.


She and I work in an American

office advising on foreign


investment in China. Jane does not like

the translation our firm has given


General Motors. It means mediocre

motors in Chinese, she tells me. So we


write a report recommending revision.

But GM says it’s too late to change


their name no matter what.




When I meet Madallah in 1997,

Jane has already loved


three other boys and warned me:

Lao Ma is not the same anymore.


Now, she says, he is a successful

career and a failed personality.


Per our personal free trade language

arrangement, we leave each other’s sentences


alone. Madallah has married an

arranged woman and come back


to Beijing to polish his Chinese

without her. We meet in “Uncle Sam’s”


fast food. He and I have only Chinese

in common so when I ask what

it’s like to be married

to him, he cannot gauge my tone


and gives me the straight answer

I want: In my country


women are like queens; No one

disrespects you on the streets.


Jane and I have an emergency

dinner at “Three Four Man,” our


favorite Japanese restaurant. Her eyes

are wide and tired. Our dream of love


is over, she confirms. Madallah’s new

wife has to sit in the back of the house


with a cloth over her face when

men come to play cards


(five nights a week). I am surprised

he isn’t busier with matters of the state.


Jane says: when he told me this I

shouted. I think her life must be terrible.


But over dessert she asks me do I

think his wife is pretty. I know this


is a terrible question, she says. And I

know what’s coming: But if she has to


wear a cloth over her head anyway,

then why couldn’t she have been Chinese?


First published by the Grolier Poetry Prize