LONG AGO, when you were just a baby, we went to the Moon.
Summer nights in Beijing were brutal: hot, muggy, the air thick as the puddles left on the road after a shower, covered in iridescent patches of gasoline. We felt like dumplings being steamed, slowly, inside the room we were renting.
There was nowhere to go. Outside, the sidewalk was filled with the droning of air conditioners from neighbors who had them and the cackling of TVs at full volume from neighbors who hadn’t. Add your crying to the mix, and it was enough to drive anyone crazy. I would carry you out on my shoulders, back in, and then out again, begging you to sleep.
One night, I returned home after another day of fruitless petitioning at the Palace of Mandarins, having gotten no closer to avenging your mother. You sensed my anger and despair and cried heartily in sympathy. The world seemed so oppressive and dark that I wanted to join you, join the sound and the fury that filled the mad world.
Then the Moon passed low overhead, ripe, golden, round, like a shaobing fresh out of the oven. And I tied you to my back with one of the scarves your mother left behind, and began to climb the pagoda tree by the side of the road that somehow survived all the construction and reconstruction, all the road-widening and demolition, all the pollution and apathy.
The climb was long and arduous. The Moon seemed close from the ground but it kept on receding as we progressed up the tree. We had to climb through clouds, through flocks of wild starlings and sparrows, through wind and rain that threatened to tear us from the tree, until finally, we were at the very tip of the tallest swaying branch, and then, just as the Moon passed right overhead, I reached up and hoisted us onto it.
It was wonderful on the Moon: cool air, clean skies, as quiet as a library. You stopped crying as soon as we landed, looking around with your eyes wide open like when we first got to Beijing and you saw all those cars for the first time.
The Moon people were beautiful and polite. The women wore dresses that flowed and shimmered like water, and the men walked in shoes that gleamed and shone like the paint on new cars. Everyone spoke like they were poets from the Tang Dynasty. In teahouses made of green jade and white nephrite, they drank tea brewed from dew and whispered and laughed at each other’s wit. They ate cakes flavored with sweet osmanthus, prepared by the goddess Chang’e herself. Even the walls felt cool to the touch, and you could see why they didn’t need anything as unrefined as air conditioning.
But they were also haughty. They didn’t want us to be there, poor peasants from the countryside. They thought we didn’t belong. We were loud and made the place dirty.
“Why don’t you go home?” they asked.
So we had to find ways to trick them.
SALLY RUSH SMILED, uneasily, at her client.
The Chinese man across the coffee shop table was in his forties: short and wiry frame, blue dress shirt wrinkled and faded from too many washes, shoes scuffed beyond hope. His unkempt hair was turning white in patches, and he didn’t bother shaving off the straggly wisps on his upper lips and chin. The coffee on the table remained black and untouched while he drank tea from a thermos. Wenchao Zhang looked like he had just gotten off the boat, but the way he appraised her was cool, calm, calculated.
Sally looked into his dark brown eyes and expressionless face — she didn’t want to sound racist, but — she found him inscrutable.
His daughter, a girl of about six, sat next to him. Sally smiled at her, and the child smiled back, her eyes wide open with curiosity. In contrast to the father’s impenetrable face, Sally thought she could read every thought that went through the girl’s head.
She held out her hand but Wenchao ignored it, continuing to scrutinize her.
Maybe he doesn’t know English well, she thought. She turned to the girl.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Sally. I’ll be helping you and your dad. I’m your lawyer.”
“Hello,” the girl said. And she blushed so that Sally knew she thought Sally was pretty. “You can call me Vinnie.”
Sally decided that the girl with the American name also had American eyes.
“How will you help?” Vinnie asked.
Sally considered this. “My job is to help people tell stories. If I do a good enough job, you win.”
Vinnie nodded, smiling.
Then the father spoke. “Did you read my story?” His accent was heavy, but she had no trouble understanding him. He spoke carefully and calmly, with no hint of desperation.
“Yes,” Sally said. His story had shocked her, outraged her, and she found herself slightly disappointed that he didn’t seem more, well, heroic, didn’t carry the signs of his suffering more visibly. She wanted to save him, this courageous little Chinese man who had given up so much for his faith, for freedom.
“You’re very brave,” she added.
“Have you done this much?” he asked.
“No.” She blushed.
Sally had been a good student in a great law school, and she picked Widmar Eaton Lafever & Tuck out of a dozen law firms — all of them offering her equally unbelievable salaries — because she liked the senior woman associate who had interviewed her and made Widmar sound so wonderful (except that the associate had already quit — “for personal reasons” — by the time Sally started in September, so maybe that wasn’t such a great way to pick a firm).
“Then how do you know my story will work?” he asked.
“I —” she was stuck. This wasn’t going at all the way she had envisioned it. “Your facts match the statutory definition of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership …” Her voice trailed off. The legal phrases sounded abstract, inadequate to the task.
Actually being a lawyer, Sally found, was very different from being a law student. She had been so good at teasing apart hypothetical fact patterns, marshaling them into intricate legal arguments, bolstering them with high-minded principle and policy, and dressing them up in dazzling rhetorical flourishes, but she was completely unprepared for the realities of commercial litigation.
“Ah,” Wenchao said. And Sally understood his tone perfectly. “That is why you’re free.”
There were no neat fact patterns at Widmar Eaton. It was her job to assemble facts out of warehouses full of boxes of paper produced by corporations intent on drowning each other with legal bills. She found that she was utterly unqualified to do her job.
To train her and to make her feel better about her meaningless drudgery, the firm assigned her to pro bono asylum cases. She was supposed to practice on these refugees, who could not sue her firm for malpractice, until she learned enough so that she wouldn’t mess up on the firm’s real clients.
Sally was furious with herself. She was supposed to be confident, in charge, the one guiding him.
“Tell me about yourself.” His voice softened.
“My dad likes stories,” Vinnie said.
“Tell me the story of how you became a lawyer,” Wenchao said. “So I can see how good you’ll be at helping me tell my story.”
ALL HER LIFE, Sally believed in clarity. When her friends argued, she always knew whose side to take. There was always someone who was more right than the other, even if no one was as right as herself.
When she was ten, she saw the maid, Luisa, packing away some of the leftovers from dinner into her purse.
“Please,” Luisa begged. “It’s for my daughter.”
Luisa showed Sally a picture of a little girl about Sally’s age. The girl in the picture had dark hair and dark eyes, and she wasn’t smiling at the camera. “She gets hungry at night. Please don’t tell your father.”
When Sally informed her father of what she had found, he looked both embarrassed and sad.
“If you saw the little girl going hungry,” he asked Sally, “would you not share your dinner with her?”
“Of course I would.”
Her father looked relieved. “That’s good.” He seemed to think the discussion was over.
“You have to let Luisa go,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I might choose to share my dinner. Stealing is wrong.”
He looked startled. Then, gently, he tried to reason with her, “sometimes it’s hard to tell what is really right, and we have to do what feels true.”
“No,” she said. “It’s always possible to tell what is right by following the rules.”
“I’LL FIGHT as hard as I can for you,” Sally said. “But with your story, the officer will have to do the right thing. It’s the law.”
Wenchao smiled at her for the first time. “You have strong beliefs.”
“Not as strong as yours.”
SALLY HAD SPENT two whole days prepping for Wenchao’s interview at the Joanne Austin Federal Building. She read through everything in his application packet multiple times until she could practically recite his story from memory.
She was just about to launch into a lecture about the state of human rights abuses in the People’s Republic of China, about religious oppression and the importance of freedom, when the asylum officer shook his head and told her to stop.
“He has to tell his own story.”
He was blond, pale, and bored. Tensely, Sally watched his face, seeking any hint of Wenchao’s chances.
“Begin,” he said to Wenchao.
IN ORDER TO NOT be found, we hid in the shadows of the Moon’s craters. Sometimes we buried ourselves in the dust to blend in.
But one day, Monkey, the greatest of heroes, came to us.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Are you a man or a worm?”
“If they find me,” I said. “They’ll send me away.”
The people of the Moon did not like it when people from the Earth decided to stay on their own, even if they were willing to polish the jade floors and wash the silk dresses, the sort of work that no one from the Moon wanted to do. They preferred to only invite people from the Earth that they deemed worthy, one way or another.
“No one knows you here,” Monkey said. “You can be whoever you want.”
That was easy for Monkey to say. He had studied with the greatest Buddhist monks and Daoist sages. He knew eighty-one transformations and overcame eighty-one demons on his trip to visit the Buddha. He could pick a single hair from his body and turn it into a weapon.
“Not all of us can be like you,” I tried to explain. “You defied a hundred thousand soldiers of the Jade Emperor. You freed yourself after a thousand years of imprisonment under a mountain. But me, I’m just a weak man trying to do the best for his little girl.”
“Nonsense,” Monkey said. “All those stories about me? They’re just stories. Why not tell a story of your own?”
IT IS HARD to be a Christian in China. Impossible, almost.
Pastor Chen smuggled in our Bibles on the bottom of his suitcase by covering them with a layer of Louis Vuitton bags. The customs agent opened the suitcase, laughed and kept a few of the purses for himself, and then waved him through.
Can you obtain an affidavit from Pastor Chen?
I cannot. I don’t know where he is now.
Where was I? Oh, right. For three years we, the congregation of the village of Sangulu, prayed in the basement of Pastor Chen’s house, and we saved, until we had enough to build our church.
We did as much of the work as possible ourselves. It was a modest structure: brick walls, concrete floor, a wooden steeple my uncle carved by hand, ink paintings of the scenes from the life of Christ done by my wife. And all of us took turns white-washing it, till it looked just like the American churches we saw on TV. The floor was uneven and the benches inside were hard and plain. But it was a House of the Lord.
When it was done, my wife and I and Pastor Chen and the whole congregation stood and looked at it, and we were so proud. My wife held our daughter, not even a month old then, and showed her the place where she would come to know God.
What was the date on which construction was completed?
It’s in the folder —
I want you to tell me the date. Don’t look in the folder.
— March 15th, six years ago.
Do you have any proof?
There is a picture in the folder with the date on it.
On the third day after it was complete, three black jeeps drove into the village and stopped in front of the church, and men wearing dark glasses jumped out of them. The last man to get out was someone I knew: the Communist Party Secretary of our township.
What is his name?
Guo Jia. I can write it out for you.
“What is this?” he asked, glancing at the church contemptuously.
“A house,” Pastor Chen said.
The Party Secretary took off his dark glasses and looked at him. “You are the cult leader, aren’t you?”
Standing straight and proud, Pastor Chen nodded. “I believe in Christ.”
The Party Secretary laughed, and his men took out sledgehammers, crowbars, cans of gasoline.
Pastor Chen tried to block their path to the church. “The Constitution of the People’s Republic guarantees religious — “
One of the men punched him in the stomach, and Pastor Chen was on the ground, gasping. The man walked closer and kicked him in the head.
“The Constitution does not shield illegal cults,” the Party Secretary said.
The men attacked our church, tearing apart its walls, smashing the windows, cracking the concrete floor, and pouring gasoline over everything. One went around to tear my wife’s paintings of Christ into scraps of paper.
“Stop!” my wife shouted. She handed our baby to a neighbor, jumped on the back of the man with the gasoline can, and tried to scratch his eyes out. He screamed and threw her off, turned around, and stomped his boot down on her stomach. She gurgled and remained still.
Her death certificate is in the file.
I went crazy then. I got one good punch in before all the others fell on me, and all I remember was a lot of pain, and then nothing.
I woke up in the township hospital. I had six broken ribs, two broken legs and a broken arm, a punctured lung, and a concussion.
Do you have any evidence of this? A hospital bill? Medical reports?
No. Nothing like that.
Can you get it from the hospital?
The town government runs the hospital. If I try to ask them for evidence, they will laugh at me and then lock me in the psychiatry department.
You have to provide some proof.
I can show you the scars. Here, I’ll lift my shirt.
Sally, are you all right? It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt any more.
Stop that. Pull your shirt down. These scars don’t have dates. They cannot be authenticated.
“WORKING LATE?” Jordan Cameron, a partner known for not being an asshole to young associates, stuck his head inside Sally’s office.
“My pro bono case. We have to go back for another hearing this week.”
Cameron came in and sat down across the desk. “May I?”
Sally slid the file over to him. Cameron flipped through the papers quickly but methodically. His expression never changed.
“What do you think?” Sally asked, swallowing nervously.
He shrugged. “Standard story. It’s pretty good, but not great. There’s not much you can do. Don’t stress over it.”
Cameron saw Sally’s face and sighed. “If they’re from Africa, the men always say that they’re escaping genocide, and the women always say that soldiers want to rape them and mutilate their genitals. If they’re from Central America, they’re always running from gangs entwined with the police. If they’re from China, the women are always being forced to have abortions by the government, and the men are always Christians or dissidents.”
“These things happened,” Sally said. She was so angry that she forgot that she was raising her voice with a partner. “They’re not just stories.”
“Yes, to someone. But not necessarily your client.”
Sally bit her lips to stop herself from saying something she would regret.
Cameron stood up.
“Go home, Sally. All asylum applicants lie, and you don’t want to examine their stories too closely. Even if some horrible things did happen to them, they have to compete with the stories told by economic immigrants who want to avoid deportation by lying. So they embellish their stories with more terrible details, sculpt them in ways they think we want, and we believe them because their stories confirm for us how orderly, how safe, and how much better we are than the rest of the world. They assure us that we’re still exceptional.”
SALLY DROVE ALONG the road, anxiously watching the small dot on her GPS.
She stopped in front of an old triple-decker badly in need of a new coat of paint.
There was no answer to the doorbell, but when she leaned her ear against the door, she could hear voices behind it. She tried the doorknob. It twisted with a creak and the door opened.
The first-floor apartment door was open, and through it she could see that the living room was filled with chattering Chinese people sitting around a stack of paper boxes in the center, on a stained and tattered couch, on metal folding chairs, on the floor.
Some of the talk was in English, and Sally caught a few stray phrases:
… memorize the dates …
… say that he was a Communist. They want that …
… one is too few; three abortions …
The chatter died down as one by one, the gathering turned to look at her.
Sally saw that many had folders full of papers in front of them. The shape and color of the folders were familiar to her.
Wenchao got up from behind the crowd, and wordlessly took Sally by her elbow. They went outside, closing the door behind them.
“YOU MEAN the stories aren’t true?” I asked.
Monkey, the rebel who never gave up, the adventurer who always had more fight in him, laughed, loud and long, like the song of a summer cicada. The Moon people on the jade pavilions on the horizon looked over in our direction in annoyance.
“When I was a boy,” I said, “your stories made me believe that anything was possible. I want to tell your stories to my daughter, so that she would also have hope.” I showed you, all bundled up and asleep, to Monkey. “But now you’re telling me that the stories were lies.”
“I didn’t say that,” Monkey said. “Stories, all stories, are true only when you believe them to be true.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look at the people of the Moon,” Monkey said. He pointed to the small figures of the beautifully dressed men and women drinking jasmine tea and reciting poetry in the distance. “They claim to be descended from the immortals of Penglai and the sages of Xiyu. Look how proud they are of their poetry, of their art, of their exalted land.”
“They’re indeed exceptional.”
“They’re because they believe themselves to be.”
I looked at Monkey, not understanding.
“How do you think they came to be on the Moon?”
I shook my head.
Monkey laughed again. “You’re not the first to climb up the pagoda tree, and you won’t be the last. You’re not the first to tell a story about yourself, and you won’t be the last. Welcome to the Moon, a land of tricksters, storytellers, hustlers, dreamers, and liars. You’re the ones who make this place so wondrous.”
He nodded at you then, still asleep in my arms. “Your story will be true when she believes it to be true.”
“WE HELP each other.”
“To lie!” Sally was beside herself. “How could you?”
They were sitting together, side by side, on a bench in a small park. Wenchao looked at her. “We’re just trying to play by the rules. Everybody has a story, but you only want to hear certain stories.”
“I want to hear the truth!”
Wenchao laughed, a laugh as loud and long as a singing summer cicada. The noise startled the sparrows in the tree near them. “Ask me what you want.”
“Are you even a Christian?”
Sally closed her eyes. The worst part of this was admitting that Cameron was right.
“Was the death certificate for your wife real?”
“Stop answering with yes or no. Tell me what happened.”
“Why does it matter? You won’t be my lawyer any more anyway.”
“It matters to me.”
Wenchao took a drag on his cigarette.
“That picture of the church you saw was real. Only it wasn’t a church, it was the house I built for my wife and new daughter.”
Sally shook her head in confusion.
“I’ve always liked the way small churches looked in American movies: so safe and clean. I thought, why not build a house like that?
“But then some Taiwanese developers wanted the land my house was on for a new factory, and the Party Secretary came to me and told me to leave. I refused. He told me that the land didn’t belong to me anyway. It always belonged to the people, and he was speaking for the people.
“Everything else I told you was true. They came to smash up my house, and they killed my wife. The scars I showed you were real. After I got out of the hospital, I went to court, and the judge laughed in my face and put me in jail. They let me out after three months, and I went to Beijing to petition for justice. They caught me and brought me back to town and put me in a psychiatric hospital and pumped me full of drugs. I escaped and went to Beijing again, and this time I used every penny of money I had in the world to buy my daughter and myself passage here. That’s my story.”
“But that’s horrible,” Sally said. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth? You really were persecuted.”
“But not ‘on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,’” Wenchao quoted, and took a long drag on the cigarette. “I believed that I should have my own house that no one can take away from me, that was all. The world is full of terrible stories, but the laws only deem some worthy of being heard.”
ONE DAY, about a year after Luisa was fired, Sally saw her downtown, waiting for a bus. Luisa looked older, more tired. Her dress was dirty and wrinkled.
Sally did not go up to say hi, to ask about her daughter or her new job. She avoided looking at Luisa and walked away.
“WHAT WILL you do?” Wenchao asked. Sally looked back at him through the window of her car.
“I don’t know yet,” Sally said. And she thought about all the rules that she was supposed to follow: the immigration laws, the rules of ethics, the noble-sounding principles of the profession. It’s always possible to follow the rules.
“Let’s go,” Vinnie said, dragging her father away from her car. “Finish telling me that story about Monkey.”
A few steps later, she turned to wave at Sally. “When I grow up, I want to be like you, telling stories for a living.”
Sally watched until they disappeared around the corner.