Ying opened the present wrapped in brown paper that Jacob, her new brother-in-law, had gotten her for Christmas. It was coffee. Ying didn't really drink coffee that much. Much less go through the trouble of making it from unground beans. The package had a black skull and a gun on the cover. She smiled and looked up at him, hoping she could keep her mask of pleasantry secured for at least the next few hours.
"Oh wow, is this a famous brand in the US? I've never heard of it." Glancing at the faces of her husband's family, she guessed the answer was no.
But Jacob nodded enthusiastically, "the company donates money to the military, law enforcement, and other service-oriented organizations. Any service that requires its members to carry weapons anyhow."
Ying's blood turned to ice at the thought of guns, and she thought that perhaps her husband's and his families did as well. This was not how she imagined Christmas would be.
"That's so nice, thank you, Jacob," she managed to sputter out, "here open this one. It's from us. We brought it with us from Yantai."
Jacob got up from the loveseat he shared with his girlfriend, who wore the exact same dark green pajamas, and took the box from Ying. The crunching of the paper as he opened it, however, did not yield relief from the discomfort of the situation.
"I can't read this. Is it in Chinese? Why doesn't it have English on it?" He seemed to be as disappointed and shocked at his gift as she had been at hers. The package didn't have any English on it, and he turned it over suspiciously.
Thankfully, Nate stepped in to save her, "these are preserved toffee apples… with apples made in Yantai, where Ying is from. We got them from her family's store."
Her visa allowing her to visit the US had come later than they'd hoped but thankfully, in time for Nate's first Christmas home in years. Ying had been looking forward to the trip. But she was wondering now if the warnings she'd gotten about the US were founded in legitimate concerns.
"But they're Chinese apples, right?" He looked disdainfully at them.
"Yeah, dude," Nate laughed in disbelief, "that's where we've lived for the past ten years. That is where Ying is from. Yantai is famous for its apples."
"Right, but," Jacob insisted, "she's on our side. I mean, you're American… You're on our side, right?"
Ying stared back at him, not really wanting to step on the land
mine that had been placed in front of her. Yet, it seemed unavoidable. Even ignoring the question might be an answer to this person. Nonetheless, she did step to the side of it.
"The toffee apples are a superb dish. I'll make it fresh when I can find the right apples to make it from, but maybe you can take these with you next time you're in the woods or out on the boat. Nate said that you like to hike."
Jacob smiled at her, but it was the kind of smile that did not reach his eyes. His girlfriend, Raelynn, took the package from his hands and opened one of the individually packaged fruit portions. She gave it a taste and smiled up at Ying.
"Nice and tart," she said.
"What about the company that makes it?" Jacob asked, "is it a private company or government-owned?" Thankfully, he was looking at Nate and not Ying to answer that.
"I really don't know, Jake," Nate replied coolly, "does it matter?"
Jacob didn't respond, but he sat down again on the loveseat and stared at Ying for a while. Making her feel uncomfortable.
The rest of Ying's first Christmas was less tense, but she went to bed thinking about Jacob staring daggers at her. She couldn't sleep until she confirmed the nature of this hostility with her husband. She spoke to him in Mandarin just to make sure no one else in the house could understand them.
"Why does he hate me?" She prompted Nate.
"He doesn't hate you, but he does hate everyone who doesn't agree with him," Nate rubbed her shoulder, "don't think about him."
"Why did he give me a bag of coffee beans with a picture of a gun on it?"
Nate sighed before responding, "that's what he believes in. I told you that he's got extreme views. Don't worry about it. I'm sorry about what he said to you. We should do our best not to let him ruin the rest of our holiday."
"What if he gets angry at us and comes up here with his gun?"
Nate laughed, thinking she was joking, and pulled her closer to him. However, she immediately pushed him away and looked haughtily at him from across the bed.
"Baby, it's a good thing you didn't say that in English. That's
something pretty crazy to say."
"You haven't seen him for ten years," she whispered harshly, "you do not know what he is thinking about anymore."
"And you've been watching the news too much," Nate spat without
thinking. Then, when she said nothing, he softened.
"I promise that my brother would never hurt anyone, no matter what kind of politics they have. Not unless they're an alligator. Then he'd
shoot them like crazy."
Ying did not relent to his attempt to ameliorate the mood and
found that she did not feel sleepy despite the jet lag. So, she left Nate to
think about how much of a mistake it was to belittle her fears. It was as
though he did not see the avid and vengeful man's stare at her. Jacob seemed to be everything she'd been warned about when telling her friends and family that she'd be visiting the US, so it was right for her to be concerned.
One of the reasons Ying's family had quickly consented to her
marriage was the fact that Nate's family was quite well off. His parents owned a piece of land that astounded her family. Ying did not come from a low-income family whatsoever, but to her parents, security was important for her future. Nate had told them about certain financial realities in fluent Mandarin when he'd come to meet them. Thus, her family was reassured that their grandchildren would be able to speak with them and be quite financially secure. Before Ying walked across the yard to the dock, she grabbed the bag with her ruan, a traditional Chinese lute, and took it far from the house, hoping that she would not wake anyone.
As she approached the dock, however, she noticed Raelynn sitting
at the end of it. She was sitting with one foot in the water and one foot
resting on the family's motorboat. Before Ying could sneak back, the woman spotted her and called her over. She guided Ying to sit at the edge with her and offered her a steaming mug.
"Do you drink coffee at night?" Raelynn inquired.
"Not usually, but I'll have some," Ying did not want to seem
While Ying sipped, she was surprised to discover that she'd been
given a sweet and milky cup. Nate always drank his black and scoffed at her for wanting the dark liquid so diluted. She didn't know what to say to
Jacob's girlfriend so she said nothing. Raelynn thankfully broke the silence.
"What's in the case? A guitar?"
"No, it's a Chinese instrument. It's called a ruan.
Do you want to try it?" Ying opened the case and took out the instrument. Allowing Raelynn to stroke the light-colored wood and twang experimentally at the strings.
The woman smiled but waved one of her hands in refusal, "I'm
terrible with music. I don't want to break it accidentally. Jacob plays plenty, though."
Ying soured at the mention of Jacob's name, and she hoped the
woman could not see her expression. But in the next moment, it did not matter. To her shock, Raelynn jumped onto the boat and shook a pile of blankets that turned out to be Jacob. He stirred sleepily, slightly groggy, but did not look at her with malice as he recognized her sitting on the dock.
"Ying brought out her 'wan'" Raelynn butchered the name carelessly, "thought maybe you might want to hear it." Ying did not correct her out of shock that he'd been there the entire time.
Jacob came off the boat and squatted to see her instrument, also
running his hands over the wood grain and pretty patterns on its face. Then, he looked over at her.
"It's so neat. What does it sound like?"
Ying obliged, happy to find a neutral topic. She put it in her lap and played out a few notes to give him a taste. She chose a soft traditional tune. Jacob seemed pleased and asked her some questions about its' range and how to play it. Raelynn produced another mug for Jacob, and the three of them sat together for a while. Ying told them about the instrument's history and how she'd come to learn to play it.
"My parents insisted I either learn this or the guzheng, which
is kind of like a harp. I wanted to play piano like my friends, but they didn't allow it. I was so angry at them that I didn't take my lessons seriously for years. That's why even though I've been playing since I was 7, I'm not very professional."
"Doesn't matter. Did you ever pick up the piano?" Jacob asked
her. He seemed genuinely interested.
"Not really, I can play a little, but I came to love the ruan after
all," she said, "it makes me feel connected to my roots."
"It's nice," Jacob was sincere, "sounds a bit like a banjo… Hang
on a sec. I'll be right back. I'm going to grab a midnight snack. You like the coffee?"
"Yes, it's delicious."
He turned to walk back towards the house, smiling a little. Then,
Raelynn pulled her attention back towards the dock.
"I'm sorry about Jacob... about the way he spoke when we were
opening up presents. Sometimes, he doesn't know when he's being an ass. He's just very principled. I think he likes you a lot now that he knows you're another musician."
"That makes me happy to hear," she laughed a little nervously,
"I was worried that he might hate me. Nate told me they do not get along well."
"I'm sure you know that Nate is stubborn as well. It's hard for
Jacob to talk to him, they do not have much in common. Nate went to college and got a to have an outside career, a real education… and Jacob stayed behind to manage their dad's properties. He was never good at school. Jacob just wants Nate's respect. They haven't spoken much since he left. Family is very important to Jacob. But, unfortunately, he isn't always controlled enough to shut his mouth around them to keep things cool between them."
Ying nodded, "I guess I can understand. Family is important to me too."
They sat quietly again, but this time, more comfortable. In the
distance, Ying heard Jacob walking towards them while tuning an instrument, which she later recognized as a banjo. He had a bad of Christmas cookies under one of his arms, which she found a bit odd, but she ignored it. Upon hearing his dissonate tuning notes become solid chords and louder bits of notes stuck together, she looked to the windows of the big house. She was hoping not to see lights turn on at the noise he was making t would all be ruined if they woke up Nate and his parents.
As Jacob approached the dock, she could see his broad grin beam
at her, and he strummed gleefully, inviting her to join him.
Ying took a deep breath and lifted the ruan into position on her lap. Then, feeling awake and warm from the coffee in the cool air, she answered his invitation with a chord of her own.