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[738-4] Short Stories: “Waiting” and “Steamed Osmanthus” – Eileen Chang

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The entirety of Waiting takes place at a massage clinic, which becomes a microcosm of the society. Citizens of various walks and stations in life, as well as social status converge in the little white-walled waiting room. Snippets of conversations make up the narrative. Servants, amahs, mistresses and ladies—all in the face of uncertain future brought forth by the ongoing war—wait for life to become more bearable. But life, like time, is slipping away with cruel indifference.

Steamed Osmanthus: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Auntumn is another vignette. Also set during the war, in Shanghai’s international demilitarized zone, Ah Xiao is the house servant (amah) of an expatriate named Mr. Garter, who entertains his multiple female partners with the same menu: a piece of beef first used to make soup and then fried for main course. It’s an tacit agreement that the women never spend the night. Ah Xiao is a dark, brooding character whose miserable life is punctuated by scolds aimed at her small soon, Baishun, the sporadic appearances by domiciled husband, and chats with neighboring amahs, with whom she complains about her employer. But inwardly she feels grateful working for a foreigner living alone, and he treats her with courtesy that is rare among Chinese masters. The most she has to put up with is the frequent washing of linen and bed sheets. Her soft side manifests itself occasionally, however, as when she donates part of her own flour ration for the purpose of making pancakes for Mr. Gartner and his Chinese of the night. She also plays the conspirator in warding off a Chinese woman who aspires to be the lady of the house.

Waiting and Steamed Osmanthus along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

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