1636 The China Venture – Snippet 05
“Excuse me. You’re Mike Song, aren’t you?”
Mike Song stopped walking and turned to face the speaker, a young man in up-time dress. “Yes, I am. I guess it wasn’t hard to figure out. Only a half dozen Chinese-Americans in Grantville.”
“So I’ve heard,” said the young man. “Your aunt and uncle, your cousins, and your brother. You’re too old to be confused with your cousin Jason, and Danny has duty with the reserves this week.”
Mike frowned. “You seem to know a lot about me.”
The young man offered his hand. “My name’s Eric Garlow.”
Mike shook hands with him. “Garlow … Garlow… I don’t remember anyone of that name living in Grantville. But you’re obviously an up-timer.”
“I’m from Charleston, West Virginia. I first met Tom at a Pirates game in Pittsburgh, when I was at U Pitt and he was at WVU. My sister Cynthia was also at WVU, and she was a friend of Rita’s.”
“Oh! You were with the wedding party! But that means–“
“Yes, all my relatives except Cynthia were left up-time. My parents, my sister Savannah, and so on.”
Mike winced. “I know something of how that feels. My parents were left up-time, in North Carolina.”
“At least I had my aunt and uncle; in fact, I started working for them at Kitt & Cheng Engineering, as a drafting trainee. Which, obviously, you know,” Mike said, waving toward the KCE office behind them. “So what can I do for you?”
“Well, I work for Don Francisco,” Eric said.
“Really?” asked Danny, eyes widening. “He’s some kind of advisor to Mike Stearns, isn’t he?”
Eric smiled. “Our understanding is that you were born in Taiwan in 1980.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And how well do you speak Chinese?”
“I studied standard Chinese in school. That’s the Beijing dialect of Mandarin.”
“Putonghua,” Eric interjected. It meant “common speech.”
“Yes, though we call it Guoyu in Taiwan. But how did you know? And how did you get the tones right?”
“I majored in Chinese,” Eric admitted.
“That’s nifty, but … not much use in the here and now,” said Mike.
“You might be surprised,” said Eric. “Any there other flavors of Chinese that you speak?”
Mike shrugged. “I also can speak Taiwanese. Given your field of study, I guess you know that it’s also called Hokkien, or Min Nan, and it’s spoken in Fujian on the mainland.”
“I did know that, but I thought Taiwan barred its public use until after 1987 or so.”
“I was a little kid back then so I don’t really remember, but I do remember that I spoke Mandarin at school and with my parents while I spoke Taiwanese with my friends and my grandparents. Well, my maternal grandmother at least; she was born on Taiwan before the KMT came. For that matter, if you speak Mandarin on Taiwan, you will probably throw in some Hokkien words without even thinking about it; they’ve been absorbed into Taiwanese Mandarin.
“Other than Mandarin and Hokkien, I guess I know a little Wu. Grandpa Frederick came from Shanghai. That’s where the KMT stronghold was–Nanking, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. He escaped to Taiwan in 1949.
“Were you trying to find someone to practice Chinese with? My aunt and uncle might be willing, now that KCE is running smoothly.”
Eric held up his hand, and waited to answer until a stranger walked past them and turned the corner. “I would have approached them earlier if I hadn’t been stationed in Magdeburg until recently. And I’d really like to get in some language practice, too. But it was you that I was looking for today.” Eric accented the “you” with a finger point and furrowed brows, not unlike Uncle Sam on a World War I Army recruiting poster. “The New United States is thinking of sending a diplomatic mission to China. That’s a secret, by the way. And we’re wondering whether you might like to go. Because your country really needs you.”
Mike whistled. “Sounds a lot more interesting than sitting at a drafting table drawing widgets for forty hours a week. But you know, I don’t have much in the way of technical skills to provide to the mission. I did well in high school, and I had two years at Carnegie Mellon. EE major. But I’m no Greg Ferrara.”
“You have what we need.”
“Wait. You said this was Don Francisco’s idea. I’ve heard that he’s not just a financial adviser; he’s some kind of spymaster. He’s Mike’s ‘M’! I bet … I bet it’s not just that I speak Chinese; it’s that I look Chinese. And I am the only young, unmarried Chinese guy in Grantville. You want me to be a spy.”
“If need be.”
“Well… I’ll think about it. Can I talk it over with my aunt and uncle?”
“Sure, go ahead. Chances are that we will recruit them to teach Chinese language on an intensive basis to select members of the mission, even though they can’t be spared to go halfway around the world. So, yes, talk to them, but make it clear they can’t pass it on to anyone else. Think of this, at least for the moment, as top secret.” Eric grinned. “Not that we’ve got any formal security classifications in the oh-so-primitive here and now. There are times I’m really fond of the seventeenth century.”
Later that night, Mike Song studied himself in the mirror. He offered a hand to his reflection. “The name’s Song. Mike Song.”
As they sat in their family room, facing their nephew Mike Song, Jason and Jennie Lee Cheng exchanged looks. With a fractional movement of her hand, Jennie Lee made it clear that it was up to Jason to speak. He’s a boy, after all, she seemed to say.
“Mike, as you know, we’re very proud of the way you’ve carried on despite your parents being left up-time. You’ve grown up a great deal over the last period, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t benefit from your parents’ advice, and, with them separated from us by an Act of Providence, it’s up to us to stand in their stead.”
Jason glanced at Jennie Lee, who nodded encouragingly. “If you were needed in the army to defend Grantville from attack, it would be one thing. But we don’t see why you need to go halfway around the world to serve the New United States.”
Mike reached for the mug of beer on the coffee table in front of him. “Eric Garlow says that China has stuff we’re going to need in a few years. And it’s going to take a few years to get there and convince them to give it to us. And they are a lot more likely to cooperate with someone who, well, looks Chinese than a ‘red-haired barbarian.'” That was what the Chinese called the Dutch.
“I am sure that Eric Garlow is knowledgeable, in his own way,” Jason conceded, “but he has only limited knowledge of seventeenth century economics and politics–“
“Okay, but he is speaking for Don Francisco, and he’s an expert!”
Jason’s eyes wandered to Jennie Lee, and his eyebrows semaphored “S.O.S.”
“Of course he is, dear,” said Jennie Lee, “although we must remember that he comes from a society which is much more accustomed to taking risks than we are. Has he spoken about what the chances are of getting to China safely by sea? And what will you do when the Manchu invade in 1644?”
“What she said,” said Jason, nodding vigorously.
Mike shrugged. “Well, this ship is going to have the benefit of some up-time technology, I’m sure. So it will be less likely to be wrecked, or sunk by cannon fire, or whatever. And we don’t think the mission will be away for more than five years or so, so who cares about the Manchu?
“And hey! I don’t think it’s going to be all that safe here in Europe. On the ship, I’ll be isolated, whereas Grantville gets lots of visitors … including bad germs, I bet. And it’s only a matter of time before the French and the Spanish rearm and counterattack.
“And as for helping to defend Grantville, well, sure I’d want to do that, but a German mercenary could do that as well or better than I could. And don’t I have a special advantage when it comes to getting strategic stuff from the Chinese?”
Jason Junior, who had been doing homework at the kitchen table one room over, suddenly called out, “And anyway, he’ll meet Chinese girls! Can’t do that in Europe!” Jason Junior had been showing interest in the opposite sex lately.
“Junior, keep your mind on your homework and stay out of this,” Jason Senior snapped.
Jennie Lee looked thoughtful.
“If my country needs me to chat up Chinese girls, who am I to refuse the call of duty?” said Mike, pressing his advantage.
In the silence that followed, they could hear the scratching of Jason Junior’s pen on paper as he worked on his assignment.
“I am sure that if you gave Chinese lessons to the other people that are going, it will increase our chances of a successful mission and a safe voyage,” Mike added. “And, Uncle Jason, I just realized, I could take some of the ashes of your mother and father back to the homeland. Maybe even back to their ancestral village. That’s not something you can ask someone else on the mission, someone not a family member, to do. And while I can’t do the same for Aunt Jennie Lee, thanks to the Ring, I can take some kind of token over there for her.”
“Well… Maybe we should talk about more another time,” said Jason Senior and Jennie Lee, almost simultaneously. They smiled at each other briefly, in recognition that they had read each other’s mind.
Jason Junior appeared silently at the doorway between the kitchen and the family room and gave Mike a thumbs up. “Kids One Million, Parents Zero,” he mouthed silently.