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Same Same, But Different

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The neighborhood was questionable and the bar was a dive, but Mulan didn’t care. She hadn’t felt this lonely since she first arrived in Hillwood for school in August, and the ache of missing family and home was worse than ever. The last place she wanted to be was cooped up in a tiny dorm room, even if she didn’t hate her roommate this semester. And at this hour, nothing was open besides bars and clubs.

If only New Year had fallen earlier this year. She would’ve missed the very beginning of spring semester but only by a week or so, easy to make up, and she could’ve spent the holiday at home. The school’s Chinese Students Association was hosting a banquet on Tuesday evening, so she had someplace to go at least and a couple of people she was friendly with would be there, but it wouldn’t be the same. Not really.

She spied two empty stools at the end of one leg of the ‘U’ of the horseshoe-shaped bar and went over. The stool next to the wall afforded her a good view of the entire bar, and she could use the wall for support if she needed it. She removed her warm blue coat, her favorite from home, folded it over her lap, and took in her surroundings. On second glance, the Pour Me wasn’t a bad place. It was just small and dim in a way that was meant to obscure things rather than set a mood, and everybody there looked as dour and sad as she felt, even the people who weren’t alone.

The bartender, a white-haired old grandmother who was at least eighty and dressed in a martial arts uniform and headband, came over to take her order.

“What can I get for you, Dragonfly?”

Mulan was so caught off-guard by this stranger using the English version of the nickname that Li Shang had given her back home when she studied wushu with him, she was unable to form words.

There were martial arts classes offered here by the Phys Ed department. The instructors, all Americans, were good, but none of them could match Shang’s level of expertise and skill at teaching what he knew, and she always found herself comparing. She wanted to stay conditioned and in practice, so she made herself continue to attend at least two classes a week, but her heart wasn’t in it and the sessions always made her more homesick.

“Not too many people know it,” the woman continued, her voice dropped low. She leaned in close, hand shielding her face from everyone else in the bar, about to impart a deep secret. “But I know where Mr. Smith keeps his stash of good rice wine.”

She cackled and moved away before Mulan finally replied with a stunned, “Oh.”

Mulan watched the odd bartender step out from behind the bar and disappear down what was probably a flight of stairs. After a few minutes she returned with two porcelain bowls – Japanese sake bowls – and set one down in front of her. Mulan hid her dismay and thanked her with a polite smile. The old woman meant well; she'd made a wrong assumption, but it hadn't been done with malice.

The grandmother waved away the money Mulan offered and raised her bowl. “It's on the house. Kanpai!

Mulan lifted her own bowl and took a sip. Though it was Japanese sake and a little different from the Chinese rice wine she was hoping for, expecting even, it tasted good and it warmed her. Anyway, wasn’t the whole point of choosing to study away to broaden her perspective?

“So, tell me about your travels, young friend.”

Understanding this old grandmother, who seemed to speak in riddles, was difficult. Although Mulan’s English had been improving since she came to America, she’d always been more comfortable with her reading and writing skills than her verbal skills and comprehension.

“I’m from China,” she said, both to approximate an answer to the question and to correct the woman’s misconception about her. “I go to school in Beijing, but I’m an exchange student at Hillwood Tech this year. In the mechanical engineering program.”

“I see. What brings you way out here all on your lonesome tonight?”

Mulan dug in her memory for the right expression without success.

“Cabin fever, eh?” she added before Mulan could come up with the phrase.

A man approached the bar with a request for another beer, interrupting them, and she didn’t have a chance to answer. The grandmother went to serve him, then returned to pick up their conversation. Oddly, she didn’t bother to take the cash the man had left on the bar and stow it safely in the register.

“You are coming from a class?” Mulan asked, indicating her outfit.

“Folks get a little wild here sometimes, and I’m the only ex-cop crazy enough to take them on when they get out of hand. And the only black belt. Why else would Mr. Smith put up with me, heh-heh.”

“I also practice martial arts.”

They swapped stories about their training, then their conversation shifted to other topics and Mulan found herself telling this total stranger about home and how they’d be busy decorating the house and preparing for the holiday there.

“This Tuesday is the eve of New Year.” It was surprisingly easy to reveal the root of her sadness to the old woman now that they’d connected through their shared interest. And it was a relief to drop the façade she put on for everyone at school, that she was happy and fine, and not lonely. “It’s harder to be away now. My family is actually very proud that I came to America to study, that I’m going to be an engineer. I'm the first to go to college. We’ll speak on the phone this week, but it’s not the same.”

“Yes. You know, a friend of mine—”

“Oh, not again.” The man, obviously the Mr. Smith the woman had been referring to earlier, had entered through a side door while they were talking, and he was clearly miffed to see her behind the bar. “Don’t tell me. Oskar’s on another two-hour ‘smoke’ break?”

He made quotes in the air with his fingers on the word smoke.

“Anyway, you’re out and about late tonight, Grandma.”

“I told Phil not to wait up.”

She let out another cackle and winked at Mulan. This woman was nothing like her own grandmother, but in that moment, something about her, maybe the way she’d winked, reminded her of Grandma Fa. A flash of amusement, then Mulan’s mood plummeted further. She took another swallow of sake.

“I knew he was gonna be trouble. I hired him against my better judgment,” Mr. Smith was saying, pointing an accusing finger at Grandma. He’d stepped behind the bar and was now putting the cash that had been left out into the register. “You think I don’t know he leaves to play poker whenever you – hey! Did you break into my supply of good sake?”

“My young friend here is a long way from home.”

“So what?”

“I’m cheering her up.”

For the first time, Mr. Smith actually looked at Mulan. “The only reason I put up with this nut is because she’s a black belt and she once defused a brawl before it got really nasty,” he told her.

“I happened to be passing by and saw the hoopla.”

“Saved me from what would’ve been a lot of trouble.”

As low as she felt, Mulan really would’ve enjoyed seeing that tonight.

“Not bad for a crazy old bat, eh?” the old woman quipped, elbowing him in the side.

But Mulan was starting to have the distinct impression that the woman wasn’t crazy at all, and that it was all an act she put on.

“Now she thinks she can do whatever she wants when she comes in.” He gestured for her to get out from behind the bar. “And help herself to anything she wants. You owe me for that sake, Grandma. And you can tell that bum he’s fired, if I don’t see him to tell him first.”

She drained her bowl, then came out and around to sit on the stool beside Mulan.

“You don’t work here, Grandmother?” Mulan asked.

“Nope. I just pour drinks for people when nobody’s behind the bar. Confidentially, I don’t think Mr. Smith actually works here either. I think he’s undercover. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.” She laughed and nodded toward Mulan’s bowl. “Finish your sake and let’s get out of here. I know a place.”

She added that last with yet another cackle and didn’t elaborate further, but Mulan chose to go with her anyway, hoping that wherever they ended up, she would have the chance to see this eighty-something-year-old black belt in action.

~~~

Fifteen minutes later, Mulan sat at a table in Monsoon, a hole-in-the-wall in Hillwood’s Little Saigon that boasted southern Vietnamese cuisine and “familiar cocktails with a Vietnamese twist”, and sipped on their new ‘Asian Pear Cocktail’ that featured baijiu and more baijiu, as well as two or three other liquors. Monsoon was closed already when they got there, but the old grandmother knew Mai, the young woman who’d been tending bar that evening. Mai had let them in and invited them to join her at her table.

“A sneak preview for Wednesday’s celebrations,” Mai had said, mixing the powerful cocktails for the three of them. “We keep this stuff hidden on the back shelf, just in case, but a lot of the people who come in here wouldn’t even know what it is anyway.”

Mulan nodded. She hadn’t yet met anyone in this country, other than the Chinese students, who was familiar with it, or with any other Chinese liquor for that matter. Though she’d never been a fan of the stuff, it was nice to be offered a taste of home, and the flavors of the other ingredients in the mixture tempered it.

Craft supplies were laid out on the table. Mai had been hand-making hanging decorations for New Year before they arrived, and now that she had the company, she showed them her technique and enlisted their help making the small ball ornaments out of gold paper that resembled miniature lanterns. Mulan would’ve been preparing similar decorations with Mama and Grandma at home, or buying them if they were too busy to make them, only theirs would be red or red with gold trim.

Mai was a couple of years older than her and going to school part-time. She attended afternoon classes at Colgate, a small liberal arts college not far from Hillwood Tech, then worked in the evenings and on Sundays. She asked Mulan about her experience as an exchange student and how she liked Hillwood. Mulan found her easy to talk to and she ended up staying for a couple of hours, making decorations and chatting with her.

After trying her hand at a few ornaments, Grandma Gertie, as Mai called her, pushed the scraps of paper away and stood up.

“I’ll leave you two kids alone to have some fun without me.”

She wandered off into the kitchen. Mulan looked after her curiously.

“Does she tend bar here, too?”

“Grandma goes wherever she wants and does whatever she wants,” Mai remarked and laughed. “She might be looking for the baijiu infusions for the cocktails. She won’t find them in there, though.”

“Are the infusions a secret?”

She shook her head. “Not really. There are separate jars of different spices soaking in baijiu. They sit for a couple of weeks, then the infusions get combined and put in an eyedropper. We put drops from the dropper into the shaker when we make these. Grandma hasn’t checked behind the bar yet, and that’s where we keep the full eyedropper.”

“It’s a very good cocktail.” Mulan had been feeling much better since she’d started drinking it.

“There will be parties all over the neighborhood on Wednesday. We’re having one here, too, and we’ll be serving these all day. And good food, of course. Grandma Gertie will be here with my father and everyone else from the boarding house she runs with Grandpa Phil, even her grandson and his friends. If you don’t have any plans that day, stop by.”

It might be fun to celebrate in a way that was familiar yet quite different, and on first impression Mulan liked Mai. She even kind of liked Grandma Gertie; and she certainly appreciated her.

“Thank you. If I can, I will.”