The Chinese Man and the Desert

Materialized by Christine Kwon on Monday, March 20th 2023.

I did not move to the desert out of a love for isolation, or desire to find myself, or as a retreat from failed love. I moved to the desert between San Diego and Los Angeles because I was poor. In the off-season, rent in the desert is dirt cheap.

For two and a half years, I earned my living on an app by “teaching” people in China how to speak English.

Without exception, they already knew English, like they had been speaking it their entire lives. They learned it in school, like we learn Spanish. Compared to Americans, they sounded elegant and I told them that.

Many of them had British accents. It was a chosen accent but it wasn’t quite an affectation. It would be like being told that the brand of detergent you chose at the supermarket was an affectation. It was simply a choice.

That said, they were very interested in American idioms.

I didn’t talk to a single Chinese person that wasn’t at least intrigued by them. Sometimes they asked about idioms from a book that had fallen out of use and I had to really consider what we do and do not say. Raining cats and dogs. Do we still say that? Maybe at a bus stop in Iowa and you’re staring down a whitehaired man who is smiling expectantly at you as you’re huddled together in a summer downpour.

Idioms were a topic of conversation but not the reason people spent money on the app. The people on the app were lonely. Twenty dollars an hour was not bad for a cure.

They loved the guise of learning English; it was an innocent endeavor, if not a noble one. The language was something we could fall back on.

I had regulars.

A college boy whose mom had just died. He liked to call me on the train to visit his grandparents. The train ride was seven hours long. He made these journeys as a stand-in for his father, who was estranged from his in-laws. His mission was to ask them not to sue his father for money, or something like that. Something wretched.

He called me, I think, to hear a woman’s voice reassure him on this melancholy train ride. His mother was dead. He wanted platitudes. It’s all going to be okay. You’re their grandson. They’ll do the right thing. But I was also honest at times, because it’s hard not to care for people you get to know. You’re just a kid: this isn’t your problem. Go back to college and forget about it, I told him. Just forget your family. Families aren’t always what they’re supposed to be.

One woman was obsessed with the opera. She was impressed by my ability to recognize even the most basic of arias, like the Queen of Night’s rage aria in The Magic Flute or the one from the third Godfather movie. After playing clips of songs through the phone (I’m not certain if she was looking them up on a computer or actually putting CDs into a stereo) she quizzed me on what opera the music came from. I remember intensely listening, pressing the phone to my ear, because I wanted to be right. Madama Butterfly!

“The other people I talk to on here don’t know,” she told me. “That’s why I call you.”

In the desert, I had no neighbors except for mountain sheep that were all numbered and tagged. They came down the mountains to drink water from the swimming pool and eat cactus flowers.

Being tested on my knowledge of opera was, at that point, stimulating.

That brings me to the two people I talked to everyday. The two that I still think about, the way I think about old friends and not just people I used to know. With a pang of sadness that the relationship is no longer there.

There was a girl around my age at the time, a kind of twin—I became very close to her. She called me big sister, as I was a year older. She had a way of saying I love you that was startling and pure. It was without even the embarrassment between friends. It was love without strings.

She called me often, though it was expensive to do so, and ultimately it made me feel bad to be paid for it. She called me using money she made tutoring other students at her graduate school. Her father was a gambling addict, like mine.

She painted the picture with one memory. Her mother refused to go in the little gambling places and made her go instead; she would wait standing behind her father’s back while he sat at a circular table of men just like him. The smell of smoke, the disgust she felt at the men, the despair she felt at doing something she didn’t want to do; those were the sensations she remembered and described to me.

When I messaged her, I often began by saying, “I hope you’re eating well,” and signed off, “Take care of yourself,” followed by emojis of hearts and girly things. She had an eating disorder that she acknowledged but didn’t view as injurious. It was something she was doing right.

Her dream was to become a pop singer. She sang to me. Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, Adele. The bane of her life was her round, pimply face. No matter how many kilograms she lost, her face remained round. One day she would get surgery to give her a clean “V” jawline.

“They’ll shave it,” she’d say, in her high, quivering voice. A cold, youthful voice, like that of a cloistered nun who woke at dawn and genuflected at night on wooden floors. Her voice didn’t sound like one voice but like that of a whole girl’s choir. It contained champagne flutes, small church bells, blue ribbons whipping in the wind, and stones falling in rivers. One day she sent me a picture of herself that depressed me. Her face didn’t match her voice. She was right. With a face like that, she would never be a pop singer.

She worried that one day I would disappear. She asked me for my email address. I gave it to her. I disappeared. I deleted the app when I moved from the desert and got a “real job.” I sent her an email but she never responded.

The other person I miss is a man called Lei. He went to business school in London, and when I looked up his name, I saw something akin to a class picture. He and a few classmates on a celebratory day, his arms around the backs of friends, his name Lei Qi printed below for posterity.

In the picture, he was twenty-five or so, and he looked so happy and well-dressed, like he shopped at ancient London stores older than America and got everything tailored. I found him very attractive.

“In London, they called me Mr. Q,” he said, “and I loved that.”

At first, I thought he lived in the mountains in the North, near Russia. I had heard a rumor of blue people—people with blue colored skin—near the border where he lived, but it turned out that the Chinese merely looked white.

I imagined him as a kind of country prince who lived in green valleys beneath snowy mountains.

A few months in, though, I learned that he was from Harbin but lived there no longer. He lived in Shanghai. It was somehow harder to imagine him in the rich city. I also never reconciled the fact that the business school picture was over ten years old. The internet can have a kind of flattening effect. Ten years ago? What was the difference? But he was already thirty-seven when I met him.

It was towards the end of us talking when I learned that his mother lived with him. He moved her out from Harbin when she got sick. There was no sense of him waiting for her to die, or grievance at having to take care of her; when I asked, he spoke of it only with grace. I don’t think he would have told me about her had I not heard the gentlest female voice pose a question on the other side. He responded in a tone that could only mean, Not right now, mom.

There was a long time I waited for his calls. That’s how the app worked. I went online and a small green dot appeared next to my name. I waited and they called. Lei called me at the same time every evening. He called me while drinking tea.

He had a beautiful voice and beautiful accent. He sounded like a British fountain, the kind you might see in a Sargent watercolor. I want to say I fell in love with his voice. But I don’t know if I’m doing justice to what I felt. It was a haunting voice. Neither male nor female, only otherworldly. It had a calming effect on me. His voice transported me to a different time, of British imperialism and oolong, violets and Chopin. Steamy nights and cricket.

He made references to my coming to Shanghai or his coming to California. He spoke of it casually, as one speaks of something inevitable, like, everyone dies. He spoke without conviction or even strong yearning. Like there was all the time in the world. He was so certain about our meeting without any accompanying urgency, that I began to think he was speaking of meeting in the next life, when we wouldn’t be separated by country and fate.

We would go by riverboat, eat dumplings and noodles, and rest in pavilions that were fanned by curves in the mountains.

We would stay in a river shanty that poked up from the river on thin sticks like chopsticks. The wind coming through the papery bamboo would have a thin sound, like a flute. We would lay on straw mats, waiting for the boats selling cake to ring their bells.

He would show me the real China. He would lift the veil.

The only time there was strain in our conversation was when we talked about his family. Then his beautiful accent might crack and reveal a Chinese cadence, and it was so harsh and jarring a break that it was as if he dropped a glass that shattered at our feet. It hurt me when he lost composure like that. I had to guide us towards other topics, like his beloved idioms, and then he would sound beautiful again.

“Tell me the different styles one more time.”

“Gothic. Punk. Preppy. Victorian. Athleisure—”

When I told him things like this, he wrote them down in a notebook he used to record such information.

Sometimes we talked for one hour, sometimes four. Many nights I fell asleep with his voice in my ear. He, and my little “sister,” must have forked over close to fifteen thousand dollars, enough for me to live on in the desert. The app took a cut of the money.

Right before we stopped talking, Lei called me, sounding blue.

“Do you really think we’ll meet in real life one day?”

By then I had seen updated pictures of him, the thirty-seven-year old version of him, and I didn’t feel like lying. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.

Soon after that, he sent me a message that said he had found a new person to talk to on the app, a lady called Deborah, whose rate was a lot cheaper than mine. She was a kindergarten teacher “to boot” and though I “meant a lot to him” he hoped that I could understand.

I searched through his friends on the app and found her. Deborah was cheaper than me; her rate was closer to ten an hour; she lived in Minnesota. I wondered what Lei thought of her accent, if she had one. I wondered what they talked about.

The app we used can’t be downloaded anymore. It’s vanished recently—or maybe not so recently—I don’t know. When I tried to find it, it was as if it had never existed at all.

I tried, yesterday, because I was looking for a good, vintage mirror, the heavy, gilded kind with ornate swirls and flowers or birds, or a plastic one from the 80s that looked modern, when I thought I saw Lei at the flea market on Melrose. He was bending down, examining a cabinet with two swinging doors. I watched him from a distance, behind a rack of vintage basketball jerseys. He opened the cabinet doors, which were mirrored inside. There was something about the way he shut the doors again—with supreme gentleness—that made me take a few steps towards him.

I saw his face reflected in the mirror as he shut it.

“Lei! Mr. Q!”

I chopped my way through the crowd as people turned to look at me.

“Lei! Lei!”

But he had started walking away, weaving into the stream of shoppers. The stall keeper—a nice man with rounded tortoiseshell glasses and soft grey hair—smoothed his hand over the top of the cabinet, and opened the doors to show me inside.

“It’s old,” he told me, “probably made for foreign tourists to bring back from China. 1940s, I’d imagine.”

As one door swung back and forth I felt myself trembling. People gently nudged around me and I felt a little sick, seasick even. I left the flea market and stood on the street, beneath a swaying palm, rooted to my phone, trying to find the app that doesn’t exist. If only I could message him—had he come on business? Or was he home in Shanghai, drinking tea? How was his mother doing? I cared all of a sudden, I really cared. And there was no way for him to know.

Christine Kwon is the author of A Ribbon the Most Perfect Blue (Southeast Missouri State University Press), which won the Cowles Poetry Book Prize and debuts in March 2023. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland Magazine, Louisiana Literature, X-R-A-Y, and Cheap Pop. She lives in New Orleans, where she serves as literary editor of Tilted House. Find her work on or follow her on Instagram @theschooloflonging.