Sisters of Shanghai

Chapter One

I glanced at my watch for what seemed to be the hundredth time. Eight hours down and still five more hours to go. Once again I was questioning my decision to come on this trip. After all, I could have stayed at home instead of being cramped and cold in this airplane seat.

Dad noticed me squirming and put his arm around my shoulders. "It's hard for us too, Autumn. They've shown two movies so far, and neither of them were really worth watching. Why don't you take a little nap? China is still a long way off."

I propped my pillow up against Dad's shoulder and wrapped the blanket around my body. My head was busy with too many thoughts: returning to Shanghai, visiting the orphanage, meeting my new sister, and looking for the Emperor's treasure chest in the Shanghai museum. Any one of these would prevent most people from sleeping. Having all of them swirling around in my brain was making it too difficult to even relax. I forced a yawn to try to calm my mind. I went over the last minute advice I had received from my friends Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Chandler. Adam and I had dropped by Mrs. Chandler's house two nights ago for a quick visit.

* * *

"All packed?" Mrs. Chandler asked.

"Almost. It's been a real challenge to fit everything into one suitcase."

"Why only one?" asked Adam. "I thought you were allowed two suitcases."

"Mom and Dad said it made travelling around China much easier if we each took only one bag. Dad has a big backpack full of food, pull-ups, clothes, and other necessities for Lucie. Mom has gifts for the orphanage and its staff. I'm limited to bringing only the bare essentials."

"You should leave the pull-ups behind," commented Mrs. Lee.

"Why? I remember wearing them until I was five!" laughed Adam.

Mrs. Lee winked at me. "A four-year-old in China will already be potty trained. She will be used to wearing split pants in the orphanage. You don't need to bring anything special for her."

"I'll tell my parents when I get home," I said. "Anything else I should know?"

"Well, now that you've asked me... your Mandarin, good as it is, may not always help you in Shanghai. You'll find that many people still only speak the Shanghai dialect. Don't be surprised if they give you a blank stare. I can quickly teach you some common phrases, if you like."

Mrs. Chandler changed the subject before Mrs. Lee got the chance to tell me more.

"I have something I need to get off my chest. What are you bringing to protect yourself?" Mrs. Chandler asked.

I laughed at that. "I wasn't planning on bringing anything. I'm going to China to bring home a new sister, I don't plan on having to fight anyone."

Mrs. Chandler wagged her index finger at me. "Haven't you been listening to our personal safety lessons? You must always be prepared. You're taking your pendant with you, right?"

"Well, yeah. I'm hoping we can find the treasure chest in the Shanghai Museum."

"Gangsters stole your pendant once before. If you give them a chance, they might try to steal it again," said Mrs. Chandler. "There's still that mysterious China connection that we talked about. Don't you agree, Mrs. Lee?"

"Yes, yes, Autumn. You must always be prepared... unless you want to leave your pendant with me for safe keeping."

"Thanks, but Iím hoping Iíll get a chance to use the pendant once weíre in Shanghai."

Mrs. Lee looked disappointed. "What about taking your walking stick?"

"I had thought about bringing my walking stick, but it's too long. I did pack a large felt marker to use as a yawara and I've attached a climbing carabiner to my day pack." Earlier in the summer, during a trip to Maine Island, a felt marker had saved my life. I had used the marker to successfully defend myself and disarm a bad guy who had a knife. I'd also read that a carabiner could be used like a set of brass knuckles, but the police and customs people hardly ever confiscated them as weapons.

As we were getting ready to leave, Mrs. Lee reached inside her jacket and pulled out a small envelope. "I've taken the liberty of writing a letter of introduction for you," she said. "Just in case you ever need help. He's an old friend of mine who still lives in Shanghai."

"Master Sun," I read out loud. I turned the envelope over and back. "But there's no address! How will I find him?"

"Every morning from six until nine, you will find Master Sun teaching bagua in the southeast corner of the Shanghai People's Park. It's where the old racetrack used to be."

"Bagua," said Adam, "what's that?"

Mrs. Lee rolled her eyes at Adam. "Along with Tai Chi, and a whole host of Kung Fu styles, it's one of the major martial art systems in China. Beginners do a lot of circle walking ó that's how you'll find Master Sun. He and his students will be walking in circles around the trees in the park."

Mrs. Lee stood up and began walking in a strange sliding motion around the table. "This is called mud stepping."

She swiftly changed direction and was suddenly behind Adam with a malicious grin on her face.

Adam ducked down in his chair, instinctively throwing up his arms to protect himself.

"Relax, Adam," Mrs. Chandler clucked. "Youíre among friends! Mrs. Lee wouldnít hurt you."

"Easy for you to say," he croaked. "Iím the one with a trained killer waiting to pounce on me."

We chatted about nothing in particular for a few more minutes and then it was time to go. Mrs. Chandler gave me a heartfelt hug; Mrs. Lee patted my arm and said, "Get going before I make a scene."

"Rats!" I said, once we were back on the street. "Mrs. Lee never gave me the language lesson she talked about."

Watson was waiting by the front gate.

"He knows, doesn't he," observed Adam.

"Yeah, big time. He's been following me around the house like a second shadow. Are your parents still okay with having Watson stay at your place?"

Adam smiled, "Oops, do you mean I was supposed to ask them? I thought I would just sneak him up to my room while you were gone!"

Under normal circumstances that would have deserved a serious punch in the arm. I just smiled back sweetly, "I know he's in good hands. The two of you can keep each other out of trouble."

Adam surprised me as we were leaving for the airport. He pulled us away from our parents and awkwardly put out his arms to give me a hug. "I'm going to miss you, " he managed to whisper.

"Oh, Adam, you goof. It's only for ten days."

"Yeah, well, but this is your first adventure without me around to help you. What will you do if you get into trouble?"

"Relax! I'll be with my parents the whole time."

Adam's face had fallen. I could see he wanted more of a reaction from me.

I gave him a hug followed by a quick peck on the cheek. "I'm sorry Adam, I really appreciate that you care, but I'll be fine. What could possibly go wrong?"

* * *

Sleep was certainly one thing that was not going to happen. Especially now that Dad was snoring softly beside me. He could sleep through anything! Mom was sketching clothing designs in a notebook.

A tall grey-haired woman, who I think was with our travel group, stopped beside Mom to admire her work. I still hadn't formally met anyone from our group. There had been a get-together before we left, but I was too busy with homework that night to go along with Mom and Dad.

I brought down the seat back tray and opened my diary to a fresh page.

Dear Ghostmother,

Well, here I am, on my way back to Shanghai. It's pretty weird, thinking about you. What if we bumped into each other on the street? Would there be a spark? Would we somehow recognize each other? Or would we both mumble duibuqi, 'excuse me', and walk on by? The closer we get to China, the more nervous I feel. I'm not sure if I even want to visit the orphanage. I don't remember any of my life there. I'm worried that seeing my crib or hearing the orphanage sounds may bring back memories that should be best forgotten.

Part of me wants to hate China because it forces too many parents to abandon their children. But I can't hate a country. A country is politicians and their rules that get forced on people. Did you have a choice? My brain says no, but my heart still wonders. I know I've been on edge leading up to this trip. My parents have taken the worst of my bad feelings and loved me back even more.

I looked at my watch again. We still had four more hours to go...

Tomorrow we travel to the orphanage. After all the waiting, it feels like it's happening too fast. Do you still love me?

Thinking of you, your White Tiger.

I yawned again and closed my eyes. This time I did fall asleep.

"Autumn, wake up." It was Dad. "We're on our descent into Shanghai."

"Have a good nap?" asked Mom.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. "It wasn't long enough. This flight has been one big nightmare. I can't imagine doing it all over again in just ten days."

"It's easier on the way back."

I frowned.

"No, really! You'll have Lucie to play with and the time will pass quickly."

"If you say so..."

The flight attendant's voice came on in Mandarin. She spoke too fast for me to understand everything she was saying. She then repeated the message in English. "We'll be landing in Shanghai in twenty minutes. Please stow any loose luggage under the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment. Trays and seats should be in the upright position. Please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened. The flight attendants will now come through the cabin to collect headphones and blankets."

The airplane was rapidly descending. We dropped through the clouds and I could see the city spread out below.

"Oooh, it's beautiful," I cried out. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower stood out like a giant beacon.

The airplane banked one last time and before we knew it, the wheels were on the ground.

Mom reached over, squeezed my hand and with tears in her eyes said: "Nu er zhe shi ni de gen, daughter this is your root. Welcome back to Shanghai, Autumn!"

I was at a loss for words. I squeezed her back and just smiled.