The Needle Eye Bridge

A middle-aged man holds up a sign with Julia’s Chinese name at the Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport.

A middle-aged man holds up a sign with Julia’s Chinese name at the Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport. He’s short, about Julia’s height, and his hair is buzzed to the point of being colorless. His name is Xiao Jiang, he tells her in Mandarin, and he’s the driver Dad hired to pick her up. 

“Your father is very happy to see you,” Xiao Jiang says in the SUV. His eyes curve with his smile in the rearview mirror. A Hello Kitty air freshener clipped to the vent emits a sweet, citrusy scent. Maybe it’s his wife’s, or daughter’s. “You’ve become a fine young woman, he said.”

“Where is he, then?” Julia asks. Maybe she’s being rude, but after a fourteen-hour flight, all she can think about is how much her tailbone aches and where she can score some water to wash down the salty cup of ramen she ate on the flight. And why Dad, whom she hasn’t seen since she was in kindergarten, didn’t pick her up himself.

“He’s busy, but you’ll see him at the funeral.” Xiao Jiang hands her a bottle of water, and she can see in a flash why Dad hired him: He’s proactive, helpful. But he smiles a little too much for someone who just met her, which puts her on edge. Maybe it’s just part of his job.

Chongqing has changed a lot since Julia was little. They drive past billboards advertising the latest Huawei phone and luxury electric car. Skyscrapers line the streets and people walk around with Beats by Dre headphones and monogramed designer purses. Foam takeout containers overflow from a garbage can at a major intersection. Julia wonders if they came from Dad’s factories. 

Dad’s building is one of a dozen that surrounds a large courtyard. They take the elevator to the top floor. The penthouse is gaudy as hell: the furniture looks teleported from an eighteenth-century European palace, the velvet window curtains are an ugly shade of gold, and a giant crystal chandelier looms over the living room.  

“There’s baozi in the fridge and a grocery store downstairs, if you feel like cooking.” Xiao Jiang takes out his phone. “Do you have money? I can transfer you some—”

Julia waves a wad of red hundred-yuan bills. “I’ve got cash.”

He smiles like she just told him a joke. He tells her he’ll pick her up tomorrow morning and leaves.

Julia explores the penthouse. A thin film of dust covers everything. The walls are bare—no photos of friends or family anywhere. Julia goes to the terrace on the top floor. The sky is a solid shade of purple. She walks past wooden crates with empty beer bottles inside and leans against the railing. A cable-stayed bridge with towers that look like the eyes of needles glows in the distance, a crazy-looking structure that wasn’t there before. Rush hour traffic stirs below, people honking and screeching to get back to their families. Meanwhile, the penthouse is as quiet as a tomb.

Julia feels homesick already. She installs her SIM card and texts Mom to let her know she has landed. Then she goes to the fridge and pulls out the plastic bag of baozi. The baozi will probably taste better if she microwaves them, but her body works on auto-pilot when she’s struck by the urgent need to eat. She eats one, then another, like she’s eating leftovers alone in her Vancouver apartment after school, Mom away at another late shift, nothing to distract her from the dull ache of being alone except food. It’s only when she swallows the last stale mouthful that her numbness is replaced by regret.

The funeral officiant speaks Sichuanese, so Julia understands nothing. She focuses instead on the slideshow showing Grandma from different timelines: as a young girl with braids and a toothy grin, as a schoolteacher in a grey tunic, and then as the old woman with the purple tuque and soft eyes that Julia remembers from the few months she lived with Grandma. The real Grandma lies in the casket below, surrounded by chrysanthemums, her skin waxy and grey. Julia tries to cry, but can’t. 

“Welcome back,” Dad says when Julia joins him after the service. His hair, gelled back like she remembers, is now streaked with grey. He lights a cigarette and scans Julia up and down in a way that makes her suck in her stomach. “How’s your mother? She okay?”

“She’s okay, yeah,” Julia says, already dreading how superficial this conversation is becoming. Their sparse phone calls over the years always started off with similar questions that dissolved into monosyllabic replies. She doesn’t want their in-person interactions to be the same. “What’s your schedule like? Want to check out the city with me today or tomorrow?”

“I’m in Ningbo these days, we have a new manufacturing plant there. I just came for the funeral.”

“Oh.” Julia’s stomach drops at the thought that she’ll be staying in Chongqing alone. You barely know your father’s family, you don’t owe them anything, Mom had said on the drive to the airport. Don’t expect them to welcome you into their lives. But Julia still wanted to go. Wanted to see if she could recover something that was lost after her parents’ divorce.

“How long are you staying?” Dad asks.

“Three days. Fall semester starts next week, so I have to get ready—”

“Great, I’ll get Xiao Jiang to take you places.” Dad flicks his cigarette stub to the ground and turns to talk to other people.

I’m here, Julia wants to scream at his retreating back. I’m here, can’t you see that?

“Leave him be.” Xiao Jiang materializes from behind her. “Everyone deals with grief differently.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come here.” Julia checks her phone. No missed calls from Mom, which makes her feel stranded. She should be preparing for her fall courses instead of watching Dad turn into a shadow moving further and further away.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have,” Xiao Jiang says, though not unkindly. “If you think you should or shouldn’t, it’s all true. It’s up to you.”

They watch Dad get in a black car with some people. “Where’re they going?” Julia asks.

“The crematorium. Want to go? Your father said you might get scared, so—”

“Let’s go.” Julia marches toward his SUV. She glances back to make sure he’s following. He is, and even beams her a smile that looks kind of proud.

Grandma’s hip bones are so white they look bleached. That’s all that’s left of her after they slide her back out of the furnace, and Dad, Julia’s uncles, and her cousins take turns clamping pieces of Grandma into the urn. The whole scene passes by in a surreal blur, Julia’s mind unable to connect the woman who picked her up from kindergarten with the ashes on the tray.

She’s still in a daze at dinner and doesn’t realize she was spoken to until someone nudges her.

“I asked why you don’t carry a designer purse,” says her cousin, a thirty-something man in a white dress shirt. They’re in a private room at an upscale restaurant. The round glass table rotates with dishes: braised carp, tofu fried with mushrooms, noodles in spicy soup and an assortment of leafy greens and sliced meats for the bubbling hotpot. Dad and Julia’s uncles take turns pouring each other baijiu and toasting Grandma.

“I’m fine with what I have,” Julia says with a quick glance at her tote bag, which hangs off the glossy back of her chair by frayed straps.

“Designer is best.” The cousin pushes up his sleeve and flashes his Rolex, which is encrusted with gemstones and looks like it was designed by whoever decorated Dad’s penthouse. “You should shop at Jiefangbei Square. All the best brands are here—Chanel, Gucci, LV, you name it. America isn’t the only one with the big names.”

“Canada,” Julia says.


“I’m from Canada.”

He blinks like he doesn’t know the difference.

The sky is dark purple when they come out. Xiao Jiang waits by the sidewalk. He’s eating oily noodles with loops of green onion in a foam cup. Something about the scene feels wrong.  

“Why didn’t you eat with us?” Julia asks.

“Oh, I’m fine.” He raises the cup. “Plenty to eat right here.”

“How late do you work? Isn’t your family waiting for you?”

Xiao Jiang looks away. The skyscrapers across the street blow up with ads: one about diamond engagement rings, another featuring a cartoon cat singing karaoke. Julia waits, but Xiao Jiang doesn’t answer and continues to slurp his noodles.

“Chongqing looks so different now,” Julia says, just to break the awkward silence. 

“Things changed a lot in the ’90s, and then after the Sichuan earthquake.” Shadows gather under Xiao Jiang’s eyes as he turns to her. Julia wonders if this is his real face—serious, kind of sad. Then he smiles and the expression disappears. “That’s what the Chinese are good at: unity and hard work, especially during times of adversity. Everything around us exists because of that.”

Someone claps Julia on the back. “I’m surprised you can eat spicy food!” Dad’s breath is sour with alcohol and his cheeks are red. Somehow that makes him seem more human. “Your mother kept the culture alive in you, huh?”

“Can I go to Ningbo with you?” Julia blurts.

Dad freezes with a cigarette halfway to his lips. “You haven’t been back in a long time and now you want to go to Ningbo? Well, if you want. You can stay a few weeks, visit the new factory, see how manufacturing works in China.”

“I can’t stay that long, school starts next week, remember?”

“You’ll just miss a week or two of school, no big deal. It’s not worth your time to just stay for a few days.” Dad heads toward a black car that honks at them. “Think about it, okay? I have to leave tonight, but I can buy you a new plane ticket when you want to join me.”

The offer should make Julia happy, but a knot forms in her stomach back in the SUV. Maybe she was being a nuisance, wanting to tag along to Ningbo. Maybe Dad only offered to be nice. He didn’t even introduce her at dinner. A cousin had to ask who she was—that was embarrassing.

“Want to check out Chongqing at night?” Xiao Jiang asks as they drive past the bridge with the needle eye towers. Neon-lit cruise ships cut across the black water beneath it, leaving rainbow smears. “I know a grass jelly stall not far from that bridge. Ever try it? It’s my daughter’s favourite snack.”

“It’s okay, I just want to sleep.”

They drive back to the penthouse in silence. Julia leans her head against the window and watches a glassy shopping mall blur past. She wonders what makes Xiao Jiang bring up his daughter in casual conversation while her own father seems to avoid talking about her at all. 

Xiao Jiang parks outside the building’s main gates. Julia gets out and hands him two red hundred-dollar bills as a tip. It’s probably too much, but it’s not like she’ll use the money anyway—and Xiao Jiang deserves it. He’s the nicest person she has met on this whole trip.

Xiao Jiang pushes the bills away. “Don’t worry about it. It’s a pleasure to help your father.”

A pleasure to help your father. Julia thinks about this as she searches the kitchen for more food. She ate enough at dinner, but the emptiness of the penthouse, with its dark rooms and long shadows, fill her with an immense pressure that can only be relieved by food. She finds instant noodles in the cupboard and eats two packs dry before she feels them—and dinner—threaten to come back up. Then she crawls into bed, feeling simultaneously bloated and empty, and falls asleep to the thought that Xiao Jiang is too good to be working for someone like Dad.

If only she had gone back to Chongqing sooner. She could have seen how the megacity changed, developed, transformed. Became modern, international, influential.

She could have visited Grandma and learned Grandma’s version of their family history instead of relying on the little that Mom had told her. Grandma would lay out the whos and whats, the whys and hows. She would detail the events leading up to the divorce and tell Julia who to blame and who to forgive—unlike Mom, who only huffed and accused Dad of being a “womanizing bastard” and refused to explain more, presumably to save face. The next morning, Julia wakes up feeling heavy with all that she doesn’t know and checks her phone. No texts from Dad, who must be in Ningbo by now. Mom left her a voice message—something about working overtime at the hospital and missing Julia’s calls. She’ll try to call Julia tomorrow morning, local time.

Julia goes to the bay window and parts the gold curtains. The neighbouring buildings are bright with early sunlight. Old women stroll around the courtyard and mothers lead a line of schoolchildren out of the main gates. The schoolchildren wear identical red scarves and hold hands as they cross the street. Everyone is connected to everyone else, and Julia’s been away for far too long to fit back in. When the old women circle the courtyard a second time, Julia thinks of Grandma. If Grandma was here, would she invite Julia into her home? Allow Julia to mope around indoors? Or would she take her to a park like she used to after she picked Julia up from kindergarten? Encourage Julia to make the most of being back in Chongqing?

Julia takes a few minutes to decide. Then she calls Xiao Jiang. “Hey, are you free? It’s my second-last day. Let’s go everywhere.” 

They go everywhere. To a park with lotus flowers and pagodas, then an ancient street selling porcelain handicrafts and candies made of melted sugar. They watch a Sichuan face-changing opera show and get cold noodles topped with minced pork for lunch, taking turns sitting in front of a creaky fan at the food stall to cool off. Then it’s off to Jiefangbei Square, where Xiao Jiang insists on taking Julia for back-to-school shopping.

The mall is huge—she can barely see the ceiling. Julia presses her face against the glass of the crowded elevator and watches international brands—Nike, Zara, H&M—slide down as they go up. Her cousin wasn’t bluffing: every brand under the sun is here. In a Uniqlo, Julia picks out some T-shirts and goes to the checkout counter, but Xiao Jiang quickly pays for everything with a scan of his phone. No one carries cash anymore, he explains. That’s why he laughed when she flashed her wad of bills earlier. She’s clearly not from around here.

They get Peking duck at a restaurant in the mall for dinner. Xiao Jiang teaches her how to dip a slice of roast duck into hoisin sauce and roll it up with sliced cucumber in a little pancake. They order a lot and eat a lot, but the pace is slow and comfortable. Xiao Jiang doesn’t narrow his eyes and shake his head when Julia asks for extra pancakes, like Mom would’ve done if she thought Julia was overeating. He chides her for wrapping a duck wrap without the hoisin sauce—“You’re missing the full experience!” he says—but ultimately lets her eat however she wants. It’s an odd feeling, eating without being instructed or the need to stuff down some unbearable emotion. She forgot how nice the experience can be.

“Even though this was delicious, home-cooked meals are still the best,” Xiao Jiang says as he picks up the bill. “There’s nothing better than dishes made with loved ones.”

At night, they drive to the cable-stayed bridge and park in a car lot littered with foam cups. The needle eye towers look ghostly in the dark, and the bridge’s double deck hums with the traffic moving across the river. The bridge is one of a pair that connects two rivers and several districts, Xiao Jiang explains. It opened a year ago and represents the new and modern Chongqing.

The night air is warm and smells like algae and wet grass. Julia wishes she had a specific memory associated with the smell ...

“In the old days, you had to travel for a long time to get together with family.” Xiao Jiang hands her a cup of grass jelly from the stall. “Now you can quickly meet up even if you choose to live apart. You get to decide how long you’ll stay and when you’ll leave. It’s a whole new world, and you’re in charge.”

The night air is warm and smells like algae and wet grass. Julia wishes she had a specific memory associated with the smell—a family trip, a vacation, anything. For now, she takes a deep breath and commits the present moment to memory: leaning against the SUV, listening to Xiao Jiang fill in the gaps of knowledge about her hometown, the grass jelly sweet and bitter on her tongue.

“You did a good thing by coming here,” Xiao Jiang says on the drive home. “Your grandmother was lonely in her later years. She always said her sons and grandsons worked too much, cared more about business than family. And her only granddaughter was in Canada. She would’ve been happy to know you’re back.”

Julia swallows. She doesn’t know what to say except, “Thanks.”

Xiao Jiang turns up the AC. The Hello Kitty air freshener blasts a fresh round of citrus.

Julia asks, “Is that your daughter’s?”

“Yes. She loves Hello Kitty.”

“Why didn’t she join us today? I thought she likes grass jelly.”

Xiao Jiang smiles. Looking back, Julia will come to realize that his constant smiling is more of a nervous reaction, or a defense mechanism, than anything else. “She’s at a boarding school, in another country.”

“Oh.” Julia waits, but Xiao Jiang doesn’t elaborate.

They plunge into a tunnel. In the darkness, Xiao Jiang’s profile disappears.

Mom calls Julia the next morning. Julia tells her about the funeral, and Mom tells Julia about the birthday party the nurses threw for their oldest in-patient, a woman who turned ninety-five. The woman’s entire family came to celebrate, some even flying in from Poland.

“It made me remember your grandma,” Mom says, her voice getting wobbly, “and how she wasn’t always so cold to me. Remember when she took care of you for a few months? I was overwhelmed with getting us set up in Canada, and your father was busy starting his company, or with whatever else he thought was more important. If your grandma hadn’t offered to look after you, I would’ve had to send you to your aunt in the countryside.”

They chat some more: about the weather (“Yes, Chongqing is a literal hotpot in the summer,” Julia says), whether Julia’s eating well (“Avoid the fried stuff, I’ve seen the back of your thighs, there shouldn’t be horizontal lines like that,” Mom says), and other topics that aren’t  Dad. Then Mom asks if any of her cousins took Julia around, and Julia mentions Xiao Jiang.

“Oh, him,” Mom says. Her tone suggests that she knows Xiao Jiang, which makes Julia sit up straighter. “He’s our old classmate from Sichuan. I heard he was working at your father’s company. Guess he’s still there.”

“He took me everywhere,” Julia says. She thinks of her cousins, who couldn’t even spare an hour to meet up for lunch before she left. “I’m surprised he has so much free time. I wonder if he’s just on call until Dad needs him.”

Mom is silent for a while. Then she says, “The only good thing your father did, aside from making you, was giving Xiao Jiang a job after the earthquake. It gave him a reason to keep going, at least.”

“What do you mean?”

“His family used to live near that county, you know. The one with the poorly constructed schools.”

The implication hangs heavy in the air.

Mom must’ve sensed Julia’s unease, because she quickly says, “Next time, I’ll go to Chongqing with you. We’ll visit your father and then go to Chengdu to see your aunt and the giant pandas, how about that?”

After they hang up, Julia lies on the living room floor and watches dust float around the sunlit chandelier. The crystals blur, then smear into a bright haze. She lies there for a long time, tasting the salt of her tears and feeling them roll into her ears, before putting on her clothes and heading down to the grocery store.

Xiao Jiang comes over at a quarter to six. It’s too early for dinner, but Julia doesn’t know how to cook half of the ingredients she picked up from the store, so Xiao Jiang teaches her how to peel the long green beans and fry eggplant with vinegar and garlic so that it’ll taste just like fish. Julia learns how to angle the cleaver so that it slices through ginger more efficiently, and soon they get a conveyer belt operation going, chopping this and frying that, the apartment blooming with the scent of frying herbs and spices.    

An hour and a half later, the dishes are done: chicken stir-fried with peanuts and chili peppers, tofu cooked with peppercorns in a spicy bean sauce, fish-flavoured eggplants and minced pork dry-fried with ginger and long green beans. 

They take the dishes up to the terrace and drag along some living room chairs, too. The  European upholstery looks hilariously out of place beside the stacked wooden crates they use as a makeshift table, but it also kind of summarizes Julia’s whole trip—a mishmash of different timelines and cultures.  

Xiao Jiang pours them shots of baijiu. “Will you go to Ningbo?” he asks.

Julia shakes her head. “I don’t have to do everything all at once.” No need to fix everything all at once, either—the sides of Dad she doesn’t yet know, her relatives who don’t remember who she is, her grief about Grandma, which is just starting to make her lips tremble. Everything will still be here when she comes back.

The burning liquid scorches down Julia’s throat and makes her eyes water, but it also makes her feel alive, more connected to the city around her.

Xiao Jiang smiles at her—another smile that looks kind of proud—and clinks her glass. They drink at the same time. The burning liquid scorches down Julia’s throat and makes her eyes water, but it also makes her feel alive, more connected to the city around her.

Julia glances at the needle eye bridge in the distance, which glows in the purple darkness like something out of a science fiction movie. A whole new world indeed. Chongqing is a foreign place to her now, but maybe it’s possible to appreciate it even though she no longer belongs here. She can experience it as a cruise ship passing in the night, travelling at her own pace, learning as she goes. For now, she puts some stir-fried chicken into Xiao Jiang’s rice bowl and enjoys the moment.