THE BASICS OF FLIGHT
By Joyce Chng
Balance Of The World: An Interlude
The balance of the world was not just the balance of an antiquated globe left behind by history. It was not a fixed world, with arcane words and ancient creatures with “There Be Dragons” marked on perceived dangerous areas. It was always shifting, like the shifting clouds and currents. Continents were shifting boundaries with the Powers making conquests everywhere. In the Far East. In the Indies. In the Spice Islands.
If the antiquated globe spun like a child’s top, it would not change the world’s continents and countries. Nor its diverse politics.
Especially the politics, the Asian man contemplated thoughtfully as he placed his hand on the old globe, starring at the lovingly crafted words “Middle Kingdom”, feeling a pang in his heart. He had not been home for many years, having considered himself a political migrant and left Shanghai for all its worth.
And the Qing emperor is laying claims in the Indies, he mused quietly. Not a gutless man, this Qing emperor, and definitely not under the Dowager’s thumb. The winds might change with this man.
He strode over to his worktable, currently piled under by stacks of registration forms, blueprints and flight schedules. He felt his age today. He was only fifty and yet he felt a hundred. It must be the students, he thought with wry humor. Seeing the youths in their classes and at the Flying Field reminded him of his own exuberant and often reckless youth.
If I would have studied hard for the Imperial Examinations, he chuckled to himself, sorting out the paperwork. He had a lecture in about an hour’s time – he had the clock to remind him. I would have been made a magistrate. But then again, I would be stuck behind some musty desk, with fawning cronies and corruption in the civil service.
His mother would be proud if he was made a magistrate or even a governor of a province. She would forgive him then, for the troubles he had caused her when he was a child. He liked to experiment with gunpowder, gleaned from the firecrackers used for the festivals. She probably had not forgiven him for the flying gunpowder ship.
Old Liu was particularly angry, he recalled the old retainer’s face, reddened from furious shouting and half-blackened with soot from the gunpowder ship which exploded mid-air, right in the middle of the family courtyard, much to everyone’s consternation and horror. Old Liu looked just like Kwan Kong, the red-and-black faced god of justice.
His sisters hated the smoke and tried to fan it away, more concerned for their silk garments. His father was not impressed. His mother appeared as if she was about to faint. The servants gaped and some hid their laughter. The main body of the ship, modeled after a Chinese junk, broke apart, mid-flight, and fell onto the main dish, a roasted pig procured by Old Liu. It was a Yuan Xiao dinner with invited guests and a slew of festivities to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year period to follow soon after. Of course, he had to go spoil it all. After the festivities, he was scolded and caned by his father.
He was ten and already bored of the world.
Of course, Old Liu was probably dead by now. It had been years. For him, he had cut off his queue of hair, mark of a Qing man, and left for England, vowing never to return.
There was a discrete knock on the door. He knew that knock and smiled. Before long, the door creaked open and Captain Sagan walked in, proud like a red-haired lioness.
“You will be late for your lecture,” she said without preamble. Such a woman and such a character. She was attired in her characteristic shirt and riding breeches. The suffragists loved her. Her Majesty, the Queen herself, had heard of her exploits too.
“I know, I know,” he said and fetched his notes from the table. He would organize it later. Oh, time was of the essence and he knew it all too well.
Ah, the balance of the world, his world, was right at the moment. London was the center of commerce and invention, both fueling each other, much like his friendship with Captain Sagan. His mother would be shocked. A friendship with a foreign woman, a “red-haired devil”? It would have offended her delicate sensibilities. But she was Shanghainese, born into a world of privilege. Her world was a world of lazy mahjong sessions and serene embroidery, sheltered from the real Shanghai, itself attracting people of all races and sorts.
We exist in many worlds, he thought as he exited his room with Captain Sagan beside him and strode purposefully to the auditorium. It is how we balance the worlds. But the winds of the world are fickle.