Rosanna Staffa


Rosanna Staffa is an Italian writer living in Minneapolis. She recently received her MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. Her Flash Fiction “The Call” will be published by Spry Literary Journal. Her plays have been seen on stage in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis. She is the recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT/T On Stage Grant. She is an Affiliated Writer at The Playwrights’ Center.

The Ghost of Chendu

The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.

—Chairman Mao Tze Tung

In a dream she took off her shoes and crossed the river at Wushi, her arms high above her head in surrender. She waded among tug boats loaded with piles of wood and bamboo. Men brushed their teeth in enamel bowls, crouching on the shore. They looked up at her crossing the river. She prayed to the golden Buddha of Souzhou with the many arms that break through the glass case to reach for the sky and the depth of the ocean. She chanted holding her arms high until the water filled her mouth.


6:30am. The loudspeaker went off in the dorm of the Zhejiang College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. News in Mandarin and French piano music. Same song every day; none of the Chinese students knew the title. From her window Nicoletta saw that she had missed the morning Tai Chi Chuan again. The students were undulating in sync Part the Wild Horse’s Mane. There was something humorous in the militaristic precision.

She stood staring down at the courtyard filled with young men in dark blue, lit a cigarette (Double Happiness) and thought about Cuban espresso at El Tropical on Sunset Boulevard until she heard the gentle clang of the thermos being set in front of her door. When she unscrewed the top it looked like an ancestral animal was lurking at the bottom of the foam. She poured the sanitized water in her cup, stirred in a few spoonfuls of the very expensive Nescafe and powdered cream so old as to be venerable. After a few sips of coffee she shuffled down the hall to the Women’s Bathroom, a concrete rectangle with a sink the length of the room, one single faucet at the end. The toilet was along the opposite wall, a tiled path filled with water, divided by wood partitions. It could fit six in a row, squatting with their feet on the raised edges. She brushed her teeth, careful not to swallow water. Mexican students did, in Xian. We can, gringa, no problem. They hallucinated through the streets and their skin turned the color of marigolds.

In her college years she had longed for China, some kind of holy land. Thinking of it had made her brazen. As a student in Milan she had painted slogans of Mao Tze Tung on the walls of Milan in the night drizzle. At Statale University she had known the savagery of police beatings and the thrill of her first love story. They had remained connected to China in her mind.

There was no mirror in the bathroom. She brushed her hair methodically, resigned as if blind for a long time. Everything seemed wretched. Her desire to come here, idiotic.

She had heard on the radio that there would be heavy fog soon; the winter of 1988 was expected to be the worst. In Milan, where she grew up, the fog was so thick in winter that when she reached the corner and turned, her house was gone. In Los Angeles she could only detect mist in the early morning, fragrant with seaweed. There, her desire for political change seemed clumsy, going in circles like a drunk. Los Angeles always looked empty. The sharp light had an infuriating clarity. She found a copy of the red booklet by Mao Tze Tung in a thrift store and bought it for thirty five cents. She liked it even better in English.


“Why are you here?” Dr. Wang, her acupuncture supervisor, had asked the first day. His tentative English seemed abrupt in its plainness.

“I’m looking for a miracle,” she said. It had a sleek and sexy sound to her ears. She had fantasized saying it many times. She had said it once to a man, at the Basement Tavern in Santa Monica after a few shots of Bacardi.

“What is a miracle?” Dr. Wang asked. He was busy placing the needles on the trays. His hands moved fast: thick to thin gauge. There was something eccentric in his appearance: a T-shirt under his lab coat, the hair cut tight to the scalp. He was young, freshly trained in Beijing. A wiz, she had heard. “Difficult pronunciation, miracle. What meaning?”

“It’s something impossible that you wish very much—and it happens.”

“Very good.” He moved on to cutting the moxa sticks; his knife work was exquisite—perfect one-inch cylinders. He caught her staring and smiled, impish. “I am a machine, made in China.”

The sun shone bright for a moment, making the room glow in warm shades. She felt a swirl of happiness.

“The Summer Palace of Mao Tze Tung—how far is it?” she said.

“Not far.” He was suddenly alert.

“He lived there?”

“Why foreigners always talk of Mao Tze Tung, Mao Tze Tung?” His eyes had a hard brilliance. “Of course he stayed there, with his servants.”

“He had servants?”

“Many servants. He was an emperor, Chiang Chin was an empress. They never saw their people.”

“Dr. Wang, servants?”

“Many.” He was intense, unsmiling.

“What are you saying?”

He placed the moxa slices in a jar with great delicacy. Screwed on the metal top. “Ready?”


The morning patients waited for their turn, chatting by the windows in the pale October light, eating roasted sunflower seeds. There was a subdued softness to the voices and sounds floating in, as if the entire building were waking up. Nicoletta and Dr. Wang had covered the treatment cots with a rattan mat, the kind she would roll up and take to the beach in Santa Monica. Patients lay prone or supine. Sleeves, pant legs and tops were pulled up as needed, so the needles could be inserted in the right spot. The intimacy of the setting made the semi-clad bodies look vulnerable and non-erotic, like prisoners of war.

She saw Huang Ji immediately, with his back to the window. He had sharp eyes, large hands with broken nails. A gardener at the Hangzhou Botanical Garden, he came to the clinic for stiffness in his neck and shoulders. Dr.Wang had said that Huang Ji did not like foreigners. They put ideas into people’s heads: easy life abroad, breakdancing, divorce. Huang Ji’s glance made Nicoletta feel paper thin, an ignorant foreign ghost in an oversize lab coat.

“I’m not a foreigner,” she wanted to say. But she was.

She moved swiftly from one cot to another. She remembered what Dr Wang said, Do not think of the skin, keep your mind on the needle, three quarter up from the tip, and thrust from the shoulder. There is no skin.

Nicoletta stood behind Huang Ji, ready to needle The Heavenly Pillar Point, The Pool of Wind, The Wind Palace at the base of the skull. He did not sit. He turned his head and stared at her.

“Is Huang Ji angry at me?” Nicoletta asked Dr.Wang. His cheeks flushed at her directness. “Dui bu dui?”

Dui, yes.”

He explained that Huang Ji’s wife studied for the TOEFL at night to be able to apply to an American college. The sister of Dr. Wang studied with her. In the cold one-room apartment with no paint on the walls, they memorized English words under the fluorescent light. They wanted to leave. They wanted hot water, a bedroom, carpets.

“What does Huang Ji want?” Nicoletta asked Dr. Wang. A true Chinese worker, Huang Ji. She really liked him.

“Grow flowers.”

In the Cultural Revolution Huang Ji had been sent to the countryside to be reeducated, Dr. Wang said. Tending flowers was decadent, the soil was meant for rice. Dr. Wang had been in school with him. He said that Huang Ji never truly came back; he was different. No reading, playing cards, or chess was allowed. He was taught to use a gun, standing in the rain barefoot. At night he made up complicated math problems he tried to solve in his head to keep sane.

Nicoletta asked Huang Ji, “Hao bu hao? Okay?” looking at him very closely. She was stirred by the mystery of his forbidden love for peony, amaryllis, and daffodil which had survided the Cutural Revolution. He smelled of mulch and fresh grass. His pain was crippling.

He took off his jacket in silence, folded a blanket on the table at the center of the room and rested his folded arms on it. Sweat was trickling down the muscles of his neck.

She waited. The classic texts say that the patient must exhale first. One should wait to insert the needle until the patient has to exhale, as though one waited for something precious, and were unconscious of day and night.

He stared at her with cold anger from over his shoulder. Suddenly nodded. “Xianzai! Now!”

She felt a flash of pride at not being afraid. She waited. She stood straight. When man keeps the head bowed he sees only what is deep below and his vitality and spirit will be broken. She felt a reluctant tenderness towards his pride. She was a good doctor and would make him better. She listened for the rhythm of his breathing. She waited patiently for him to exhale, for something precious.


They took a break in mid-morning. Dr. Wang made her tea, a gesture that surprised her in its gentle eloquence.

“Long day.” He swished the green leaves in two enamel cups, put the top on them. “Good day?” It was his way of checking if she was tired, which would have been too personal if asked directly.


She had sensed an authentic question. There was a drowsy silence, a relaxed bonding between colleagues.

“You are good.”

“A miracle,” she smiled.

He checked if the leaves had sunk to the bottom, nodded, tea is done. She looked at his serene face, his careful gestures preparing the tea. She remembered her mother setting the table: fork here, spoon there. There was a secret in those simple utensils, in their exact place, that made her face glow.

Nicoletta felt untroubled under his kind eyes and not that tired anymore.


The third week at the clinic Nicoletta realized she had an assistant. A young woman with a scarred face appeared at her side, no lab coat but an obsequious expression. A sort of acupuncture caddy, she shuffled from bed to bed with Nicoletta, an assortment of needles sticking out between her fingers closed in a fist. She had small ears, a fragile beauty. They worked well together. Dr. Wang told Nicoletta the young girl had a marvelous voice, used to sing every Saturday at the Shangri La. Not now. Her teeth were chipped. Fine hair was starting to grow over the jagged sutures on her skull.

“Shouldn’t she rest?” Nicoletta asked Dr. Wang.

“She’s all right,” he said. “No problem.”

“What happened to her?”

“She survived a bicycle accident. I treat her, I know her well.”

“Oh. She is a patient?”

“From the Hospital Ward, two floors down. She is fine. She should go home.”

A young man in a blue Mao uniform appeared at lunch time and stood leaning with his back against the wall. He had steel-rimmed glasses and a saintlike, gentle resignation. Nicoletta found herself staring at him.

“He is from Nanjing,” said Dr. Wang as a form of introduction.

The man was gripping a bundle of clothes. It was the common packaging in China: a raffia ribbon tied around the shopping to secure it, with a long loop at the end as a handle. You could see everything people bought or carried. It was the most excruciating source of embarrassment for Nicoletta.

“Her husband,” Dr. Wang explained with a quick nod towards the young woman. “He brings her a change of clothes every few days. He does the washing himself.”

“Isn’t she going home?”

“She should. She does not want to.”

Suddenly Nicoletta found the young woman immensely intriguing.

“They had a child who died in the accident, full front crash,” Dr. Wang said. “A little boy.” Nicoletta remembered noticing that the Chinese would place their child in a rattan seat attached to the front of the bicycle.

“My God,” she said. She imagined the little boy, fine hair and dimples. “I’m sorry.”

“She is allowed to have another child of course.” Dr Wang glanced up after inserting a needle in the scalp of a slight old man. “It’s not hard. She is young.”

“Are you kidding?”

“A second child is possible.” Dr.Wang exuded impatience. Nicoletta looked at the young woman talking to her husband, head down. “We have sent her home three times.”

“And what?”

“After a few days she returns with some other problem.”

“I see.”

“She is stubborn.” He lit a cigarette. It was something he never did before the end of the day. “Dui bu dui?”

Dui. Right.”

They stood in silence. Nicoletta looked at the room, noticing every detail. Dead leaves had blown in from an open window. They fluttered on the floor as if breathing. Dr. Wang was staring at a patient across the room. The moxa slices he had inserted on the needles along his spine had been lit by Nicoletta. She had been anxious about it, wanting to shine in his eyes. She had done it perfectly, and they had shared a grin. A wave of smoke rose from the cot. Dr. Wang kept his eyes fixed on the patient who had dozed off, his face to the side, mouth slightly open.

“She should have no trouble having another baby,” Dr. Wang said.

“She wants that baby.”

“She thinks she does.” Dr. Wang took off the needles from the nearest patient. “Once you have a baby, you want one again.”

When Nicoletta looked up the husband was gone, and the young woman was sitting on an empty cot with the package of clean clothes on her lap.

The regular patients started coming in after lunch, and the young woman resumed following Nicoletta around. They walked together from cot to cot, like two figurines sliding on an icy pond in a Christmas display.


“Shall I bring my bike if I go to Los Angeles?” a patient asked. A student, he was waiting for his turn with his friends.

“No. Los Angeles has too many cars,” Nicoletta said. She saw Los Angeles like he would, the white sunlight at noon, the vast roads. The vacant spaces with rag pickers pushing supermarket carts.

“I like a Mercedes,” he grinned. His hair was long, and he wore the platform sandals fashionable for young men in Beijing. His friends laughed. They seemed excited that he was talking to a foreign woman.

They know no-thing,” Dr. Wang said in English. “They think now everybody can go to America.”

“Is that right?” she glanced at the boys, uncertain. She imagined them stranded, loitering around mini-malls in LA, confused like old men.

“It’s called The Open Door Policy. You know?” Dr. Wang smiled. “A friendly attitude towards America.”

“I have heard.” China was opening to the West, she knew that much.

“You heard? Very good.”

At the end of the day the stream of patients trickled down to a minimum. Nicoletta had time to sit with the young woman for a cup of tea. The woman’s stillness had a weary grace. She seemed even younger up close, a child. Their eyes met.

Meyguo ren ma? American?” the woman asked.

Yìdàlì ren, Italian,” Nicoletta said.

They sipped their tea. The two of them spent a stretch of time in silence, as if a deep question had been posed, and they needed to ponder.


That morning, Nicoletta had popped in the Foreign Office to pick up her mail before heading to the clinic. All the letters she received from LA had characters in Chinese scribbled at the bottom of the envelope. She took the letters out of her pocket and asked Dr. Wang what they meant. She had spent the night sitting in her armchair in a flurry of paranoia, the bundle of letters in her lap, listening to the whistle of a train, the singing of a man floating upstairs, wind.

“It’s your address in Chinese for the mailman,” Dr. Wang said. “It’s where you live now. Your home. Qing Chun Road, Hangzhou, People’s Republic of China.”

In the evening, Nicoletta hung up her lab coat, got a cigarette out of the pack, and found her way to the dorm in the light of heaps of burning garbage. The cooks in tall white hats were playing badminton in front of the canteen. Her boots clicked against the cement of the empty road. Second floor, room 207, a green door. Inside, concrete floor painted brown, the thick smell from green mosquito coils. Bugs were dying, spinning on their backs on the low coffee table. Tiny roaches had crawled in the drawers of her small wardrobe. They looked like a handful of spilled coffee beans. On the door, she had glued a postcard from Ralph and Alice, the Honeymooners, waving. Welcome home.


At the end of the month, Nicoletta was shifted to studying herb formulas. The Women’s Herb Clinic was on the third floor, past the enamel spittoons at each landing, the windows wide open to the crisp morning air for prophylaxis. The room had the thick medicinal smell of her mother’s bedroom. After school, Nicoletta would sit by her bed blowing soap bubbles.

She washed her hands in the concrete sink where doctors spat in between patients. She had been told that Dr. Gan was picky. He looked up with a little grunt after initialing a prescription renewal. The sunlight from the window was falling on his delicate features, the hint of a beard on his chin. His lab coat was open over a crisp white shirt, his hair gleaming. He was renowned for his skill at diagnosing through pulse taking: meticulous, his face a mask.

Ni hao ma, Good morning,” Nicoletta whispered her greeting in response to his frown. She was late on her first day.

The old woman waiting for the doctor’s signature bowed and left quickly, as if sneaking out at intermission. Dr. Gan took a cigarette out of a pack. Peony, light. His long fingers played with it. He didn’t offer her one. Only the women who sang in the dark cafes along Wulin Lu smoked.

Ni hao,” he nodded. There was something fastidious in his appearance, the stiff dignity of a man who lives alone. “First thing, look carefully.” Dr. Gan lit the cigarette. The eyes see the darkness and mystery of Heaven, Nicoletta remembered from the Nei Jin, the acupuncture classic Dr. Gan could not have read without risking execution by the Red Guards, as too mystic. She had expected the doctors to quote the Nei Jing like her teachers in LA, but Dr. Wang said that the ancient text had been banned. “It’s old superstition.” She had brought old superstition in her suitcase to get it signed by each doctor. It would remain there.

The patients, twenty at least, crowded the benches along the walls, thin women with the skittish eyes of teenage runaways, short cropped hair crudely cut. They wore faded padded jackets, baggy pants. They clutched wicker baskets filled with bok choy and mustard greens. Nervous hands and voices rose, topping each other. Nicoletta could make out that they were talking of hurricanes and grisly murders in the countryside.

Dr. Gan shot her a glance. There was a sparkle in his eyes; she must amuse him. The foreign ghosts laugh loud, walk fast, touch everything. She felt nostalgia for her old herb teacher in California, Mr. Dao, a scrawny bird with an air of celibate resignation to him, who spoke in the rising contralto of a poet giving a reading. “Always treat the spirit first,” he used to say. “It’s not the knee that is sick, the low back. The knee and the back shout, but it’s the house that is on fire.” The simplicity of this had given her pleasure. All the students fantasized about Mr. Dao, his tenderness. His face was so pale, his voice a whisper.

Let’s begin,” Dr. Gan said in English. “Good morning. Sit down please.”

The patients giggled, blushing at his boldness: Dr. Gan spoke like a Meyguo ren to a Meyguo ren, an American. He exhaled, pretending to pay no attention, but his eyes jumped around. He was pleased with himself.

The first patient to approach the desk was Tze Han, the telephone operator at the Foreign Affairs Office. She spoke fast, looking down with a whisper that turned out to be a severely hoarse throat. She was afraid of losing her job: Her voice was a croak. It had happened abruptly two months before, as if a wire had been yanked loose. Like this, she showed with her hands. The other patients had a soft chuckle: Tze Han spoke of her fear without shame, did not cover her trembling lips.

Dr. Gan felt the pulses on the inside of her wrists, studied his written prescription from the week before and passed the open packet of herbs for Nicoletta to examine: fragrant Tang Gui, Chai Hu the bitter, yellow Huan Qin, curly Fu Ling brittle to the touch, Danshen the mover, Peilan that dissolves blockage with its aroma. Perfect, his manner said, study it.

Dr. Gan signaled for Nicoletta to feel Tze Han’s six pulses. She knew she was supposed to ask the diagnostic Ten Asking Song afterwards. She had them down pat. Pressing with the tip of her fingers Nicoletta looked for the pulse qualities she had studied: slippery, wiry, frail, knotty, hollow, tight, sinking. She searched for the beat she expected in Tze Han: a string of red jade. She felt a fluttering instead, like that of a trapped bird. The ten classic questions about sleep, appetite, thirst slipped away from her tongue. She listened intently, leaning forward, to the stirring of feathers in the pulse of Tze Han.

Dr. Gan sat back, his eyes half closed, waiting for Nicoletta to venture an analysis of the herb formula that would require his skilled guidance, as by protocol. He took a sip of Chu Han tea from his enamel cup.

“She lost her voice two months ago? Dui bu dui?” Nicoletta asked. Dr. Gan glanced down at his lab coat. This questioning was not according to procedure.

Dui, correct.”

“No reason?”

“No reason.” Her eyes met his for a moment. He seemed displeased, his cheeks splotched with red.

“Did you have an accident?” Nicoletta asked Tze Han. She said something quickly that Nicoletta could not understand. Her eyes were restless, going from her to Dr. Gan.

He made a wide, indolent gesture towards Tze Han, like the host offering the bowl of fruit at the end of a banquet. Tze Han seemed to soften.

“No, not an accident,” she said, a light blush coloring her face. But she had been in the hospital.

“Why? How long?”

Not long. After her first child, the one allowed by the One Child Policy, Tze Han had to have three abortions. Her fists made a small tugging gesture three times. The IUD made her bleed and didn’t work. After the third abortion the young surgeon had sat by her in the hospital, talked of tubal ligation. She had the procedure done. Her hands now made a quick pas de deux. Nicoletta felt a jolt. The dark side of explicit, she thought. No more bleeding, no more pregnancies. It had been two months.

Nicoletta glanced at Dr. Gan, curious to see what herbs he would prescribe this time. His assurance was intriguing. A formula for vanished children, unshed tears. She imagined translucent leaves floating on the plate of the scale in the herb room, followed by a light shower of golden seeds. She noticed that Dr. Gan had pushed his pen aside.

Enough herbs,” he said in English. “Twelve ingredients is the perfect amount for this case.”

“Are you keeping the exact same herb formula she has taken for two months?”

There was a buzz of excitement in the room. The foreign student was impertinent.

“It takes time,” he said. “You must learn to wait.”

“She has taken this for two months.” She had the wild hope that the exasperation in his eyes was for the herbs. There is no prescription for this. No prescription against despair.

“It takes time,” he repeated.

An interpreter had heard rumors that Doctor Gan wanted to go to America. His skill was not recognized in Hangzhou. He was an expert in venereal diseases, had had a thriving private practice before the Cultural Revolution, when Russian model cars with a chauffeur arrived to his studio. There was very little prostitution now, his work was obscure, an endless monotony of gynecological complaints. He had been written up in the Hangzhou Shibao solely for his impressive fishing.

“Same prescription?” Nicoletta said.


His eyes lit up. For a moment she thought he would be angry at her publicly, but he took out another cigarette instead. The way he glanced at her legs was insolent.

“Ask any questions,” he said.

They locked eyes. They both seemed equally frightened at the prospect that she would insult his status by not asking deferential elucidations about the perfect herb formula. Tze Han was touching a wisp of hair by her earlobe, looking down.

“Don’t let go of me, topolino,” her mother had whispered in her drugged half-sleep before dying. Don’t let go of me, her buddies at college had said locking arms when they faced a line of armed policemen. She did not.

Bu wenti,” Nicoletta stood up to go. “No questions.”

The next time Nicoletta went to the Foreign Office to pick up her mail, Tze Han asked her for sleeping pills. She said that her dreams kept her awake. Herb formulas for sleep only gave her dizziness, stunted her like a blow. She saw children in her kitchen, little boys and girls doing their homework in the evenings side by side. At night the house was ringing with their voices. She could not sleep.


At the end of two weeks Nicoletta was moved to study herb formulas at the Pediatric Unit on the first floor. She went for lunch at an open stall by the Tiesha River the workers from the hospital had recommended. She knew to wait by the cooking pit after having placed her bowl on the counter right behind the others. Hers was white enamel with no writing, easy to recognize. She liked to see her bowl return full, then squat outside on her haunches to eat with the other customers. Today she had arrived early and had time to spare after lunch. Dr. Wang had sent her a note that she should get a goldfish for company. They sold them at the free market. He would find her a bowl. It was illegal to keep pets but she could hide the bowl in the wardrobe during inspection. The idea was excellent. She did feel lonely. He suggested that she apply for an extension of her stay, to study at an elite hospital in Beijing. It filled her with pride.

“The red fish in the bowl keeps from danger of fire,” he had written. Old superstition, she grinned.

She bicycled to the free market in a drizzling rain. On Qing Chun Road she pedaled hard, just another worker in the midday rush, flying through puddles and mud, swerving around carts and police sidecars. She biked by Jiefang Lu, the store with tall orange juice bottles in the windows and dusty biscuit boxes piled up. Across the bridge, past the storytellers squatting on a cloth with spoons and sticks they twirled with their scrawny hands high above their heads. She whizzed past the foreign ghosts with blonde hair and glasses who bought antique musical instruments and silk with the money they changed for double on the black market outside the Wulin Hotel. She was a Chinese worker under a wet rain cape, she knew every inch of the road. She hummed to herself in the rain, Chopin. Past the Shangri Hotel she felt the beat of the bicycle, head bent, pushing. They were hundreds, flying on the road tightly packed in a bicycle dance over bridges, sweeping past crossways and buses, pedaling under the rain. She was one with the Chinese, the Han, the Zhonguo ren, the people of China the Middle Country, Zhonguo the Center of the World. She pushed on the pedals, head bent, wet to the bone in her new womb, the Center of the World. Yissan, doctor, she heard her patients spurring her on. Yissan yissan. Tze Han had left for her at the dorm a thank you of two precious eggs wrapped in newspaper. Yissan. One day Nicoletta would not remember English or Italian. Her colleagues from LA would come looking for her. Her old buddies from college in Milan would come too. They told them there was the legend of a foreign woman living by the Yuhang Hill or perhaps it was the Genshamen station. They would not find Nicoletta. They crossed paths in the street at the Breeze Caressed Lotus in the East Courtyard, they looked right through each other. At night Nicoletta would teach herself to write Chinese characters, three words each day. Some ideograms were startling like lizards in the grass, some leapt like panthers. They said in Hangzhou that she was a doctor from Chendu—they have wavy hair in Chendu.