Chapter 8: Phoenix Fails, Big Time

Me, at my senior prom. Aren't I so cute?

Me, at my senior prom. Aren’t I so cute?

I was a failure. By the end of my senior year of high school, I was still not Arvid Bergfalk’s girlfriend. I didn’t get it. I mean, I had done everything right. I was the most popular girl at Stjernelys Secondary School. I was smart – but not too smart. I was funny. I was hot as hell. And I was the official class photographer. Just look at these amazing prom pictures I took!

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Everyone wanted to be my best friend. Everyone loved me.

Except for Arvid.

Arvid, playing his guitar at prom.

Arvid, playing his guitar at prom.

Graduation day came and went. He gave me a huge hug. But not a romantic hug – more like a warm, brotherly hug. Then he ran off to join his current girlfriend, this airhead girl with an overbite who just happened to play drums in his rock band.

I had lost. It didn’t even matter that I had become the perfect girl for Arvid. He just didn’t see me.

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For a few months, I sort of drifted in a daze. College classes began, but I was hardly able to focus, and my grades began to suffer. Sternelys, which had once shone for me like a jewel, was starting to feel like a vast frozen void. My flame was flickering out.

Then one night, I was trudging through damp snow in an old churchyard, hoping to find something interesting to take photos of. Well, I found something interesting, all right. It was a ghost.

The funny thing was, I always thought I would be frightened of ghosts. I thought that should I come across a floating, transparent being from beyond the grave, I would freak out and run away, like people do in movies. Maybe it was all those years living in my grandparents’ spooky old house in China. Maybe it was the result of living in a land where families worshiped their dead and honored the ghosts of their ancestors. Because when I came across old Pietr, the wandering spirit in the churchyard, I didn’t feel the least bit of fear.

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As a matter of fact, Pietr and I had a long conversation. I spilled my sorrows, and Pietr listened with all the patience of a dead guy with nothing but time on his hands.

“I don’t understand,” he said when I had finished blubbering, icy tears frozen on my cheeks. “You came to this land to start over. To become a newer, better version of yourself, correct?” I nodded. “But instead, you threw away that girl. You chose to become a weak copy of everyone around you, in order to capture a boy’s attention. That is where you failed.”

“What can I do?” I wailed.

Pietr raised a ghostly eyebrow. “Am I mistaken,” he said, “or are you The Phoenix? Time to rise again, little bird.”

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He was so right. I left Pietr behind to haunt his little churchyard, and returned to university. In three years, I graduated with honors. Then I got my first job. Okay, a lame job. I was a chef’s assistant in a sushi bar, because apparently, people in Sternelys think that Chinese people are Japanese.

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Still, it was a job. I saved up every penny, then went out to splurge on the new me.

Starting with the cutest, most badass motorcycle in all of Scandinavia.

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Chapter 7: Popularity Has a (Pretty Stupid) Price

If China is a scorching desert, then Stjernelys is a cool, misty forest. If China is a tsunami, then Stjernelys is the gentle, lapping waves of a pond. If China is…

Well, you get the point.

The culture did take a little getting used to. Especially the language, though I was picking it up quickly, and the fact that nearly everyone had pale, pinkish skin and light features, and even with my hair dyed blonde, I still stuck out. Way out. However, that didn’t seem to bother the kids at school, who still treated me like I was something special, even as September gave way to October. To feed their curiosity, I taught everyone about both Chinese and American traditions, including Halloween. I hadn’t dressed in costume and gone trick-or-treating since I was a little kid in the States. But the whole town seemed delighted to pitch in and participate in a foreign custom, and it gave me another needed boost in popularity.

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I would have loved to see a popularity chart comparing me against Milla. As winter approached, and the weather turned cold and icy, I began to notice that the same groups of kids who once flocked to Milla’s side now flocked to mine.

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“You should throw a party, Phoenix,” someone suggested. “Everyone would come.”

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And they were right. The Bergfalks were happy to let me play hostess, and that night, our house was packed with kids having a great time. I laughed and danced along with everyone, and for the first time in my life, I was able to relish being the center of attention for something other than chess. Everyone wanted to be my friend, to dance with me, Xifeng Jin – no, Phoenix Jin, the cute, exotic, fun-loving party girl. The trend-setter. The life of the party.  photography (24) photography (45)

It all went smoothly, except for one moment. I don’t know why Aksel Arild had the effect on me that he did. “Did you have a chance to see the comet?” he asked, his eyes shining with excitement. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen! One day, I want to be an astronaut, and maybe even land on a comet. Who knows?”

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One moment, I was a light, happy balloon, floating up high where nothing could touch me. And suddenly, all the air came rushing out, and I fell to the earth, limp and empty again. I wanted to tell Aksel that yes, I had watched the comet from the Bergfalk family’s backyard telescope. I wanted to tell him that it was almost as wonderful as the first time I’d ever glimpsed the ocean. I wanted to jump up and down like a little girl and say, “Me too! I want to be an astronaut, too!”

Instead, I rolled my eyes and said, “Meh. Comets. Stars. The moon. It’s all the same to me.” And I disappeared back into my party crowd, leaving a crushed-looking Aksel behind.

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I tried to push that conversation out of my mind for the next several days. Because any time I thought of it, I felt kind of sickish. I focused on enjoying my new- found popularity, and on taking photographs of anyone who would pose for me. One night, however, I ran into Aksel again while at Apina Talon, a local video arcade/soda parlor/table games club where kids from school liked to hang out. He smiled when he saw me, as though he had forgotten all about the rude way I’d snubbed him.

We bought hot coffees to drink, then stood outside on the cold terrace, chatting about school, and space, and even chess. “Do you think there’s life out there on other planets?” I asked him.

“Of course there is,” he said. “I don’t know about humanoid life. But certainly some lower life forms. Just look at this.” He opened the backpack he’d been carrying and pulled out a couple of recently published books on astronomy. For like, an hour, I was in nerd heaven, looking over the latest research in my future career with a guy who seemed very nice and very smart. I didn’t feel like I needed to put on a show for him. I could just be me.

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Too bad he wasn’t more popular in school. Maybe he and I could have become friends.

Chapter 6: My Meet Cute Had an Unfair Twist

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Sometimes, I like to pretend that my life is actually a movie. As I ride my bike around the unfamiliar streets of Stjernelys, cameras zoom in for a close-up. In the background, the soundtrack plays – probably a list of angsty fem-alternative or indie-pop tunes. There she goes, a kind-of Chinese American wannabe Finnish girl, on her way to school. But she has no idea that today is the day. Today, she will him, in some adorable meet cute. Their eyes will meet, and they will both fall head-over-heels in love.

Okay, so there was just one problem. He was already in love.

Argh! It is so unfair! Arvid was the most perfect guy I had ever met in my life. Not just good-looking, but smart, too. And super sweet. Like just the other morning, he woke up Katje and me for school by serenading us in bed. He serenaded us. Can you believe it?

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But it doesn’t matter how perfect he was, or how fast my heart pounded whenever he walked into the room, or how many songs on my Ipod were dedicated to him. Because Arvid Bergfalk had a girlfriend. Not just any girlfriend, either. Milla Rinne was the most popular girl in school. Milla Rinne could sing like an angel. Milla Rinne was captain of the girls’ volleyball team. Milla Rinne was the bubblegum lipgloss teen princess of Stjernelys.

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But I was the Phoenix. And this was my movie. So what if she was popular? I would become more popular. So what if she was cool? I would be cooler.

So I began to attend every party that Katje invited me to. I went to dances, and concerts, and beach bonfires, where I was passed around the crowd like a novelty toy. “Have you met the new girl, Phoenix Jin?” And while Arvid and Milla smooched in dark corners, I threw back my head and laughed at jokes that weren’t very funny, and tried to behave the way I figured a popular girl would behave.

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There was one boy, Aksel Arild, who almost made me stumble.

“Have you seen the comet XR-278G yet?” he asked one night at a group outing to the seashore. “It will only be visible for two more days.”

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“It will?” I asked, unable to keep the excitement out of my voice. “Where is it located?” Aksel filled me in with the details, then I caught myself. Xifeng would have been all wide-eyed about a comet. But Phoenix did not care about such things (at least not while others were looking). After that, I stayed away from Aksel Arild. I had a popularity contest to win.

Of course, I was far from being competitive with Milla. I played volleyball about as gracefully as a troll. In fact, I wasn’t very good at anything cool. Chess and astronomy were not cool. Being a good student would not help my popularity much, either. I was pretty good at graffiti art, but that’s not the kind of thing you want people to know about.

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Then one day, Niklas Bergfalk gave me a gift. “I thought you could use a camera to capture your memories while you’re here,” he said. That was it! I asked to borrow a book on photography, which I studied like crazy. I would pour my creative energy into photography. Then everyone would be impressed by my talent – including Arvid. And he would be all, Milla who? And he would pull me close and kiss me while the soundtrack played a love song. Roll credits.

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Chapter 5: Love Times Three

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On August 18th, the year I was sixteen, I fell in love three times. The first time, I fell in love with a town. Stjernelys was easily the most gorgeous place I had ever been in my life. The simple, colorful homes were nestled between the wide, gray sea and high, rocky cliffs dotted with evergreen trees.

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The people of Stjernelys were strangely beautiful, too. After years of living in China, were pretty much everyone had small, dark eyes and sleek, black hair, it was sort of a shock to see a town filled with pink-skinned faces and pale features. Of course, they must have thought the same of me, because I could feel their blue and gray and green eyes following me with curiosity everywhere I went. I didn’t blame them. They were a land of golden retrievers, and I was a shih tzu.

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The second time I fell in love was when I met my host family. The Bergfalks were…okay, I hate to use this word, but…perfect. They were all gorgeous, like Barbie dolls or fashion models. And you know those families you read about in old-fashioned books, who do everything together and are always saying I love you to each other? That was the Bergfalks.

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Mr. Bergfalk (“Call me Niklas.”) was so good-natured – always ready with a joke and never angry, even when, in my nervousness, I tripped against the wall and caused a framed portrait to fall and shatter. Mrs. Bergfalk (“Lita, dear.”) was so sweet, like the homemade buns she often baked for the family for breakfast. Katje…well, I could tell right away that Katje and I were going to become best friends. And then there was Arvid.

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Arvid.

I can’t even come up with the words to describe how I felt when I first met Arvid. To say that I fell in love in that moment would be an understatement. I fell, all right. Into a bright blue pool of steaming water. Into air, tumbling over and over with no ground below to catch me. I fell for Arvid, and suddenly, Arvid and Stjernelys became synonymous, and I knew that I had found my future home.

Of course, first, I had to change. There was no way that I could fit in here as Xifeng Jin, the nerdy little chess-playing Chinese girl. Besides, that was not me. I was fierce. I was spirited and smart and capable of taking on the world.

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“Then we should get you a makeover,” said Katje. She took me to her salon, where her favorite stylist spent twenty minutes looking me over before he pulled out his shears and began to snip. As feathery tufts of my hair fell to the floor, I began to feel lighter inside, different. I was no longer Xifeng. I was a new person, with a new family, ready for anything.

When the stylist had finished transforming me into a whole new me, Katje clapped her hands in delight. “Oh Xifeng – you look amazing!” she said.

I smiled. “No more Chinese,” I said. “Call me Phoenix.”

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Chapter 4: Far Far Away

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A school far away…

The idea planted itself in my mind like a seed. It took root, then grew and grew, its vines twisting around every other thought in my mind Far away, far away.

“Absolutely not!” was my mother’s response. “You belong here at home with your family, learning our culture.”

“When have I ever belonged?” I threw back in her face. “Look at me! I have no friends. There is nothing for me here in this prison you call a home. I need more than this!”

My mother’s angry face changed into impassive stone. “If that is really how you feel, Xifeng,” she said at last, “then so be it. If you can find this far away school, and a way to pay for it, then we will let you go.”

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“I already have,” I said. It was true. From the moment the idea had taken hold, I had begun to research, sitting in front of my father’s computer late at night while my parents slept, hunting for information on boarding schools and other programs. Finally, I had found it – a foreign exchange program for high school students. Attend school in the United States! It advertised. Spain! Scandinavia! New Zealand! Japan! Although I would have loved to return to the States, that option turned out to be the most expensive. The Scandinavian countries seemed affordable, however, and far more exotic and interesting than China. That was it. That would become my new home, I decided. After that, whenever I was finished with my regular schoolwork, I buried my nose in language books, absorbing the strange words of the country that was to become my new home.

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“How can you possibly pay for this program?” asked my parents.

I set my chin. “For years now, I’ve been winning chess tournament after chess tournament. I now know that you have received money for those competitions and kept it from me.” My father hung his head. It was true. “I have one more big tournament next weekend in Beijing,” I said. “If I win that, the prize will be large enough to cover the expenses, right?” My father agreed. So the next weekend, he and I traveled to Beijing, where I played chess like I had never played before, sweeping my opponents until the very last checkmate.

I had done it. I had paid my way out of China.

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The day before I left my family’s homeland, I took one last, long look at the village and mountains beyond. I savored one last plate of dumplings and rice and noodles. Then I bid my family a farewell – a cold, distant farewell, as that was their way – and I left for good.

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