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.
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.
“You should throw a party, Phoenix,” someone suggested. “Everyone would come.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Too bad he wasn’t more popular in school. Maybe he and I could have become friends.