It is Monday morning and Niuniu is at her desk, preparing for her new story about successful executives. She reserves Monday morning - the traditional day of dread - for routine tasks such as setting up appointments for interviews and booking hotel and flight reservations. As she thumbs through her Rolodex, she comes across the names of several of her former high school classmates. One of them, Xia, is vice-president at a Swiss investment-banking firm. Hoping he might give her some quotes for her story, Niuniu dials his number. When Xia's secretary explains that Xia is not in, Niuniu leaves a message saying that she would like to get together for lunch. One hour later, his secretary calls back to say that Xia's driver will pick her up at her office at midday. Promptly at noon, Xia's personal assistant rings Niuniu's desk to say that a car is waiting for her outside her office. Niuniu steps outside and is quickly whisked into the open door of the waiting limousine. 'Mr Xia has had an urgent business emergency,' the driver explains. 'He will meet up with us at the restaurant. I hope that is okay.' Niuniu sits back in the broad leather seat of the limousine, silently gazing through the smoked glass of her passenger window and contemplating what it must be like to have a personal driver. Or an assistant. Or a secretary. At the restaurant, Niuniu sits alone at a table for two. The driver, who escorted her in, stands off to one side, refusing to sit down even when she invites him to do so. 'I am sorry. I won't be able to join you,' he says. 'Mr Xia should be with you very soon. I apologise.' Ten minutes later, a woman walks up to the driver, says a few words to dismiss him and then approaches the table. 'I am Ms Yi,' she says. 'I am Mr Xia's executive assistant. I am so sorry to inform you that Mr Xia won't be able to come to lunch today. A very important matter has come up. He has requested that I keep you company. If you don't mind, may I take his place?' Since when did her classmate become so insulated by a personal army of loyal guards? Niuniu clearly remembers a day when she and Xia shared class notes, when she bought him lunch, when she loaned him her bicycle. Now, she was being bumped for 'important business'. And he couldn't even deliver his own message. 'In China I was raised to believe that all people are equal,' Niuniu ponders to herself. 'No one was any richer or poorer than the next guy. And even in America, where I was a typical, poor student, I never dreamed of having a battalion of servants to tend to my every need.' This incident reminds Niuniu of her class reunion. In as little as 10 years since she graduated, the difference in levels of success between her classmates was almost immeasurable. While some were arriving in chauffeured limousines bragging about their designer suits and the quality of their personal chefs, others were busy patting down their hair, so obviously blown askew by the wind as they rode their bicycles to the party. And this in a society that once championed mass conformity over individuality and personal achievement. Niuniu feels oddly nostalgic for the days when she could leave her apartment without wondering whether her shoes matched her bag. When a person's wealth was measured by the size of his bag of watermelon seeds, not the number of servants at his side. Now, simply getting some face time with an old friend requires one to penetrate a strong line of defence. And these labourers work for such low wages that China's social elite have even taken to hiring them for no other reason than to impress their neighbours and friends. Niuniu recalls the Chinese expression: 'The god of death is easier dealt with than the goblins.' For now, she thinks, she will have to make do with the 'goblin' sitting across from her. As Niuniu tries to make idle conversation with Xia's assistant, her cell phone rings. It is Xia. 'Niuniu, I am so sorry about this,' he says. 'Did my assistant explain to you what happened?' Niuniu says: 'Well, she said that something important came up. I am sure you are very busy.' Xia continues: 'Yes, my son has come down with a fever and his mother is away on holiday. I had to pick him up at school myself. Can I make it up to you?' Niuniu then recognises the sound of children playing in the background - unmistakably the sound of a middle school at recess. And she realises that things aren't always as they seem: Xia cannot come to lunch because he has his own little goblin to deal with. 'Sure,' says Niuniu. 'Don't think twice about it. Call me when your son is well.'