Discovering all those letters I sent my mom from China was a huge surprise. I thought I’d thrown out everything in the Great Purge of 2015. Writing the blog posts about my experiences was fun. Transforming them into something like a coherent book was difficult. Integrating the letters was emotionally intense and when I was finished, I was drained, exhausted.
It’s very strange meeting yourself after 35 years or more and that’s essentially what happened.
Some of what I found was inspiring, some was simply informative, some of it showed me how consistent I have been through time. We are more than the sum of our experiences. We’re also something intrinsically, fundamentally.
Most of all I saw how deeply I loved China.
I also saw the virtue of ignorance — if I’d known more about China and its history leading up to 1982, I might not have gone. But I didn’t know, so I was open to being told by the people around me. In my mind was a vague memory about the Cultural Revolution and, of course, the Beatle’s song, “Revolution,” but as none of that had any meaning to me as a teenager in Colorado Springs, I didn’t pay attention.
When I returned from China I literally read everything I could find, had friends in China send me books, went to LA’s Chinatown to buy books, had a friend in Macao send me books and used the library at San Diego State. I desperately wanted to know where I’d been. It was important, ultimately, to do all that learning away from China and away from the influence and commentary of my Chinese friends who’d all grow up “under the Red Flag.”
For a while I felt that I’d really failed my life since the only great thing I’ve done was go to China for a year, the only adventure but then I thought more about that. What’s an adventure? Yeah, I have regrets over many of the choices I made. I think that’s just part of living long enough to be able to look at your own life as if it were a book. We make some choices because we really don’t know better, or don’t have a clear view of our essential selves, or think we’ll live forever and have time to make it up.
This is the third book I’ve written about my life. All of them are show a character who’s utterly consistent. It’s interesting because several years ago I never imagined writing about my own life experiences. I thought writing memoir was self-indulgent and self- important. Again, a completely consistent aspect of my personality. The very thing I mock or say I would never do is probably the next thing on my agenda.
The most wonderful thing I found in all those letters was this. You need to know my mom didn’t want my brother or I to be artists. She said over and over “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But, the poor woman gave birth to two artists. She thought all artists were Van Gogh, insane geniuses who couldn’t be happy and who sliced off their ears. Still, I wrote her this:
“Dear Mom, I think art (you can cover your ears if you don’t want to hear about A-R-T) if it’s any good has to be about something. If you just stay in the same place and do the same things always you’ll write one story and make once picture over and over and over…so maybe I’m in the process of preparing to make something.” October 13, 1982