Quiet Night Thoughts
Li Bai, Tang Dynasty (1300 years ago…)
Moonlight before my bed
Like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I see the moon,
Lowering my head, I miss my home.
The canals between the rows of cabbages reflect the full moon. I ride my “Wu Yang,” a locally made “Five Rams” bike. Flash, flash, flash—the moon, the dark, the moon, the dark, the moon shines from the still water. Beside me dark lorries roll, their headlights dimmed. The bicycle has the right of way. Mist sifts across the road between the white-painted trunks of eucalyptus trees. The moon in south China is not the moon anywhere else. Even poets have said so.
“Teacher, why are you smiling?”
“Because I’m here. I’m teaching and I’m in China.”
“You’re smiling because you are here? Or do you laugh at our poor English?”
I am stunned. “You speak English well.”
“No, no we don’t. We know our English is very poor.”
“No, truly, it’s very good.”
“You are being kind. Our English is poor.”
I do not yet know about the trap of Chinese humility.
“Don’t you miss your home?”
I think momentarily of the Rocky Mountains and a few friends, but no. Ever since reading Richard Halliburton’s travel adventure books from my mother’s library I have wanted to go on “the royal road to romance.” That my first road led to a Chinese university was a stroke of good luck I never could have imagined. I smile constantly and this makes my students suspicious.
“I’m happy. I love China. I love to teach.”
“How can you love China and love America?”
What is patriotism? My own country could not possibly give me THIS opportunity. I am my own world.
“I love them both.”
I look behind me at the large character poster above the chalkboard. “Noble Spirit, Proud Beauty,” it says in English.
“The Moon Festival is the festival of distant family and friends,” I am told by one of my graduate students. “The Chinese eat round things because they look like the moon. The children carry moon-shaped lanterns. We recite poetry and think of people far away. We know our relatives and friends at home are doing the same, so though we are far away from each other, we look at the same moon. You will love it.”
Outside the door to my apartment I find an ornately decorated box. Inside are mooncakes, a gift from my students. They are filled with red bean paste with a perfect round egg yolk in the center. The moon.
Just a week later I take the train to Hong Kong to meet up with two friends from Colorado, one a wealthy old man I am fond of; the other is my former boss who is traveling with him. My old friend was born in China, near Tianjin. His father was a missionary for the YMCA. His family left China during the Japanese invasion. The old man sends me out to find some cotton undershirts for him and a cane. He has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and walking is increasingly difficult. On my way back to the ship, I stop in a bakery and buy mooncakes. When I hand him the brightly printed shopping bag with its picture of the Moon Goddess, Chang O, his eyes glow with pleasure. “Oh my, oh, Martha! Mooncakes! I have not had these since I was a child.” Time and memory distill in his blue eyes and slide down his channeled cheeks. His hand reaches for mine.
There is no way for me to go back. Even the boy who carried my heavy trunk up three flights of stairs to my apartment is now a man in his sixties who writes me from Toronto telling me how Qi-Gong helps him with his aches and pains. I remember his stories of the Cultural Revolution when he was sent north to work in a machine shop in Luoyang. He spent ten years in mind-numbing drudgery staying up late to learn English from the Voice of America. His ancestry was mixed, his mother bourgeois, his father a poor peasant, a Party member. When the Gang of Four was overthrown, he was too old for college, so he worked as an interpreter, assistant, and spy for the Wai-Shi Ban, Foreigner’s Office, at my university. I helped him come to the U.S. to study and he got a B.A. from NYU.
“Dear Sister,” he writes in an email. “You are a better Chinese than me. I forgot Mid-Autumn Festival! Thank you for your good wishes!”
Time and space are not convergent only at the outer edge of the universe; they converge everywhere, every moment. I search the Internet looking for cheap tickets to China. I imagine going back when I retire, but with perfect certainty I know there is no way.
China is a bus on which I am riding that has stopped for no reason on Chong-Shan Wu Lu (5 Sun Yat-Sen Road) in downtown Guangzhou on a late spring afternoon. Through the window I see a public telephone. It is an old black phone on a wooden desk in front of a building. A Chinese man in glasses and a white shirt sits behind the desk taking tickets from people waiting for their turn to make a call to someone far away. In the shadows, I notice a tall, dignified, white-haired, blue-eyed, white man in a blue silk padded coat. He is leaning against a building as all the raging race of China’s modernization passes in front of him. We make eye contact for a fraction of a second before he abruptly turns and goes inside. That is China; that man, that blue coat, that furtive moment, and now it is something else.
*Originally published in Business Communication Quarterly Volume: 70 issue,188-191 June 1, 2007. Now included in As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder.