Stopping Traffic — Green Eyes in China

Before we went to China, several people, including my Chinese teacher, told us that people would stare at us. I thought it would be 6-foot, blue-eyed Jim (the Good X) who would draw all the attention, but it wasn’t. No one told me I would be the one who would stop traffic.

We were on our way to the Friendship Store near the Baiyun Hotel. Nearing the spot where we’d transfer to a tram, we made our way to the back doors of Bus 22 and waited for it to stop. When the doors opened, people began streaming in before anyone could get off the bus. It was early in our year, and, coming from Colorado, we weren’t yet accustomed to public transportation and especially not to crowds of people pushing and shoving. 

That day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and saw my eyes. She stopped on the steps of the bus, pointed, and cried out, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She froze where she stood, looking frightened, blocking the door, causing a traffic jam of bodies.

Jim had made it out, but I was trapped inside. To prevent an incident, the bus driver closed the doors and took off. I got off at the next stop and walked back. 

Over time, I think “my” city got used to seeing us around. That never happened again in Guangzhou.

I knew I was the opposite in appearance of every Chinese person. Curly, reddish hair, freckles, green eyes? It’s a look that has been regarded with suspicion all over the world, not just in the People’s Republic of China.

As the months went by, and the only foreign faces I saw were those of my brown-eyed, dark-haired Irish colleague Ruth and my husband Jim, I more or less forgot my own face. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uygur man sitting on the steps of the Moslem restaurant. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed. 

I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of many of the people I encountered there in the Middle Kingdom. Most people who approached us on the street either wanted to practice English or change renminbi to Waiwei Qian. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, and called names. One night someone threw rocks at us as we waited for a tram. Events like this said, “Yankee, go home.” I guess these events could be labeled “racist,” but I didn’t see them that way. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant and somewhat scary.

Having worked as a paralegal in a law firm for three years before I escaped the clerical jungle for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I understood something of law in general. We carried with us paperwork that said we were Chinese and had jobs that were beneficial to China’s modernization. “Ma Sa and Ji Mu” were our legal identities. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. The potential may have existed for an “international incident,” but friendliness, openness, and the willingness to speak even bad Chinese was usually enough to disarm anyone. Walking away worked, too.

We spent our last day in China in Shanghai from where we would fly to San Francisco. Shanghai was comparatively cosmopolitan, and I didn’t expect to create a disturbance that attracted the police. My heart was full of the journey ahead of me, the journey “home.” I wanted to take in every remaining moment of China. After a full day of sightseeing, I just wanted to walk around, savoring Shanghai’s vibrant street life. 

We were walking in the neighborhood near our downtown hotel. On a blistering August evening, no sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, sweltering apartment. Everyone had pulled out folding chairs and tables, set up charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, and sat fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking. Sidewalk life poured into the street, leaving a lane for pedestrians and bicycles. As we passed, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghai inflected Mandarin, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and came to look at me. I stood calmly while they looked and asked me questions. “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing in China?” Meanwhile traffic couldn’t move through the intersection. 

The cops came and broke up the “riot,” scolded me, and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, no one seemed to have seen green eyes before. 

***

The featured photo is from 2008, when I was the lead singer for The Cure. 😀
Also, this is a chapter from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, my book about teaching in China in 1982/83

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/04/rdp-saturday-eyes/

Relationship Advice

I had a pretty incredible Christmas all in all. But last night was probably the strangest, most incredible experience of the whole season.

My ex-husband, the one with whom I went to China, called to tell me he loved the China book. We got married and went to China after only knowing each other 4 months. We agreed last night that that was crazy. We also agreed it was crazy to have taken our skis. Then he said that I’d accurately captured the fear he felt when we arrived in Guangzhou and there was no one to meet our plane. “But,” he said, “you didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“What other times?” I asked him.

“Well, there was the time the giant spider came out of the bathroom drain. I was terrified.”

“What giant spider? I don’t remember that at all.”

“Yeah. You took me for a walk around the campus and when we got back it was gone. That was good. I felt better after that.”

“Wow. I don’t remember that.”

“Then there the was time, you know, we’d just gotten into our apartment and set it up. we had our beds in that big room, and you wanted to cuddle, but I was still too freaked out. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.”

A light bulb went on. I said, “I had no idea,” I said and thought, “What if you’d TOLD me that? Why DIDN’T you tell me that?”

Jim and I were not compatible. We tried for 12 years to make something work. My mom loved him, his kids loved me. We liked (still like) each other. We had a lot going for us. We both liked to ski. We came from similar backgrounds, a lot of stuff, but…

We talked on the phone for about an hour. I heard his wife say, in the background, “Are you still on the phone?” He didn’t answer her. Inside myself I nodded and smiled at that. I believe that conversation was the longest Jim and I have ever had.

In the years since, I have quietly diagnosed Jim as being somewhere on the Asperger’s Spectrum.

When you meet someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, you might notice two things right off. He’s just as smart as other folks, but he has more trouble with social skills. He also tends to have an obsessive focus on one topic or perform the same behaviors again and again.”

(https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/mental-health-aspergers-syndrome#1)

That little Dr. Google definition of Asperger’s describes Jim. During our marriage, Jim struggled hard to improve his social skills. He really likes people. He joined and became very involved in Toastmaster’s. He knew where he had a glitch. When Jim DID express himself, it was always — to me — a little obscure. Sometimes I felt that I was just supposed to understand things without getting any information from him at all. If I confronted him, it never went well. He had problems even making eye-contact with me. I could present objective facts such as, “If you don’t get a job, we’re fucked,” that just pushed him into wherever he went in his head. He was impossible to communicate with. Impossible for ME to communicate with. I got frustrated, took things personally — but now I get that. None of the skills I had worked at all, and my skills weren’t that great.

A reminder of how Jim’s mind works came when he said he had found 20 small mistakes in the China book. He gently asked if I would like him to put them on a spreadsheet so I can correct them.

“With the page numbers?” I asked.

“Page numbers and line numbers,” he answered. I felt a little twinge of affection hearing that. It’s SO Jim. His profession — at which he succeeded incredibly so — was writing code, programming. He wrote code for the Space Shuttle simulator. Most people would just say, “There are errors on page 10, 23, 40, 100,” etc.

Last night was an epiphany for me. In China, those two times he mentioned last night, he seems to have thought I KNEW he was afraid. How many other times in the 12 years we shared did he think I KNEW what he was feeling? What would our marriage have been like if he had been able to say, in words, “I need to be alone right now,” or “I’m frightened”?

It was obvious in that phone call last night that he is proud of me, that he’s proud of having gone to China with me, that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished and that he — NOW — feels he can open up to me. I’m not sure 20 years ago I would have understood, and maybe he couldn’t have said, “You didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“I was afraid.” A very powerful admission.

I wanted to wrap my arms around him last night, but that might not have been welcome even if we’d been within 20 feet of each other instead of some 1000 miles. That would have been my instinct, my nature. Instead I said, “We did well over there, Jim. We were just two nice people.”

“That’s true. We were just there being nice to people.”

“Yep. We can be proud of that. We’ve sure lived through a lot.”

“And we’re still here,” he said.

Kids…

So…the kids came over yesterday afternoon with their mom bringing Halloween cookies they’d made. There was much hugging and telling of stories. At one point, Connor found a pile of leaves I’d raked and stood there and threw them into the air so they’d fall on him and his sister. His sister got a little annoyed, but not much, and shook them out of her hair.

I was involved in a talk with their mom, so I only watched Connor out of the corner of my eye. Still, I have a clear image of a little boy in a blue jacket tossing yellow leaves toward the sky.

One of the things the kids do in their own yard is run, racing cars that are passing by. Since I live by the highway, cars go faster, but Connor was giving them a good run.

I’ve always been a kid magnet. I was thinking about that last night and I remembered something in an essay by Larry McMurtry in his collection of essays about the West, In a Narrow Grave. He wrote about an uncle he’d had that all the kids followed everywhere. He described him as an adult who, the kids sensed, had never quite grown up. I know that’s true of me. Maybe that’s why I never felt I would be up to the job of actually raising them.

But kids, like musicians, need appreciators too.

Yesterday as I sat down on the stoop in front of my house so I’d be at “kid height,” I was hit by a memory of some other kids, Kaye and Phi. Their parents were Vietnamese refugees. The years were 1988/90. My ex and I were living in our house in the “barrio” which then was largely populated with people who were living in Section 8 housing and people who’d lived on that street for decades. It was a “hood” in transition. The old-timers were white and Mexican. The new-timers were Asian and African American. Over the years, racial gang warfare escalated in in the hood and throughout the city (originating in the hood). But initially, it was pretty calm.

Kaye and Phi were twins, six years old, but Phi had been born with a disability — her legs were crooked and did not grow at the same rate as the rest of her body. Over the years she had surgery to straighten them, but she would always been extremely short. Kaye spent a lot of time at my house. She wanted to assimilate, to belong. She was very bright, and by the time she was seven, was doing a lot of translating for her mother.

I was still missing China and looking at their house (there was one house between our houses and their house faced my front yard) comforted me. Shoes lay outside the front door. Bok Choy dried on strings tied from the side of the house to the back fence. When New Years came, red papers with characters were glued to the sides of the door and a bright red diamond of paper with a door guardian was glued to the door itself. Working in the front yard, I could hear the family talking among them selves, and I loved that. Vietnamese sounds — to me — a lot like Hainanese, the dialect spoken by The Old Mother to her son, my best friends in China. Kaye couldn’t have known this. What she did know was that she was completely welcome at my house and I didn’t find her Vietnameseness in the least alienating.

Every morning the little girls walked to school — a walk that involved going up the street, turning left, walking four blocks to the liquor store, turning left and walking another block. Most of the kids in my hood walked to school. Everyone’s parents worked two or three jobs. How else were the kids going to get there? I am sure at school she experienced ostracism and bullying for being Asian.

Their grandfather lived with them. He had, apparently, experienced something pretty horrific during the Vietnam War. Most of the time he sat calmly outside the front door smoking, but once in a while he lost it completely and would jump up and down yelling, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” in an inconsolable rage. I thought it was funny, but maybe that was just me. But think about it. It is a pretty funny image. His son would bring him into the house.

Finally the family (by working and working and working) saved enough money to move into a better neighborhood with better schools. Kaye and Phi came to tell me goodbye. I sat on the steps leading to the side door of my garage and we talked. I told them it would be better. That our neighborhood wasn’t very nice and she would have better teachers where she was going (Mira Mesa one of the Asian ghettos of San Diego). Just before she left Kaye gave me a little piece of note paper. On it she’d written,

That note stayed on my refrigerator for years. It reminded me of a really great little girl and that being nice was a good direction to take with people in general. Not a very deep message and yet profound in its simplicity.

P.S. in the photo I’m 36 🙂

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/rdp-thursday-deep/

Tins of New Zealand Butter

As soon as you go out into the world after a semi-sheltered life in the homeland, you’ll start seeing things you’ve never imagined.

Of course, that’s WHY you go out into the world. You expect to see different people, different buildings, different customs, different food, all the stuff in National Geographic and all that, but you don’t expect the changes in the ordinary stuff of your life. Butter for example.

Butter comes from cows, OK, we know that. But otherwise it comes from a refrigerated shelf at the supermarket. It’s wrapped in waxed paper in an 8 oz sticks marked off with 1/4 and 1/2 and 3/4 cup lines making it easy to measure. It sits next to three others of its ilk in a cardboard package until someone buys it and does something with it. Cookies, maybe or just to spread on bread and jam in the morning. Who knows?

But out there in the world you have to go questing for it. You take a train, then a subway, and find yourself in a little supermarket on a Hong Kong street where you know they have good Havarti straight from Denmark. But butter? Where is it? There must be some here. This is Hong Kong, where everything is available even mango milkshakes at McDonalds.

Finally, not far from the canned tuna (which you also need) you see large, golden cans of — butter. “New Zealand?” you think, looking at mysterious can, “What about cows in New Zealand?” You know nothing about New Zealand, but you’re about to find out something rather intimate about the cattle who roam New Zealand’s pastures. You know that, whatever the fodder on which these cattle feast, French toast cooked in the resultant butter will be better than French toast cooked in peanut oil and you’ll be able to use that biscuit recipe your mom sent you. You load up your shopping basket with the necessaries — this mysterious antipodal butter, several cans of tuna, a jar of mayonnaise, five pounds of Danish Havarit, a can of cocoa.

When you’re finished you have a several pounds of food that will go into your backpack for the return trip. Two nights in Hong Kong and the main purpose is a hot shower and the grocery store. You laugh, thinking that for some this is an exotic destination and you do your share of sight-seeing, too, wandering the labyrinth of streets that circle the mountain on Hong Kong, but you stay in deep in Chinese Tsimtsatsui where hotel prices are lower. You love the Star Ferry, the sight of ocean-going junks with their butterfly sails on the bay, the enormous freight ships with their containers and the cranes lifting them so easily onto the wharf.

The next morning, you hoist up your backpack, get on the subway and head for the hovercraft landing. It’s a wondrous journey on this “boat” that floats above the Pearl River for 75 miles. Along the way — all green hills, rice fields and an occasional old pagoda, perhaps once a lighthouse — are memories, not your memories, but memories belonging to the land, memories of opium pirates and war. All this you expect but a tin of butter? That’s the big surprise.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/22/rdp-tuesday-butter/

The Sistine Poster Is Finished

I just have to share it. 🙂

The Thangka in the background is Palden Lhamo whom I just love. Her image shows her on her mythical mule over mountains that rise out of flames. Since I lived in mountains that were rising out of flames, that right there speaks to me. But she represents a great deal of power, the power to turn away from evil, even when it broke her heart to do so. She had to kill her own son who was the personification of evil.

I have been there, though it was not my son and it was a metaphorical rather than actual killing. When I saw “it” for what it truly was, I found the strength to take action. I learned this lesson from a Mughal painting of Krishna and Arjuna flying over the worlds. In the painting, Krishna is showing Arjuna why he must do the very thing he does not want to do.

That Christmas I was given a huge book (3 feet by 2 feet) of Tibetan Thangkas and their stories. Palden Lhamo’s image reached for me, so when I found a Thangka that represented her perfectly, I bought it.

The lesson? You just don’t fuck around with evil.

HOWEVER this is about the Sistine Poster.

Red Paper

One of the days I was in China we rode our bikes to the (then small and pretty) town of Sha Hu  (沙湖 Sand Lake) which was a little north and some other direction of our university. I don’t know for sure what time of year it was, but I suspect it was around New Years because there were many street artists or street calligraphers writing big black characters on sheets of thin paper that had been painted red. After the paper was painted red, bits of gold paint had been splattered on the surface. It was BEAUTIFUL. I watched the artists work for a while, enchanted by all of it.

Example… I don’t know what this says 😦

Then I came back to Denver and tried to adjust to the weirdness of a bad marriage, a brother in trouble, and a place I didn’t want to be. My ex gave me a big, red toolbox for my art supplies. I decided to splatter it with gold paint and asked my brother if I could borrow his gold spray paint (he did air-brush type paintings with spray paint in the trunk of the car my ex had given him). Instead of saying “Yes” or “No” he began arguing artistic theory with me. Polemical people are prone to not listening and he wasn’t listening when I said, “They do it in China. It’s beautiful.”

“China, China, China, I’m sick of hearing about China. Red and gold don’t go together.”

Since I was feeding and housing him, I didn’t think this was really “the thing.” It wasn’t something to argue anyway, but my brother had a way of just getting in your face when he wanted to prove a point, especially if he had been drinking. I didn’t know (because he’d promised NOT to drink while he lived with us) that he was drinking secretly. Finally I just went out the back door, got into my car, and headed down the alley.

Before long, a dark form jumped out of the bushes onto the hood of my car and clung to the windshield. Think about that. Clinging to glass is no small feat. I stopped, hoping he’d be knocked off, but if my brother had a point to prove, he was relentless. He opened the passenger door and got in.

“I’m sorry Martha Ann. It’s your toolbox.”

“Whatever. It doesn’t really matter to you what I do with it, does it?”

“No. I’m sorry. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to get away from you.”

“I’m sorry.”

I didn’t want to go home, besides, there was no way to turn around in the alley. I thought, “OK, so now I’m trapped in a small space with a firecracker. Let the party begin,” but it turned out well. We drove out of town, up to Lookout Mountain west of Golden. I am sure we did some looking out. We ended up talking and laughing and being sister and brother together.

Yesterday I began working on the Sistine Poster for the Baby Duck book launch. The big thing was the RIGHT background. It had to cover the foam core — 36 x 24 a kind of slick white that sucks light and energy out of any room it’s in. It BEGS to be behind something as it should. That’s its purpose though now it can be bought in various colors. I bought red tissue paper when I went to the store figuring “This’ll work somewhere.” When I got home from a short shopping trip (and the longest walk I’ve taken since I surrendered to the injury) I saw exactly what should happen.

I scored the foam core down the middle so I could fold it, enabling it to stand up.

I spray glued the surface of the foam core and spread the tissue paper on the surface. I didn’t try to make it perfectly smooth. It seemed that a little texture would be a good thing. After all, in China, these sheets of red paper were glued to doors and door jams and were NEVER smooth. Once both sides of the foam core were covered, I thought, “What now?”

It was clear. But HOW???? I hoped I had the little bottle of gold ink I thought I bought sometime, and maybe did, but no longer have. I have sheets of gold leaf, but you can’t splatter sheets of gold leaf. I have a tube of Gamblin’s Rich Gold oil paint but that seemed, seemed, seemed what? All I had to do was thin that down and splatter it from a brush just as I’d seen done by the street artists of Sha Hu.

Oil paint? I was doubtful, but it was my only option. I wasn’t sure if if the paint would dry overnight, or two days, or what, thinned though it was. I wouldn’t even know until morning how it looked since there’s no real light in my studio other than sunlight. But it was my moment and I took it. When I was done, my face, hair, hands, jeans, sweatshirt and glasses were covered with gold flecks. I felt so happy as I worked even though…

The whole time I worked, I thought of my brother.

Speaking of forgetful — I posted this thing without the pingback. 🙂

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/20/rdp-sunday-forgetful/

Chairman Trump

I woke up to this in my Facebook chat this morning, “I’ve just had a thought. How similar the current offal political strategy to appeal to vulnerable, uneducated, xenophobic people is to that used in that country you visited.”

The country I “visited” is China. The text message is from a reader of As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, which is a memoir about the year I spent as a Foreign Expert in English in the PRC in 1982/83, just a few years after Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four. As I was writing that book I saw over and over the similarities between the residue of Maoist China and the US as some of the people in this nation would have it.

I’m always stunned when someone says Offal (Our Fearless Leader) is stupid. He’s not. Nor is he insane. He’s just power-hungry and ruthless. WAY more dangerous than stupid or insane. I’m convinced he knows exactly what he’s doing and that he began long ago with The Apprentice. To build a personality cult one first has to be a “Personality” (which is different from having one). He’s continued campaigning throughout his term in “office” because whipping up a crowd, being irreverent, cruel, and funny in a sinister “WE are cool, THEY aren’t” way is how to reach followers. He’s not a leader, he has never been a leader and it’s unnecessary that he be one. I’m not even convinced he’s “run” by Putin or anyone else.

The whole time this has been going on I’ve been stunned by the similarity between Offal and Chairman Mao. The difference is that Mao started out with an actual enemy (the Japanese who had invaded China) and Offal really has no enemy and has had to demonize Democrats in order to form “sides.” Mao was able to, finally, seize power because of the corrupt and fragmented nature of politics and the ineffectiveness of the “opposition” party — the Kuomintang — in China. Mao appealed to the peasants who had never, in the thousands of years of Chinese history, had a chance in hell of an education, a safe life, or even enough food. Still, once the Japanese were defeated, Mao had to manufacture enemies. Over the years of his “reign” hundreds of thousands of Chinese died as “enemies of the state,” intellectuals, those who had been educated abroad, shop-keepers — any group Mao was able to label.

Mao’s idea of revolution was (and this is his metaphor) a jar containing silt, sand, gravel, pebbles and water. The only way to maintain his version of “order” was to keep the jar shaken so that the various materials could never settle into layers. The shaken jar was the constant struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

Offal has managed to keep this nation in constant upheaval since he took office.

China’s history and the history of the United States have few real points of comparison that I can see. The Chinese peasants who rallied behind Mao were TRUE victims whereas the blind followers of Offal have never lived in conditions remotely similar to those of the Chinese peasant. What Offal is able to do is make his followers feel that they are victims of the evil Democrat machine and sinister immigrants who are coming to take what they have.

I think it’s human nature to want to find a villain, someone to blame. It’s a lot easier than looking straight at your problems and trying to find a way to solve them, or taking responsibility when we ourselves have done something. This is not to say we have a perfect system — I don’t think so — but things being proffered by the Democrats, such as universal health care, would improve the lives of Offal’s base. The thing about a personality cult is that reality is less important than maintaining the illusion. Scratching the surface of a follower, we find infatuation and identification with the “hero.”

Oh, wait, that’s pretty much a description of my romantic relationships… 🙂

Apologies to Andy Warhol but I think he’d have done this, too, were he here to do it.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/03/rdp-thursday-scratch/

Language Problems

In Guangzhou in 1983, toward the end of spring, I discovered the most incorrigible mosquito bite on my left forearm. Not only did it NOT go away, but it seemed to grow. We’d recently emerged from an El Niño winter — rain for four months — into a torrid spring. It wasn’t torrid in the sense of suddenly exposed bosoms and spread legs, but torrid in the sense of, “Holy fuck! Is my sweat EVER going to dry?”

After a couple of months trying to deal with this mosquito bite, and seeing it grow into an odd circle, I asked my friend, Lia. “What’s up with this?”

“Xien (癣),” she said. Pronounced she-en. “We can get medicine in Shi Pai. It’s very common. There are two kinds of medicine. One works quickly, but it burns. The other, well, men might use it when they get xien down there,” she nodded toward the ground, signifying the pubic area. We walked over to the pharmacy in the village and I came home with a little bottle of burning stuff. Soon the xien was cleared up.

Fast forward, I dunno, maybe four years? A wet winter in San Diego, another El Niño. I noticed that xien had returned. But what the hell was it in ENGLISH???? I had no idea. Luckily, I lived in the neighborhood where “world migrations end” and, at that period, were thousands of Asian immigrants in the Section 8 housing in my little barrio of the world. There were Chinese pharmacies all up and down University Boulevard.

One afternoon, on my way home from school (I walked the four miles) I stopped into one of these pharmacies. I felt as if the doorway was a magic portal to my Chinese home village of Shipai. All around me were the familiar jars of raw materials — desiccated lizards, snakes, spiders, herbs, dried ginseng, mysterious roots I couldn’t identify, slices of nutmeg, star anise… In the case in front of the the man were boxes and bottles of common Chinese remedies — even the famous hepatitis crystals from which my ex had had to make tea were there. I saw my favorite cold remedy — Gan Mao Ling. An abacus rested on the counter. I had to look around a few times to understand where I was. Outside the open door was University Boulevard. Inside this dim room was China. The smell! Wow. I closed my eyes and savored the transport of nostalgia.

“Can I help you?” He looked at me very bewildered.

I put my arm on the counter and said, “I have xien and I need some medicine.”

“Why you come here and not grocery store?”

“I don’t know what it’s called in English.”

How completely insane I must have seemed to him.

“Why you not know?”

“I lived in Guangzhou for a year and got it there. I never had it in America and I don’t know…”

He reached under the counter and brought out a black light. He turned it on and pointed it at my arm. The xien glowed. “You can use this,” he put a tube of Tinactin on the counter, “Or this Chinese medicine,” He set the familiar bottle of burning stuff next to the Tinactin.

That’s how I learned that I had ringworm and that ringworm is a fungus. I also learned that the word xien means “glow.”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/09/26/rdp-thursday-fungus/

Mid-Autumn Festival

Quiet Night Thoughts
Li Bai, Tang Dynasty (1300 years ago…)

床前明月光
疑是地上霜
举头望明月
低头思故乡

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.”

“And us?”

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.

What I Didn’t Write

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/rdp-monday-sputter/