“Why do you love China so much?”
I get this question a lot.
My truly honest answer would be a shoulder shrugging ‘I don’t really know’, but with years of getting this same question, I realized it’s never good enough to the listener. So I developed a different answer, much more practical.
“Look. That’s a really long story, but some day—if we have time, I’ll tell you all about it.”
The Year of the Horse
Summer in Beijing is not very forgiving. I have known this since the first time I spent summer in Beijing, long before I even dared to dream that someday I would live in China. Back in 1999, on my first visit to China, Beijing was much smaller. At that time, the “capital of the north” only had around twelve million people, two subway lines, two or three KFC outlets and one single McDonalds on Wangfujing Street. There were two international schools. The international part of the airport was a rather small terminal, always packed.
As a nation, China’s 50th birthday was just three months ahead, and preparations for a big celebration were in full swing.
By now, Beijing changed in many ways. Twenty million people work and commute in Beijing proper. The city has now over a dozen and a half subway lines. KFC, McDonald and countless other foreign and domestic fast food eateries are spread all over the city. There are more than one hundred international schools now. Three spacious airport terminals served millions of tourists since the 2008 Olympics Games.
So much progress—yet, summer in Beijing was still pretty much the same.
“Damn hot here,” said Ed Watkins. I couldn’t agree more.
And it wasn’t just the heat. Odors levitate from piles of garbage everyone seems to ignore. Smells seem to float in lazy, human-sized bubbles in this city. Make one step, you get the smell. Make another step, it might be gone. And then, there’s the public toilets. They are everywhere in Beijing. The result is a revolting stench, which most foreigners who lived in Beijing for a while will never miss, after they leave China.
“Ke yi ma?” asked Tony, our driver. He pointed at a table.
Ed turned to me. His Chinese was at level zero.
“He is asking if this table will do,” I said.
“Sure! Whatever,” said Ed. There were no better tables at hand anyway.
We sat at a greasy table, right between a seafood stand and a toilet shack, each a few yards away from us in opposite directions. Both the food stand and the toilet shack just wouldn’t stop having “customers.”
The entire row of stands offered some tiny seafood tidbits and other multicolored delicacies the locals seemed to love. Plastic containers, lined up on the ground in front of the stands had live fish and crawling stuff of all colors on display, ready to be skewered or split in two. Some people would stop for a second, check out the sea-ware, only to be on their way the next second. Some would give us a glance in the process. They were most likely trying to guess what could bring two huge laowais like us, to sit at a table like that, in a neighborhood that was definitely not designed to cater to foreigners.
Tony spoke to a young waiter, and nine bottles of Yanjing beer arrived one minute later. The waiter opened all nine bottles at once, and strode away from our table. There was not a look, not a smile, nothing. Most likely, his entire English was a hardly recognizable “Hallo” and the word “WC,” so why bother talking to us. To the waiter, the word ‘service’ was more about ‘serving the boss, thus keeping the job’ than about serving customers. Aside from slamming drinks onto tables, he would occasionally check out the girls on the street, all the while typing on his phone. Chinese loved to type on phones.
I noticed two slender girls wearing extremely short mini skirts as they snaked their way through a small mass of people standing nearby a bus stop station. They walked past our table, and climbed up a metal staircase, attached to the building next to us. A KTV. A karaoke building, dilapidated on the outside, probably quite fancy on the inside. We would know soon.
As we tasted our beer, I noticed Ed’s grimacing face. More than once, he mentioned how much he hated lukewarm beer. Tony, on the other hand, never thought warm beer could be a discomfort. He happily slurped on it, while eating some strange, star-shaped forms piled on his plastic plate. He placed shells, legs, antennas and other parts of his food onto another pile, after pulling them from between his teeth.
“I guess those are the non-eatable parts,” I told Ed, pointing at the pile, half jokingly.
“So, how did you like the wall?” I asked Ed with a rising voice. A change of topic was needed.
“Pretty awesome,” Ed said, alleviated by the fact that we were talking. Making smalltalk. The man was probably exhausted after a two-hour-long trek along the steep slopes of the wall at Badaling, which is actually the easiest piece of the Chinese Great Wall, and therefore the most climber-friendly part. He was approaching 60—or so I was guessing, and with his experience and his financial insights, Ed was a good choice as a new hire at our Dallas branch. In less than two months he proved to be an asset in the company and I was glad we hired him. And now he was in China, for the first time ever. As a Texan, he probably liked to ‘work hard and play hard’; and not necessarily in that same order. As the newly hired CFO of our USA branch, he was most likely going through an exciting period in his own life. And tonight he was the guest of honor. Tony and I had arranged for a night of fun for him.
The plan was actually very simple. A party room for a few hours, all-you-can-drink beer and soda, a big KTV jukebox machine, and a young companion for the evening, usually chosen by the guest from among ten or more girls. The girls would light customers’ cigarettes, keep their glass full, find many occasions to toast and be complacent in general. Prostitution is illegal in China, but if a client wanted and if the girl agreed, the fun could ‘go on’ elsewhere. That was the plan.
“But I liked your ‘five kuai T-shirt’ even more,” Ed said.
With a hint of humor, he was talking about what happened earlier during the day, at the Great Wall souvenir shops, and my acquired ability to barter for things with Chinese people. Tony –next to me, not knowing any English whatsoever and therefore totally oblivious to our talk, reacted to the word kuai, guessing correctly Ed’s mention of today’s event at the Badaling souvenir shop. He immediately drew a smile on his face, and his eyes went oblique from side to side as he turned to me, bursting a short laughter and saying “wu kuai qian”—five bucks. Just like Chinese work etiquette demanded, Tony Xu, a somewhat handsome boy from the south of China, had been all-smile, all-bearing and all-patient towards Ed and towards me. Especially towards Ed, whose words sounded like gibberish to him, and whose e-cig was something of a stupid curiosity.
“I still didn’t want the damn shirt,” I said, partly to myself.
“I never thought he would go for it,” I added, referring to the sales person who grabbed me by my word when I said I would only buy the thing if it was as low as five kuai. And since the seller hastily agreed to what I thought was a ridiculously low price, I had to buy the darn thing. It was a word; once uttered, the deal had to be respected. And so I got myself a little shirt –more like a qipao– for my little daughter, for no more than 5 kuai.
In the end, it turned out to be too small for her. Oh well…
As I was remembering the moment of the day, two more girls wiggled themselves out of the throngs of the sidewalk, and walked towards the staircase encompassing the karaoke building. And as they did, both Ed and I turned towards them. Their tiny figures were of undeniable beauty, as they climbed the staircases revealing the curves of their young bodies. Tony smiled at me, realizing I was enjoying the moment, and then swiftly added in a low voice “These are the 500 kuai girls!” which I immediately translated to our guest of honor.
“OK?” Ed asked. It meant ‘tell me more.’
“He means they work here,” I said, discretely pointing in the direction of the staircase, “and according to what Tony says, they go for 500 apiece. RMB, of course!”
“Oh, I see,” Ed said. “So… the ones we are seeing tonight, those are 200 a piece?” he asked, as if trying to reaffirm what was in store for him, this evening. In his mind, he was also making sure he wouldn’t be getting a surprise bill after the fun part was over. Initially, Ed even wanted to pay for the whole thing up-front, but Tony explained that wasn’t the way things were done here; people would just pay at the end.
“Yes,” I said, “Except your girl, because these girls, I mean, the 200-RMB-girls, they don’t speak any English whatsoever, so yours will be have to be a three, or four-hundred-RMB-girl, brought in from some other place, and that’s what Tony has been arranging for you.”
“Oh, I see,” said Ed in agreement, giving a subtle nod and turning again to the place where the girls just entered the building. He, too, had enjoyed watching them sway their bodies past our table and up those staircases; immune to the heat of Beijing’s summer, immune to the looks of men and women alike.
It was true. Tony spent a good portion of the day driving and guiding us, and talking on the phone with various “mamas”, as the Karaoke manager ladies were usually called, until he found one who knew of a girl who spoke sufficient English and who was available to come over to our neighborhood, despite its low reputation. But the girl would have to be “transferred” from some other house for the evening, so she was a little more expensive. Of course, this was only happening because we were in this neighborhood. If this was Wangfujing or Beihai, or any other upscale part of Beijing, English would not even be an issue. But the price tag would also be very different.
“But we still have plenty of time,” I said.
Time. It was true, we had time. We were way too early out there… And so we started to have some more small-talk. About food. About the weather. About how things were going in Dallas. And of course, about the Chinese. And then I felt the moment was right; I decided to keep my word on a question Ed asked me a few weeks earlier, about why I chose China. I guess I also felt it would be a good way to kill time.
“So, you wanna know why I moved to China?” I suddenly asked Ed, as if reminding him of the promise I gave him a while ago, back in Dallas.
Soon after Ed joined the company, he and I would spend time together at the smoke joint our company building offered to smokers, which was close to the parking lot. Ed and I were the only two non-Chinese smokers in the company, and so we spent quite some time talking about stuff, and China has been always a topic. One day he asked me why I went to live in China, given the fact I was doing fine in Miami. I remember telling him, that was a long story, but someday I would tell him about it.
And now here I was, half-smiling, half-taunting his sense of Texan logic, reminding him with my smile of the unanswered question of his.
“Hell yeah,” was his reply. A good Texan –as Ed sure was– would always check things out first, and if the “checks and balances” favored for someone to go ahead, and do the “live-in-China-thing”, then the whole story would have made sense to Ed. But this was not my case, and he was intrigued about it. He knew I lived in the States for many years, and he knew I had a good life there.
And yet… I left the States. For good. And I moved to China, of all places.
Immediately, we both straightened ourselves in our seats, realizing a good, interesting conversation was suddenly lying directly ahead of us. Now the heat was not on our minds anymore. I grabbed a Honghe and my lighter and lit my cigarette, adding to Beijing’s pollution. He gave another long sip on his bottle of beer, this time without the usual “warm-beer-smirk” on his face.
“OK,” I began, “First, I need to tell you about something that happened to me the first time I came to China, and then some things that happened to me about China while I was living in Argentina.”
“All right.” Ed was paying me undivided attention.
“OK, lemme start with ‘99 –in Miami,” I added, “At that time, I had a Chinese girlfriend. She…”
“Wait a minute! You mean, a Chinese girlfriend—that’s not your wife? Your current wife?” Ed pointed outwards with his index finger for emphasis.
“Yes,” I said, immediately causing a broad smile on his face. By the look on his face, he was probably thinking “Oh, I see! This guy is really into Chinese girls!”
“She was a Chinese girl I met in Miami,” I added, “Actually; I met her on the very night when Hong Kong was given back to China from the UK. That was ’97,” I exclaimed, as if suddenly remembering the detail. By “night” I was referring to the gala dinner the Miami Chinese Association had organized for the occasion of “Great Britain’s Handover of Hong Kong to Communist China” of July 1st 1997, as it was being described in newspapers and other media at the time. The gala was held at Miami’s Signature Gardens, an elegant, spacious banquet hall that would change the course of my life.
“Man, there were like 5000 Chinese in there, that night,” I added nostalgically, “and there were like three or four foreigners, aside of me. It felt soooooo good,” I smiled to myself, looking upwards, nowhere in particular.
By “foreigners” I meant non-Chinese. For some strange reason, my entire life I felt more at ease among Chinese than among my own.
I quickly came back from my brief trip along memory lane, and saw Ed was still smiling, sipping his beer and lifting his e-cig, ready to have a smoke. I realized something I always thought would only be interesting to me was interesting to him too. He was either a very good listener and genuinely interested, or he was really good at paying back a favor. The favor being me hiring him two months earlier, on my business trip to Dallas.
“Her name was Diana,” I said, “Yinghua, in Chinese. She was… she is,” I interrupted myself, to correct past and present tense in my sentence, “she is an English teacher at the Miami-Dade Community College, and she approached me on that night.”
And so I started telling him the story of my China… in my own way.
The year before Y2K
My guts were telling me I would be late tonight. I could have made it fast and painless, and finish my shift. But instead I was taking my time. Looking at the blank computer screen. Opening the command window for no real reasons. Typing DOS commands like CLS, TREE and DIR, needlessly. Playing as if I understood what was actually going on, and why Alan Lieberman’s software wouldn’t load. In reality, I was just delaying the loading of his software for a while. And having a lot of fun while doing it.
Alan Lieberman was a slim, rather fragile looking secular Jew, of medium height and a strong suntan. At age 44, his wardrobe was a mix of Cuban and Sicilian, and his demeanor was always relaxed and unpreoccupied. He was a good player at the game called “enjoy life”, but today he was very nervous. He bought the program a few years ago, and he thought it would serve him well considering any other hotel management software would have cost him in the thousands. This one—as far as I knew, cost him less than 30 dollars, and came on a floppy disk with no label.
“Alan, you know next year this thing is crap, right?” I said.
“What do you mean?” said Alan, irritated. It was getting late.
“Ever heard of the Y2K problem?” I asked. To him, just the sound of a word like Y2K was probably more like Japanese or Guarani language. Yes, he always had the latest sport cars, and he dated the hottest models in South Beach, but about computers Alan had no clue.
“No, what the fuck is that?” he said, realizing I wouldn’t speak until he would admit his ignorance.
“All right, here is the thing.” I turned the bulky gray monitor towards him, showing him that ‘Hotel Sys’ finally loaded. “This program was basically written in the old ways, and that means it reads years like with two digits, not four digits!”
Alan kept staring at me, now understanding even less, but this time sincerely trying to grasp my meaning.
“In other words, instead of reading 1997 or 1998, ‘Hotel Sys’ reads 97, 98, and so on!” I said.
“So! Next year it will read zero-zero! What year is that?” I asked him. “Will the computer calculate the year 2000? Or will it be the year 1900, in the program’s mind? What about those credit card payments? Imagine a guy paying a room until January 1st, of the year 2000. The system will think it’s the year 1900! The system will not want him to be checking out, by 11 am. The system will want him to be checking out, a hundred years ago! And that’s just one of the things which could go wrong, Alan.”
I literally saw the man’s light bulb lighting up, above his head. He understood, or at least, he understood part of it. He had probably heard about the whole issue talking to his friends and peers, but never really understood it, and now it started to make sense to him. His smile was back. In his mind, he already had a solution, as he tapped my shoulder.
“OK, OK, Abel! Tomorrow—I promise! Tomorrow I’ll come by early, and we’ll find a good software for this thing. And we’ll buy it!”
“Early” meant 11 AM for Alan. Or 11:30.
“Now let’s get going! Come on, come on, I’m late already!” he added flapping his left arm, pointing at his watch. “Angie knows what to do about it, for today. Right, Angie?”
“Sure,” said Angela in a low voice. Angela, who had been next to me the entire time and who was totally aware of my delaying “Hotel Sys” to launch, couldn’t stand Alan. She despised men who wore T-shirts with bad words on them; and wore leather moccasins with no socks underneath. And she wondered why a rich, modern Jew would be so careless about his business. One thing is to be lucky in life, inherit money, and do the “Living la vida loca” thing, and another thing is to just be plain stupid. And in Angela’s eyes, Alan was just stupid.
And so, as soon as the owner of the Collins Plaza Hotel left the lobby, Angela who was about to start her shift, turned to me in a sigh.
“That was fun! This guy never saw a DOS screen,” she said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “well, tomorrow if he comes early, I’ll tell him I can make it even better. But he will have to buy a new computer instead of new software.”
“You think you can do it?”
“Of course I can!” I said, “That’s nothing. It will take me less than two months to wrap this thing up, in Germany.”
As soon as I spoke out the word Germany, a dark cloud overcame her face, and she lowered her voice, almost imploring. “Why do you have to go to Germany? Why can’t you stay here?”
I sighed. I didn’t reply. Instead, I just gave her a little kiss on the forehead and left to take a shower. She knew I had made up my mind.
Freshly showered, I rushed into Wolfie’s. The place was empty, except for a few elderly people who spent their whole late afternoon at the place. Forty years earlier Wolfie’s was a place to see and to be seen. Now it was a place to hide. Located along Collins; the rundown eatery was increasingly becoming a nuisance to authorities and locals alike.
Yinghua was sitting at our usual table, and she was having her usual ice tea. Her smile –from east to west across her face, was both a blessing and a curse to me.
“Sorry… I am late” I said, in an evasive tone. As I grabbed the menu, I noticed she was clutching a manila envelope in her hands.
“No problem.” She smiled at me.
“Did you wait long for me?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Yinghua never had a problem waiting for me. So many times I asked myself why she was being so patient with me, being that at times, I was quite an ass towards her. As I scanned the menu as if I didn’t know it by heart. I didn’t feel like eating and she realized it. She slid her car keys across the table towards me.
“Let’s go somewhere special tonight,” she said, “I have a surprise for you.”
“Oh, really?” I said, while taking a second glance at the yellowish envelope in her hands.
“Yes,” she said. Another giggle; cartoonish to the point I hated it. She hid the envelope into her purse. “But we can eat here first, baby, if you want,” she quickly added, visibly showing remorse on her round face, for being so careless, and not even inquiring if perhaps I hadn’t eaten.
“No, no. That’s good,” I exclaimed, “Because I am not really hungry.” I slapped the menu shut, and asked the old waitress for the check. Even though I was sure Yinghua already paid for her ice tea.
And so we left Wolfie’s and went driving. We first went west across the causeway that is an extension of 41st Street, then north along Biscayne Boulevard. I always enjoyed driving, but driving in Miami was something with added bonuses. The streets neatly winded along canals and causeways, and there was always something magic about Miami’s sights and views; be day or night; be dawn or dusk.
Many times I noticed Yinghua looking at me from her passenger’s seat, relishing in the view of seeing me drive with an almost contagious joy. She often turned sideways, almost placing her back to the passenger window, in order to keep a front view to me. Something was telling me Biscayne Boulevard was not her destination in mind. Not tonight.
Too often we have driven along this same artery, only to pick a place among the many starless motels. Every time we rushed through the procedure of checking in, and gave in to our most carnal desires; in the anonymity of lowered hurricane blinds and double folded curtains. Aside from the first few months in 1997, when promise and hope lay in our midst, this was a monochromatic game of lust and self-destructive ecstasy. Every time, a guttural feeling of desire boggled our minds before the act; only to be replaced by an utter feeling of guilt and self-disdain afterwards. Every time, we hurled ourselves into each other’s bodies and every time, I found out, the end of the rainbow still eluded me, like a mirage.
Every time—as a song goes, “we did what we had to do, and saw it through, without exception”.
This time, something seemed different, though. Every time I decelerated the car hearing some of the places we had been before, she would just place her hand on my arm, letting me know—with no words at all—she wanted me to keep driving.
When we finally arrived, it turned out to be her gated community. We were at the gate of her home. I turned to her.
“But, Yinghua? Your husband?”
She suggestively shook her head in a “no” and the gate went up. I drove in. She guided me through a maze of curved streets, rolling over yellow-colored road bumps and passing by silent cul-de-sacs until we reached a place where about half a dozen villas circled a small lake. We parked, and for the first time since we met—two years ago, I walked into her lush home.
Silence came upon us after the storm, and to the nth time I had welled over all too easily. I never took guilt in claiming what I considered mine, and at times not mine as well. A concoction of an easy kill, mixed with self-disdain followed the slaughter. Too easy. Too senselessly pointless. Oil flowing on sun-hardened linen, lacking purpose and direction. And yet, she never took notice or offense to it. And as she lay next to me, cheek nested just under my clavicle, she purred. Happiness. A feeling of fulfillment, ever perplexing to me. She never saw this as something to be noticed. To her, my sighs were signs that she had done her part well. And in a way, she was probably right.
“Yes?” In my mind I was ready for more of the same.
“Soon you will be talking to my father, Mantou. In Russian,” she said.
“Ah, yes,” I said, remembering that the old man had been trained in Soviet Moscow, before the Cultural Revolution had sent him for re-education to the farmland.
I enjoyed talking about Beijing with Yinghua, as if we both had lived there, many years ago. In those times, in the beginning we used to share. We shared dreams and life stories. She talked about the drab colors of autumn, and the dust of the villages surrounding the city itself. She told me how we would walk hand in hand through the sun-baked avenues and narrow hutongs—willing to taunt onlookers. She made me realize how Beijing was beautiful in its very ugliness, all this before I had ever set foot in the capital of the Middle Kingdom. And to me, this was beautiful. I used to draw parallel lines between her descriptions and books I had read in my life. Pearl S. Buck’s “Letters from Pekin” came to mind as she would narrate the shape of street corners and how dirt-poor peddlers would do all their bodily functions early in the mornings, on those very street corners. Another book I loved to compare to her tales was my favorite book of all, “Till Morning Comes“. And even though that story—which I considered to be Han Suyin’s unsung masterpiece, did not relate to Beijing until much later in the book, I could never get enough of it. In fact, anything that was Chinese or related to China, was food for my soul. For a while; for almost a year, Yinghua –with her infinite bubbliness and her high-pitch voice, filled this void in my life. In the beginning, especially after I returned from the war-torn Balkans, I used to see her as a reward fate was giving me, after Minghui’s death.
Two years later, the stories, the warm feelings and all the talk subsided. We didn’t share those stories anymore. She still liked to hear about my life before I widowed, but I was the one who hated to talk about it. Slowly, even mentioning Minghui to her was becoming a blasphemy in my mind; pearls thrown to waste. In simple words, I was more and more convinced that she would never have the guts to divorce her rich, stock market-millionaire husband, and I would just be the occasional gas station to her passion. Surely she didn’t think it that way, as a planned-out strategy, but it was what we had become. Like a seismic fault line; roaring every so often. Reminding villagers that some day they all might die; but never threatening them as badly as to make them leave the place. Yinghua and I lived on each other’s fault line.
I—a roar to her thirst. She—salt to my wounds.
“I got us your passport back. And I got us a flight to Beijing, Mantou,” she said. Her voice crackled in childish giggle, overflowing with joy.
“What?” My body almost jumped off the mattress. “They actually stamped in the visa?” She chuckled proudly while reaching for the manila envelope in her purse.
“Wow, wow, wow, Yinghua!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I never managed to get that seal in my damn passport. Her chuckle turned to laughter, seeing me truly, truly amazed! Quick as a pickpocket goes through a stolen wallet, I paged the booklet until I saw the full page stamp. I realized I would be spending my next birthday in China! My beloved China!
“Ah, Minghui,” I heard my mind scream, “if you could only see this! If you could only be here, now!”
She grabbed a pillow form one side of the giant mahogany bed and tucked it under my head, so I could start deciphering the Chinese words on my visa. She genuinely relished seeing me so happy. And then, as if she had read my mind, she smiled at me.
“Your little Ming can see this. You do know that, right?”
I lifted my eyes. Words just weren’t being processed in my brain.
“I will take you to a very special place in Beijing, Mantou. I promise!” Her hands pressed harder on me.
“But my love…”
“Ah-ah! Don’t you my love me now. Make love to me,” she chuckled. Her sa jiao was on, all the way. She purred, suggesting the arrival of another storm.
The storm was quick and intense; rainfall was copious. But my mind was elsewhere. With Minghui. My Minghui. She would surely be seeing me now from the other side, wouldn’t she? And she sure would approve of my seeking felicity in this married woman, right? Minghui wouldn’t mind this dragon woman who loved me for a reason as unclear to me as why I loved China. After all, it was a Chinese thing to pursue happiness, wasn’t it? Another thought crossed my mind. Would Jesus approve of it, too? I quickly dismissed that idea, with a short “neither would my father” on the side.
My Minghui. I am going to China! Twice I tired, and twice I failed. In 1989 I chose the wrong moment, when tanks were rolling onto the capital’s main square. In fact, I could not have chosen a worse moment to apply for a visa, I later realized. Four years later, as a recent immigrant to the USA, I tried again. And again I failed. While China was beginning to layout plans on how to join the WTO and how to keep a “Most Favored Nation” status while still outside the WTO, the old rulers of the Middle Kingdom still held a tight grip on who was allowed in and who wasn’t. The ring of what happened to students, workers and soldiers in the capital four years earlier, was still sounding loudly in the ears of the decision-makers. Tigers and flies were both subject to scrutiny, and I was nothing but a fly. Perhaps the smallest of flies. There would be no visa for me. Not in 1989 and not in 1993. But now! Ah, yes! I am on my way to China, Minghui! And I am on my way to you, even though you are not among us anymore! You are somewhere high above us, my love. My little white flower! I am about to fulfill all our promises. The tree. The orange. The seal.
“All the things we said we would do, once we lived in China –I will to do them for you, Minghui! For us!”
The next day I began packing. To my relief, Angela wasn’t present most of the time, and I decided to spend the last night at the Deja Vu nightclub, far from her. Far from any chance of being cried upon; or begged to stay. Far from my conscience. Far from my despicable myself.
The last few days in Miami everything seemed distant. Except Minghui, whose presence was as tangible to me as the Cuban coladas I drank during the sweltering heat of Miami’s high summer days. I would fly from Miami to Frankfurt and spend a week with my mother and brother, then take another plane to Beijing. There, Yinghua would be waiting for me. I cherished the fact that the Silk Road, almost in its entire length would be under the wings of the airplane.
And when the time came, and as the nine-hour flight neared its end, ocher-colored, ragged, featureless mountains began taking shape in front of my eyes, far below me. Before the airplane would make it to its destination, I prayed. Briefly. My visa allowed me to stay three months, but there was nothing I wanted more than to stay in China for as long as I could. Forever, if I could.
“When you were three years old, son” my mother told me the day before departure, “you asked me where was China.”
“Yeah,” she said, going through her memory. “I forgot about it, then. But later, seeing how crazy you are about that country, I came to remember it, son.”
“But we were in Stuttgart. mom!”
“True. And at that time, I still didn’t see one single Chinese in my entire life,” she said. “It was the hard years. Your dad and I were running the shop downstairs and you and Danny, just born were so alone!” Her memory lane was alive and lit. “I can still remember how we would run up those six floors, see if you guy were all right, every hour.”
“So, what did you do then?”
“Well, I would sigh of relief! We were so scared you two would do something stupid, so we even had an alarm set up. Every single hour! And unless there were clients for the bags, we would take turns to check on your, guys.”
“No, mom,” I said. “What did you say when I asked you about China?”
“Oh, that!” She sighed. “I think I told you something like it was further than the moon. Why would I worry about that? My worry was you guys, and the hallway and that stupid bomb hole at the end of the hallway.”
I never knew about the hole in the wall until later in life, when I saw it from pictures. My dad, a photographer by profession, carefully documented out lives in the years they lived in post-WWII Germany. West Germany. And that hole, almost a meter in diameter, stuck in the middle of a five story building in the outskirts of Stuttgart was a sight to behold. In fact, half of the building gave in to the heavy bombing of its time, and that one hole was just the remainder of the rest of the story.
“You know, mom? I still remember the day Mao died.”
“I know,” she said. “You told us that story so many times…”
“Yeah,” I said. “It was amazing. It was the first time I saw his face on Bild.” Now my own memory lane was getting lit. Six letters, thick and black, set on the covers of German magazines of the time stuck in my mind.
It was September 1976, and I was twelve years old. Furthermore, I was about to leave Germany with dad and mom, and with Danny, my younger brother. We were moving all the way to Argentina!
“Ah, those days,” I heard myself say as the sound of the landing gear popped from under the wings. I looked out the window. Brown streets, for miles on end. Tarnished yellow colored roofs, shaped in the typical, curbed arch that I loved so much. I could discern the soviet-style blocks of housing, residential by preference. I could see parks and highways, and a lake with refreshingly green surroundings.
And then I saw that a runway—a single sepia-colored runway, was on our side. The engine groaned, the German bird tilted and the runway made its way front. I was in China!
Within ten minutes, we were taxiing at the Beijing airport. A place devoid of ads. Devoid of colors, except the bright red-and-yellow banners I knew were government propaganda. Devoid of people even, as we were told to step down a steep tarmac, and walk ourselves to a very square, seatless bus that would take us to a the terminal building. Behind it, Yinghua was waiting for me.
Something of the excitement of when we first met had returned. Her eyes were moist with the excitement of seeing me in China. Mine were dry, as dry as the weather. Peace, an almost meticulously organized peace overcame my heart as I began to adjust to the weather, the time lag and the fact that I was in China. All that I had planned in spasms of joy; all the ecstasy of being here was strangely overruled by a loud “behave yourself and follow the path.”
And as we drove to the hotel she had arranged for me, Yinghua became apologetic to the fact that her parents’ home was spacious enough to host me as their guest, but it was deemed to be unfit for me to stay there, given the circumstances. Personally, I was thankful to have a room to myself, but the contrast quickly proved a lot to my self-imposed restraining behavior. And as the two bellboys carried my one luggage and looked at me in a gaze, I heard them saying to each other things like “Oh, how can these foreign devils be so big, and so hairy, and so sweaty, and so tall?” Yes, I was sweating, all right. There was no air conditioning in the room, but the administration provided for two standing fans, and all-you-can-drink hot water.