Archive for March, 2009


March 26, 2009

I retrieved my visa yesterday morning. The lines at the consulate were long. Strangers chatted with one another. The old woman behind me asked me something in Chinese. I shook my head, and she repeated the question in English. I answered her. The man in front of me turned and said, “This is going to be expensive.” I asked him if he was ready. He grinned and faced the counter again. When it was my turn to pay, I half expected the fee to be raised at the last minute, or for the teller to inform me of some complication with the application or to outright reject me because my Chinese was so poor.

The teller asked for the requisite $130, which I was ready for, and then she handed me my passport.

I stopped in the middle of the room to inspect it. Everything was there, neat, in order. Even the hyphen in my name. I kept flipping through the passport to make sure.


The woman who’d stood behind me in line was now sitting behind me on the bus. She said that the fee in the seventies had been five dollars. Then it rose for a while to thirty. And now this. She tsked. Then she said, “Why they have to pay the black guys, I don’t know.”


“The black guys. Security. We don’t need security there at the consulate.”

An Asian woman across the aisle had turned toward us. I couldn’t tell why she was staring. I didn’t know what to say. It occurred to me how futile it had been all those years ago to berate my parents for their prejudices. As a kid, I’d screamed at them, “Nobody is a ghost here. You can’t go around calling people ghosts.”

The woman behind me changed the subject: She’d lived here for fifty years, had learned English growing up in Hong Kong. And then: How long had I lived here? Where did I live now? Could I read and write in Chinese? Why not? Didn’t my parents love me? Where in China would I be visiting? When I mentioned Chengdu, she wrinkled her nose. Her wrinkled nose raised the sunglasses hiding her eyes. She looked like one of the protesters sitting outside the consulate, wrapped in blankets with wide, closed-off faces. “It’s all earthquake rubble,” she said. “Why would you want to go there?”

“To meet family,” I said.

“But still, why would you spend time there? It’s stuck in the past.”

“To meet friends,” I said.

“But there’s nothing to see.”

“I will see pandas,” I said. “Where will you be visiting?”

“Beijing, of course,” she said, and opened her newspaper.


A rude awakening

March 23, 2009

In one week I’ll be on my way to China. My first trip there. I’ll be bringing slim books with me—Saramago and Hrabal, of course, and also monographs on centuries’-old art and architecture. I suppose I have an image of China based on these latter little books and on the stories I want to write. I will write these stories down, of course, because fiction is what I know, but I also know that a rude awakening awaits.

I am not partial to the phrase “rude awakening.” When I take apart such a phrase—sometimes to confirm for work, most times to confirm for self—the meaning vanishes and I am stuck on the individual words. This is even more of a problem with Chinese phrasings. Once, I’d translated four words from one of my father’s calligraphy pieces, a short, pithy saying encapsulating the range of life, but in my clumsy hands they were divided into individual blocks, as neatly defined by the separation between the characters as by the space inside them left clear of ink—happiness, home, peace, world. My father had laughed when I told him how I’d translated the phrase, and I looked again at this piece of calligraphy, how the words seemed caged, none of them allowed to sweep outside their border in a flourish. I couldn’t see what he was seeing. I respond to the possibilities and freedoms in ink, the restrictions a hand places on paper, and so my relationship to words themselves is a slow burn, loose, a mixture of imprecise metaphor, all clunky and incorrect though sometimes, when I’m concentrating, deliciously on point. It may take time for me to reach clarity of any sort—my rude awakenings are many—but when I do, I see the space around the thing, the importance of defining emptiness, and despite my tendency to translate a controlled space faster than an uncontrolled one, the words in whatever form do eventually show themselves to me.