Theme park

April 20, 2009

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Theme
by Lu Xun

I dreamed of myself in a grammar school classroom learning to write: I was asking the schoolmaster how to establish a theme.

“Impossible!” the schoolmaster said, staring at me over the top of his spectacles. “Let me tell you something.

“A male child was born to a family. The family was so thrilled. During the one-month birthday celebration, the family showed the baby to their guests, probably to invite some auspicious comments.

“One man said, ‘This child will be wealthy.’ He was duly thanked.

“One man said, ‘This child will be powerful.’ He received auspicious comments in return.

“One man said, ‘This child will die one day.’ He was rewarded with blows from everyone present.

“To say the child will die is telling the truth. To say the child will be wealthy or powerful is telling a lie. But the one lying was richly rewarded, while the one telling the truth was beaten.”

“I don’t want to tell lies, and I don’t want to be beaten, either. So, master, what should I say?”

“Okay, then, you’ll have to say, ‘This child! Oh my! How . . . indeed! Ha ha ha! Hee hee hee! Hee hee hee!'”

—from The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories:
Flash Fiction from Contemporary China
,
edited and translated by Shouhua Qi

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The mall across from the hotel I’d stayed at was recently completed but still stands mostly empty; only the stores facing the main road are open for business, occupied by such brands as Versace and Pepe. On my last morning, I walked through the inner court of the mall hoping to find a store that sold tchotchkes, but only an advertising agency, a restaurant, and the occasional half-empty clothing store were in operation. I walked for half an hour with no exit in sight, the path curving continually to the right after every pillared overpass. Finally I turned back when the anxiety of getting lost took hold, though lost in this sense was more psychological than physical. There was just too much space and too few people. After the bustle of the past two weeks, this unending emptiness served to both calm and disconcert—the perfect way to end a trip that had heaved with noise and bodies.

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A week after returning, I let the impressions of China settle and wrote very little. I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, disturbed by the growing violence inside the story and fascinated by the narrative pace; read pieces from my writing group (I’m still behind, guys, sorry) that turned my head and heart around yet again; strolled through the Met in heels, absorbing the delicate lines within a Rodin and a Degas and the complementary bursts of vivid color in a Bonnard; ate my favorite foods (omelet and toast) and was introduced to a new favorite (cauliflower sandwich at Num Pang); converted to the Morning Hours due to jet lag; and wrote short lines to remind myself that my feet had so recently trudged through Chinese streets and been planted, sturdily, on either side of many a hole in the ground. Then this morning I wrote a long paragraph about a woman and her husband, an actor, with the first line “When I first came to Mule City to work in the theater, I would lie awake at night listening to my neighbor’s radio through the wall.” I had just woken from a rollicking dream about performing in a musical, which itself had been triggered by the conversation overheard yesterday at Madeleine Patisserie between a woman and her two grandsons about A Chorus Line.

“When I first came to the city to work,” said the woman to the boys, “I would lie awake at night listening to the radio.”

In the dream, while watching the star flit from one side of the stage to the other, I’d said to myself, “You are in this show because of that grandmother, because of storytelling, hers and your cousins’ and your father’s and your own. Write her story. Don’t forget what you know—theme, focus, roundish peg in squarish hole.”

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Throughout the trip I had happily engaged in the role of tourist, stranger, an American curiosity. The truth is that I know nothing about being Chinese. The lie is that I am Chinese. So: Time now to fit together the pieces of my little town on the river that’s been meandering through my head for the past few years, and bring truth to lies or lies to truth. Either that or fulfill the next fantasy and move to China, the biggest theme park ever built.

Ha ha ha! Hee hee hee!

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4 Responses to “Theme park”

  1. jane Says:

    move to china! move to china!

    it’s not the biggest theme park ever built; it’s the biggest chinatown ever built.

    and yes, that exhibition center is creepy. especially under the haze of a chengdu winter morning (and all chengdu mornings are winter mornings except for in july and august).

    should have asked, i could have pointed you in the direction of the knickknack centrals.

    strangely i find i am able to access your blog. what the heck, i’m going to check youtube now.


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