Tuesday, September 6, 2011

China 2011 Chapter 4

Home and Mu Xi Di

“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.”
TS Eliot, Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets
* * * * *
It was the guard standing at the entrance. That was who brought me back to a painful feeling of recognition, or perhaps something tugging at something that should have been recognition. I remembered early evenings, that fuzzy twilight time, when we’d walk over to the stream and I’d play in the water with the tadpoles. 
What’s left of the stream? It’s green, and the willows are still there, but two large roads run on either side of it. It looks like an old, industrialized canal, something I cannot find tucked away in any memory.
To this day, I think years later, when I used to squint in the car in the evenings at the headlights of other cars, the lights outside homes, and the red/yellow/green traffic signs, it was always to recreate the fuzzy image of twilight. 
We must be some constant remaking of story after story.
* * * * *
Traffic in Beijing has got a shape like jazz.
Things I miss about China:
Baozi for breakfast.
Xiao ho guo
Jiao zi
La mian tiao
A warm, fuzzy, lit Beijing evening that smells thick of street food
Small kids running on the streets
Being able to shout loudly in formal places
Being able to joke with, bargain and hassle merchants…and have it be acceptable
Things I do not miss about China:
August humidity
Squat toilets (don’t ask)
People who – from the depth of their abdomen – hawk and spit so loudly, you can hear them across a 7 lane road
People who spit on the ground of a restaurant
People who spit right in front of you while you walk down the sidewalk
People who you hear spitting in the mornings over breakfast
Spitting in general
Guttural noises that indicate spitting is about to happen
* * * * *
What makes me – any of us – crave seeing where we were born? It’s as if the slab of concrete wall or building will tell us some secret about ourselves that we’ve always felt missing and desperately longed for. That suddenly, we’d know what we were doing here and why we came. But I find the reality is that a place is just that: a place – mutable, subject to time and weathering, and certainly, indifferent to the subjects that come and go.
I found myself desperately trying to take pictures of Mu Xi Di that afternoon, even when the building guard told me I couldn’t. When he wasn’t looking, I’d snap up my camera and take a few pictures quickly, hoping my hand wasn’t so shakey that all I caught was a blur of green and grey, and I would feel so elated and nostalgic over my little green and grey, I wanted to shout, “Hey! This is where I spent my first four years of life! Isn’t it exciting?! This is my first view of the entire WORLD!”
That’s exactly how I felt when I went back to Mu Xi Di for the first time, searching for memories I’d forgotten years ago.
* * * * *
I’d like to say coming back to London was easy, but as anyone who travels constantly between very different places, coming back is never easy. Leaving isn’t easy either. Soon, you find yourself constantly in transition from one deeply rooted place to another, until you (1) attach (2) travel (3) detach so much you begin to feel like nowhere is your home and everywhere is your home. All at once. You feel stagnant when you stay and nostalgic when you leave. You belong, but you don’t quite fit, and all at once, you wonder whether you should go back.
I was doing just fine with my transition back until I began to walk on Shoreditch High Street today toward my osteopath appointment with the world’s best physical therapist/osteopath. I crossed by big red buses that shook and vibrated along the old roads, and I saw the narrow little alleyways with pubs and art shops and little sandwich places I would never stop in. I began to miss it all at once. Then I began to miss Mu Xi Di, and my uncle’s apartment in Beijing with dust and drawings all over the walls, and I even began to miss the stupid coop of chickens on the street outside their 17 story apartment in Beijing, next to the parking lot full of Mercedes, BMWs and Audi’s (apparently the only types of cars driving in China now). I miss most the fuzzy twilight once the temperature dropped, and I could see all the lights again, and it was alive. It was all very much alive.
If someone asked me whether China is fun for me, I’d say very definitively: no. But it’s fulfilling, which has nothing to do with fun. I don’t feel like a tourist in China, just as I don’t feel like a tourist in London, which is a good thing for me because I really hate tourism. 
I was asked today whether I felt like I was back at home in London. My initial reaction was, “No, I don’t.” But then I thought about it again, and I recognized that stupid drizzle rain, and the 30 seconds of clear sky that fools you into believing the afternoon will be nice. And I looked to my right, and saw those little, crooked roads that I had never noticed before, very polite people walking down Bishopsgate with their suits on, and I suddenly noticed that odd English name for the café or the subtle way streets suddenly morphed into other streets. I felt, “strange, I recognize all this so well.” With that recognition, my answer became, “Well, maybe. I feel I’ve been here before.”
My favorite London memories are those when the autumn morning is too cold and wet to go for a bike ride, so I go for a run along the south bank of the Thames instead. And it’s windy, and it’s dark. I like coming back into my flat after an hour with my sneakers soaked. Then I like to make expresso and sit in my kitchen with breakfast, watching the rain.
* * * * *
Don’t say places don’t define us. Objects can be drawn by looking at the empty space around them, the negative object. 
Mu Xi Di, you still hold something in me, and when I was there, I tried so hard to find some memories: the smell of lotion in winter, a television screen with green sofas, tadpoles in twilight, laughing, green and yellow balloons, green and yellow popped balloons, orange soda, laughing laughing and laughing.
I walked there with my cousin and my cousin’s husband, and the old buildings were torn down. The old playground was gone, and when I tried to ask the guard if I could go in to see it all, he denied my request. So I stood outside near the willow trees along the river, and I tried to take pictures of the grey and green, hoping my hand wouldn’t shake the camera.
Goodbye Mu Xi Di, until I see you again.
* * * * *
“Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning” – T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets

1 comment: