Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"The Heart That Must Not Be Lonely"

One of the maids is leaving tomorrow night. She's going to catch a night train to her hometown in Shaanxi so she can spend the New Year with her husband and young son. I don't know how long it has been since she last saw them. Months, anyway. Maybe a year.

To celebrate her visit home, we gathered around the kitchen counter -- my host, her two children, the other maids and I -- and opened a big crate of lucky tangerines. They were round and tiny, bright as carp. Most of them still had their stems and leaves. My host urged us to eat as many as we could. "I bought three boxes," she said. She also told the maid to take some on the train with her. "Even if you don't eat them, take them for the sweet smell."

Then my host asked the maid what her son's baby name was. Baby names are nicknames that Chinese families use -- nothing to do with a child's real name. I think the tradition stems from a belief that evil spirits who might wish to harm the child will be confused by the multiplicity of names and end up leaving the baby alone. "Kaikai," the maid said. I thought I heard her voice catch, but when I looked over she was smiling.

This kind of scenario isn't at all unusual in China. The other maids both have families at home too. They are part of the huge population of migrant workers who flood the cities in search of jobs. Conditions in the countryside must be very hard, for these long stretches away from their families to seem worth the cost.

The maids' uncomplaining acceptance of their situation makes me ashamed of my own intense homesickness. Or partly ashamed, because of course we can't help what we feel, and after all I suppose the maids feel it too. Even their stoicism, praiseworthy as it is, may be as much a matter of necessity as it is elegance of character.

It also makes me wonder about the nature of home, and homesickness, in these nomadic days. I suppose people's minds configure the idea of home in all sorts of different ways, really, so perhaps there is no single, critical difference between the way we thought of home in our more parochial past, and the way we think of it now that seas and deserts are no longer any real barrier.

A couple of days ago a middle school student who is applying for admission to my old boarding school asked me about my experience there. I found myself telling her that, while I was there, Andover always seemed the best, most important place in the world for me to be. I never had any real wish to be anywhere else. Sure, sometimes I wanted my cat and a fireplace and my mother's cooking, but I never felt that sense of dislocation and desolate rootlessness that marks a real, desperate longing for home.

Later that day, my thoughts kept alighting on my answer to this young student's question. This was partly because it seemed to me to encapsulate what had been most important about Andover to me. I was glad to have been able to articulate my views, and glad to share them with someone who might find a use for them. But I think it was also because it suggested a possible answer to my own questions about home and homesickness: when the place you are in feels like the proper center of the universe, you feel no pressing hunger for the far away. You may admire distant mountains, or firelit windows, or ancient cities, but only as possible "adventures and contentments," not as a cure for the sense of being cramped in a narrow and unworthy place, or forsaken where "her nis non hoome, her nis but wildernesse."

Because that's the other thing. Even far-flung travels are essentially earth-bound. I suppose some people still feel that there's a certain romance to air travel, but, even if you are one of those lucky ones -- one of the ones who actually taste the pleasure of being aloft in the clouds -- quite soon you always have to land again. Then you are back on the ground. Unless you feel that the place you have landed is now the center of the universe, how are you to escape the sense that you have merely exchanged one wilderness for another?

But then this conflict between the desire for far travels and the yearning for home, for a focus of understanding and in-placeness, is nothing new. If old poems are any gauge, warring centripetal and centrifugal forces have always ruled our interior compasses. Even assuming all Odysseus really ever wanted was to get back to Ithaca as quickly as possible with no adventures on the way, he was not, after all, the primary character in his story. It is the rocks and spray, the circuit of islands in the wine-dark sea, that chart the blueprint of his days.

One of my favorite poems, sometimes called "China's epic," though it is only 92 verses long and is in every sense a true lyric -- modal, reflective, interior, musical -- touches on a number of these ideas. In this poem, the idea of home is characterized in two ways: it is at once the ideal seat of trust, of understanding and being understood, and the scene of a terrible sense of deceit and betrayal. Between them they produce an intense bitterness. Still more importantly, the poem speaks to the imagined power of unfettered journeying, featuring a magical itinerary through the sky. And most importantly of all, that journey is halted, in the end, by an overpowering longing for home:

陟升皇之赫戏兮,忽临睨夫旧乡。 仆夫悲余马怀兮,蜷局顾而不行。

But, in the aurorean glory ascending,
I glimpsed, on a sudden, my home far below.
My coachman was saddened, my horses were longing
And back their necks buckled; they would not go on.

I wonder if perhaps the key -- the key for our times, anyway -- is not to have a center of the universe, but to rather regard everywhere as a part of everywhere else. Of course, this is hardly a new thought, but it is comforting. And, the more we understand the material nature of our cosmos, the more true it seems.

At any rate, Caleb Milne seemed to think so. In his last letter to his mother before he was killed administering first aid to a wounded soldier during the Tunisian campaign in World War II, he described his surroundings abroad as "a vivid, wonderful world so full of winter and spring, warm rain and cold snow, adventures and contentments, good things and bad." But the strangeness of it all -- such a remarkable time, such an outlandish place -- apparently had no power over his capacity to think himself elsewhere, at other times, beyond longing:

How often you will have me with you when the wood smoke drifts across the wind, or the first tulips arrive, or the sky darkens in a summer storm. Think of me today, and in the days to come, as I am thinking of you this minute -- not gone or alone or dead, but part of the earth beneath you, part of the air around you, part of the heart that must not be lonely.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

La Belle Superpower

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that practically the second you become an expat you find yourself cultivating new attitudes towards your homeland. This can happen in a lot of different ways. Sometimes the changes are pretty subtle -- just a slightly altered set of emphases on the things, positive and negative, that you consider important about your country. Decent ice cream, say, or an insufficiency of municipal parks. But sometimes the changes are more drastic. Ferocious critics of the way the home store is run suddenly find themselves lobbing mortars in the other direction. Doves get hawkish. All kinds of stuff starts to sound different when it comes from people who grew up singing a different national anthem.

This thought occurred to me during my English lesson yesterday. In a review of the word "powerful" and the different ways it could be used, I found myself discussing the idea behind the word "superpower" and its various implications. It was all rather over my students' heads (hey, they just turned eight last month), but sometimes I like to talk to them about things they can't possibly understand. Just occasionally. You never know what will stay with them, after all.

So, I told them that America was, for a time, the world's sole remaining superpower (they liked hearing this, as they are very pro-America), but that China was also a rising superpower (naturally, they liked that too). Then I mentioned the Cold War and invited them to guess who the other superpower had been. I thought they might know the answer, actually -- might have heard their parents or grandparents talking about it, perhaps -- but in any case I have noticed that when they don't know something they like to guess. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was one of the first guesses: France.

Actually, what I should say is, I wasn't prepared for my reaction to the idea that France might have been the Other Great Superpower, the US's rival in the Cold War. I mean, "derisive laughter" doesn't begin to describe it. I just hooted.

See, the thing is, back home, I don't make fun of the French. I mean NEVER. It would break my Proust-reading, Paris-map-memorizing parents' hearts. But this time I laughed so hard I almost fell over. I was wiping the tears from my eyes. I felt so American -- so classically "freedom-fry"-eating, flag-waving, SUV-driving American -- I had to resist the urge to rush to a mirror to see if I looked any different. (People over here often ask if I am French, English or Russian and even quite frequently if I am Chinese -- I suppose they must think I am one of the Turkic minorities or something -- and they are always astonished to find I am American. "You don't look American," they say.)

I clearly remember the first time this sort of expat Americanization happened to me. It was during my last sojourn in China, right after college, and it was much more dramatic and sobering. Bill Clinton was President then and the US was riding high. But I knew that we still had plenty of critics. I was one myself. And so I wasn't too surprised when a grad student at the university where I taught began to voice anti-American views. One day, though, he stepped over the line. He told me that if he were President of China he would order an air raid on some random US cities, just to give us a taste of our own medicine.

"Well, that's awfully civilized of you," I said. "Very mature."

"Yes, that's right, that's your civilization. You boss everyone else around. You should see what it's like on the other end."

Being told that the US is bossy and overbearing (which is actually a fairly polite description) didn't really bother me. What bothered me was my interlocutor's phenomenal, staggering refusal to think rationally or argue fairly. After all, I wasn't the one proposing to bomb random cities. He was. It wasn't my civilization; it was his twisted, childish thinking. And while I was ready to engage in a real discussion of the complexities that inevitably attend the conceptualization and prosecution of any foreign policy in a geopolitically interdependent world, this grad student didn't even know what real discussion was. I guess that was really the scary part. He was a grad student at an excellent university, and he didn't even understand how far from the rational he had strayed; he had no concept of rational thought in the first place.

So, perhaps it's not surprising that I snapped. But what is surprising -- what surprised me at the time, anyway -- is the way I did it. Without warning, I switched from Chinese to English and said, coolly, "You want to take on the US? Good luck." The chilly arrogance in my tone startled even me. It was as if some brooding external force had been lying in wait and seized the moment to transform me from an individual person, a liberally-educated citizen of the world, into a living epitome of American power and American will.

Then the moment passed, and things shook themselves right again. Or almost right. I did lose contact with that particular grad student, though we had once been very close. I also developed a keener sensitivity to the national chauvinism that seemed to be becoming endemic among China's young people. Then I went home and startled all my friends with my endless complaints about China: how rude and unfeeling people could be, how ruthless in their pursuit of personal advantage, and, most of all, how determined to regard world culture in a competitive context, as if it were a contest they felt entitled to win and injured at having to entertain any doubts about. You're a rising modern power built on a five-thousand-year-old civilization, I wanted to shout. You have nothing to prove! But I never said it, or not to the right people, anyway.

Things have been very different on this trip. After eight years of the galactically unpopular Bush administration, I had dreaded playing the part of the American abroad, but I should have known better. We're too easy a target now. Bashing us is no fun anymore. Besides, now China is the one to be riding high. If it's a competition, China won it -- she's got the Olympic gold to prove it. If it's a question of personal advantage, well, there's nothing like the threat of a global depression to shift one's perspectives. We're all in a ditch; no one has the advantage now.

But of course now things are changing once again. As I sit here gazing out my window at the bright moon hanging over Beijing, I think about the coming inauguration of Barack Obama and the renewal of America. Of course, I don't know what this renewal will mean or what shape it will take. No one does. But the prospect makes me think of a strange question one of my students raised in our lesson yesterday. When I said that China was becoming a superpower, my tone must have left room for some doubt about whether I meant to say China would take America's place on the world stage, or merely join her there. I can still see my student's great, big, anxious eyes fixed on me: "China and America, right? China and America?"

As I said, I don't know what will happen. No one does. But, as I listened to the implications behind my student's question, one certainty suddenly shot through me. A lot of people have been suggesting certain parallels between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Maybe they're valid, maybe not. But here's the thing. I don't know what kinds of dangers will prompt President Barack Obama to dispatch aides in the middle of the night to seek audience with heads of state in foreign lands -- maybe to France, maybe to China. I"m just pretty sure there will be such perils. And, for the first time in a long while, I think there's a good chance that those heads of state will find it reasonable to say, as once before, "I don't need to see pictures. I trust the word of the President of the United States."

"That's right," I assured her. "China and America. Both of us."

Friday, January 9, 2009


Earlier today my lesson was cancelled on me without explanation. This happens a lot and it ticks me off every time, even though I know no rudeness or disrespect is intended. It's just one of those cultural things. The Chinese operate in an ad hoc fashion. Advance planning is not a popular concept. In many ways this is a terrific national characteristic and I would do well to learn from it, because I'm about as flexible as a two-by-four.

Which is probably why I can never seem to get past the initial stage of my response: "How can these people just up and cancel my class without telling me? What the bloody hell do they think they're playing at? What about my plans? Doesn't my timetable matter?"

On this particular occasion, as so often in the past, I'd orchestrated my day around the scheduled lesson. I could have gotten a lot else done if I'd known I wouldn't need to hang around this afternoon. In particular, I could have returned my books to the library. In fact, that's what I had originally hoped to do with the afternoon -- they're due tomorrow and I am so frequently ambushed by bad health that I am really, really chary of letting anything with a deadline run right down to the wire -- but then I was asked to teach my lesson instead. The lesson that never happened.

The thing to do in these situations is to find some nice activity to take your mind off how irritated you are. After a while, you look up from your tea in a cafe or your walk in a park and wonder how you could have gotten worked up over such a piffling little thing in the first place. My problem today was, I was too tired to go out and treat myself to a nice dinner or a movie or some other cheerful little adventure.

So here I was alone at home -- only not at home because I am sort of a hired guest -- wondering what to do with my extra time and my bad temper. Alone, that is, except for the maids, who are very nice indeed. On the whole I try not to bother them too much. I'd like to be friends, and we do sometimes have nice chats, but I don't want to intrude. They work hard, and I have the feeling that when they have any time off they'd really just like to relax with each other and not be forced to take part in a cultural exchange.

I felt too tired and cross to start working on anything productive, so I just sat at my desk feeling sorry for myself.

Then I found myself thinking about milkshakes. I started wishing I could just hop in my little yellow Beetle and take a trip to one of the many first-class creameries that are sprinkled across Eastern Massachusetts. Well, all of New England, really. But my car is in Massachusetts and I am in Beijing. There are milkshakes here, but I would need to go downtown to get one -- probably an hour on the metro, and I've never been to any of the establishments that serve them, so there'd always be the risk that whatever place I chose from an internet directory would have closed or moved or changed its hours or gotten pregnant or something.

Then I thought, "Hey, wait. We've got a blender here, and the local supermarket is still open, and I know they sell both ice cream and milk. It's probably terrible ice cream, but still, it's likely worth a shot."

So I told the maids I was heading off to the supermarket for some ice cream because I was going to make milkshakes and asked what kind they wanted. Nobody specified a kind, so I bought both chocolate and strawberry.

We finished the chocolate up and left the strawberry for another time. One of the maids, who has quite a sweet tooth, drank two glasses. As she poured the last of it into her glass she said, laughing, "I'm not being at all polite." Only she said, "Like a guest," which is the most common Chinese way of saying "polite."

"That's right," I told her. "We're all mates here."

I was right: the ice cream was absolutely terrible. But it was good enough for us. Our party had no guests.