Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While I was out running errands this morning, I saw a mother leading a toddler by the hand. The two of them were headed in my direction. As they drew near, the toddler stared at me, reaching up with his free hand as if he wanted to clutch at my skirt. I guess his mother noticed that something about me had captured his attention, because, rather than simply passing by and continuing on her way, she stopped and told him, "Say hello to the lady."

The little boy didn't say anything, but he didn't seem at all shy, and he continued to reach up and stretch out his fingers. It was almost as if he were a kitten wanting to bat at a dangling toy.

After a minute it struck me that he was looking at my parasol. I furled it, moving slowly so as not to startle him, and held it down so he could inspect it more closely.

"That's a parasol," his mother and I told him. "Parasol."

When it became clear that looking wasn't quite enough, I held it down still further, close enough for him to touch. He felt it gravely, rubbing the material between his fingers.

"Well, that's all right then," said his mother briskly. We nodded at each other, our transaction complete, and she led the little boy off.

I resumed my own progress a little more slowly. I was puzzled. Beijing is full of parasols at this time of the year. There's nothing special about mine. Not now, anyway. It's true that when I first had it I was very fond of it -- at that time it was a bright lemon-yellow, festive and sunny -- but over the years it has become grubby and faded. As I walked along toward the shops, I realized that I'd been discontented with it for a while now.

This set me thinking about the different kinds of parasols I would get if I could. Perhaps a navy-blue-and-white striped one, like a French sailor's shirt. Or a smart red, yellow and green one, like a cafe awning. Or, for very hot days, a pattern of cool green leaves, like the wallpaper in an old-fashioned drawing room.

The trouble is, the last time I looked in the catalogue that sells the sort of parasol I require -- it's made from cloth specially treated to block ultra-violet rays -- the only colors on offer appeared to be two shades of yellow (butter and lemon), a deep, dark blue, something between navy and indigo, and a rather nasty porridge-grey the manufacturers called "stone." They don't make anything else.

Actually, I do have one other parasol back home in the States -- lemon yellow trimmed with blue lace, left over from a friend's wedding. It is very pretty, but I wouldn't want to carry it on ordinary occasions, and anyway frilly lace isn't what I'm after now. I want something smart and sporty, or possibly something elegant and understated, but anyway something very fine and satisfying. It seems a great pity not to be able to have it.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself by the time I reached the shops. This was ironic, because my principal reason for visiting the shops this morning was to buy clothes hangers for some new summer skirts my mother had found at a sale and sent to me in a package that also contained anise cookies shaped like fish with currants for eyes. If I can't have the sort of parasol I would like, certainly my closet is overflowing with many other good things.

Then, while I was choosing hangers, something unexpected happened. An old lady standing near me in the aisle began chatting casually to me. "Look at this hanger. What were they thinking? All these hooks and doodads! Completely unnecessary! These plain ones are much better, don't you think?" As a matter of fact, I had been thinking exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment, but that wasn't really the strange part. The strange part was that she was the one who had started the conversation. Not many people here do this with foreigners, unless it's to ask where you're from or if you understand Chinese. But this old lady seemed not to care where I was from. We were just two women, shopping for hangers in a neighborhood supermarket.

On my way home, I began to feel a bit better. I'd been on the receiving end of some active friendliness from a total stranger. I had some new hangers for the skirts my mother had sent me. And a passing toddler had admired my parasol.

I found myself wondering if the little boy had been too young to notice the spots and blotches that seemed so evident to me, or if he'd seen something I couldn't, some bright blaze of possibility -- the parasol as it could be, perhaps, sunny and glowing, careless as a dandelion.

I suppose I suspected this last because it had been so easy to satisfy his wants. All he'd had to do was feel the thing, rub it between his fingers, and his needs were answered.

After thinking about it a little longer, I decided that it was too early to give up on my own wants. What is desire, after all, but an acknowledgement of prospect? Want need not always be accompanied by a sort of desolate hopelessness; we need not always turn our backs on the view that our hearts have awakened. Sometimes the things we wish for do come to us if we are patient. I almost feel I can see my new parasol now, as trim and fetching as a sailboat, bobbing on the horizon.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Last week we had a record heat wave. It was 80 degrees Farenheit and we were barely into the second week of April. The air managed to be both parched and sultry at the same time, as if a kettle of ashes had decided to see what it would look like dressed as fog. For a few days I was really afraid that spring was over for the year.

During this period I kept finding myself thinking of a favorite couplet by the medieval Chinese poet Xie Lingyun. He was a great hiking enthusiast and is said to have invented a kind of clog specially designed for climbing mountains, but poor health often confined him indoors. After one such illness he complained:


I had not yet had enough of the green spring's joys;
Now I must see the summer passing too.

Sometimes it seems to me that these lines say all there is to be said.

But then on Wednesday the weather turned round. Light winds blew the soggy dust from the air. Sunlight slanted on the deep green pines. The new leaves on the poplars looked impossibly fresh and cool against the bright blue sky. Chastened by the memory of the recent heat, I tossed all my work to one side and set out on a late-afternoon ramble through a nearby park.

This park -- it's actually more of a garden -- is really something else. It includes a kindergarten and two playgrounds. It has a small ornamental hill criss-crossed by flagged footpaths and terraced with small green plants, two stone bridges (though the stream they span is almost always dry) and dozens upon dozens of weeping willows. And, as I discovered this spring, it has an almost indecent profusion of flowering trees and shrubs.

There are peach trees, cherry trees, plum trees and flowering crab-apple trees. There are lilacs, both purple and white. There are dogwoods and magnolias. There is a wisteria trellis and a hawthorne hedge. And those are just the ones I recognize. There are also bushy plants with yellow flowers something like fluffy anemones, little purple bulbs something like a cross between an iris and a hyacinth, and many other things as well.

In order to furnish my ramble with a sense of order and purpose, I decided to start by visiting all the clumps of lilac in the park and then work my way through the peach trees down to the unidentified yellow bushy things.

The park was full of people. Late afternoon seems to be a popular time of day for airing toddlers, I suppose because they're just up from their naps. Their grandparents sat chatting on benches, turning their faces to the sun. The afternoon session at the kindergarten was drawing to a close; parents stood waiting by the gate.

At first I was too engrossed by the lilacs to pay much attention to the park's other visitors, except as a pleasant backround to all the flora, but then I noticed something. No one was returning my smiles. Every time I passed someone I smiled in the rather mild, sunny way you do when you want to suggest that it's a nice moment to be living in the world and you're glad the person you're smiling at is there to share it with you. And each time I smiled, all I got back was a blank stare. Deflecting the minor complicity I offered -- hello, there, comrade, God speed you -- the stare took nothing in, offered nothing back. It was very dispiriting.

The thing is, this particular expression used to be a standard experience for foreign visitors to the Middle Kingdom. I first heard about it from a teacher in high school who had traveled all over Asia. She told me that the only country she hadn't liked was China, and she hadn't liked it because of the way people looked at her. Sometimes the looks were merely blank -- taciturn, inward, unsmiling -- but other times they were actively hostile. I didn't quite believe her at first, but not long afterward I visited China myself and found that she had been telling the truth.

Though it was disappointing to feel so unwelcome, there were compensations. Plenty of people were eager to make friends. One had only to find them. "The China look" as I came to think of it, usually managed to remain part of the background, part of what made China what it was, like third-world toilets and pebbles in the rice.

But on this trip I have generally met with very different treatment. Until Wednesday, I had thought that the China look had vanished from Beijing, perhaps driven away by China's meteoric rise to wealth and power, or perhaps swept away by the pluralism that might be expected from an Olympic city. I'd been imagining telling all my friends about it when I went home for the summer: "You'd never believe how friendly people are. When you smile, they smile back. Sometimes they even talk to you. It's as if they think you're a real person. It's like a -- well, it's like what it is, a modern country."

So, my experience in the park was particularly unsettling. It set off a chain of resentful memories and began to eat away at my pleasure in the flowers. For a few moments, I found myself wondering if something had happened -- if President Obama had said something inflammatory about Tibet, or Taiwan, or silenced dissidents -- and imagining what I would do if the situation really got out of hand.

Then, after a few more minutes, I found myself thinking of something that had happened in one of the lessons I taught during my last sojourn in Beijing. I had asked the class to invent an English word and explain its meaning, and one of the students came up with the word "pandasmile," which she said described the face that China showed towards the world. I remember thinking at the time how ironic it seemed: "smile" was the last word I would have used to describe the way the Chinese faced the rest of us.

Later, though, I began to see the word my student coined in the very different context provided by Peter Hessler's remarkable book River Town. The book contains a number of descriptions of the "Chinese smile," all of them suggesting a tough and understated ethos -- brave, controlled, suppressed-- but the one I find most haunting is last, near the end of the book:

After our last meal the family lined up at the door and waved goodbye, standing stiffly and wearing that tight Chinese smile. I imagined that probably I looked the same way -- two years of friendship somehow tucked away in a corner of my mouth.

Every time I think of this moment, I feel as though I've seen that smile myself hundreds of times -- I can almost see it in my mind's eye -- but then it slips away and I realize that I am only imagining it.

I thought of these things, of pandasmile and River Town, of confusion, hope and disappointment, as I made my rounds among the lilacs. Then suddenly the scene changed. My path was blocked by a mother who stood waiting near the kindergarten. She was chatting to another mother, and, as I edged past her, she gave me a bright, absent smile -- the sort you might give to a stranger when your attention is taken up elsewhere but you are glad to spare some cordiality. My heart fluttered. This is what I mean, I thought. People are so friendly now. They treat you like a real person. Not an intruder, not an alien, not a foreign guest, just someone who passes you on the road.

It was as if a spell had broken. By the time I turned for home, several other people had smiled at me. There was an old lady trundling a toddler on a sort of combined pram and tricycle, and a young girl in a school uniform, and one or two others as well. As I passed a clump of the unknown bushy plants with the bright yellow flowers, Mr. Hessler's tight smile flashed again across my mind's eye, but, before I could quite get hold, it was gone.