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.


Christopher said...

Another lovely post, I really look forward to reading a new entry from you.

I have had many days where the look on peoples faces is tantamount to aggression. Especially from me, and especially when I'm with other foreign friends. I try and take it with a pinch of salt, but sometimes it plays on my mind. In fact a teacher at my school recently left China and said one of the major reasons for not wanting to stay was the lack of politeness. According to him it sounds like the whole population of Thailand smiles back.

Like you, if I get a couple of smiles in a day, the 50 previous looks fade away completely.

flyingfish said...

Thanks, Chris!

I think, on the whole, the smiles are more frequent in Beijing than in some other parts of the country. (From what I hear, anyway.) And the staring is definitely much, much less of an issue.

Well, as you say, I guess we're lucky that it only takes one smile to completely obliterate the memory of all the baleful glares!

J said...

The dance was at a campus of Hebei Normal University, and for some reason a lot of the students there are Tibetan. It seems to be almost a 'foundation college' as most of the students are first years, who will then move to another campus when they decide which subject they want to major in.

I'm totally with you on the politeness thing - I can't wait to get home and be able to walk out of my front door without being stared, shouted, pointed and laughed at. Oh, and having random strangers trying to pet my hair on the bus. Although when I was in the park today, a mother actually told her 10 year old (at a guess) son off for pointing and shouting at me: I nearly fainted with shock!

J said...

I know he taught Mansfiend Park for several years at Cornell, so presumably he can't have loathed it that much. (There again, my 'modern novel' lecturer didn't seem to have much love for Henry James.) I think there's a much quoted excerpt from one of his letter's where he very publically dissed Austen, but what's normally left out is that he was also including the whole eighteenth century canon in his criticism, just picked her out as the main writer.
From my recollection though, I do think it's quite possible that he might have been prejudiced against women writers. I guess none of us is perfect! Personally, I find Russian writers (except Tolstoy) so gloomy that I feel I might as well cut to the chase and throw back a bottle of voddie and some painkillers as start reading them.
Sorry to ramble so much in your comments section, I'm a little starved of book talk here.