I was talking to our friend, Cathy Lin, who works her magic to lift our HARP manuscripts (www.harppublishing.ca) off our computers and ready them for the printers. It put me in mind of the most exotic trip I ever made. I was among a group of physicians and psychologists who visited our Chinese counterparts in 1990, the year after the Tiananman Square massacre. My first cultural awakening came on the almost 24-hour two-stop-over China Eastern flight between Seattle and Beijing. Recapturing my sleepless early-hours experience begged for poetry.
East and West
At 4.20am US east coast time I eye three hundred Asians:
columns of forty, rows of eight, cruisers on China Eastern’s
triple MD-11 turbofan heading northwest from Seattle
over Kodiak Island and the Arctic cap, eleven-thousand
kilometres across the dateline into the Far East;
and notice each face is different, as I’d always suspected:
more like us Westerners than different. They have no problem
noticing their differences, though the Vietnamese can’t sort Japanese
from Chinese faces, only their body language betraying them.
Brittle-eyed, I eye this cumulative facial miracle:
ninety-nine percent the same, that one-percent
composing such ineffable uniqueness as to
distinguish each from each without thought.
Seeking out the washroom after checking into our Western-style Beijing hotel I encountered an ancient gentleman standing silent inside the doorway. As I washed my hands in the basin I felt firm hands caress my neck and shoulders. I looked up from my ablutions and our eyes met in the mirror. Neither of us changed expression as his brief vertical stroke down my upper back signalled the completion of my massage. I made a clumsy attempt at a bow, borrowing heavily from the movies. He bowed in his turn, bringing his hands up and together in the universal gesture of blessing.
I woke at six the next morning and pulled back the drapes to watch everyone performing tai chi chuan in their diminutive front yards. As we strolled in Ritan Park we saw large groups engaged in the same ritual, while an audience of old men hung their cages of canaries from the branches of the gingko trees. Walking four-abreast down the wide sidewalk back to our hotel, we impeded the progress of a seventy-year-old man who ploughed backwards straight into us, unused to huge Westerners spreading themselves across the pavement. After bowing forgiveness-apology he marched, still backwards, off the sidewalk and out into the seven-million bicycle throng.
We decide the old man marching backwards
down the Beijing sidewalk is entranced, an effect
of early-morning tai chi chuan in Ritan Park.
So we four round him, resist trigger-happy snapshots,
move ahead, then stop abruptly at the crossroads,
leery, unlike him, that the bicycle tide will wash us away.
So he steps without pause into the one on the left of our party,
beams forgiveness-apology, and strides, still backward, into
the street. Later we learn he was simply strengthening his back.
The sidewalks were a scene of continuous commerce, with every kind of produce from the surrounding countryside toppling from gunny sacks onto stretched white sheets. As we watched the gathering pace we learned another cultural lesson: no diapers in China.
Her small one squats in uncurbed glee on the Guanghua sidewalk,
makes his deposit on the curb, and awaits the newspaper
his mom is fetching from her tricycle. Like an acrobat
she twirls him face down on her lap to wipe him clean through
the gaped triangle in his cut-out pantaloons,
then wraps the matter in the China Daily News.
They pass on unheeded together, he perched
in the carrier up front, she at her pedals,
weaving with seven million others along the spotless street.
We visited three of the city’s largest hospitals, each boasting its own bone marrow transplant unit. Stem cell transplants are expensive and high-tech in the United States; in China they’re as low-tech as it gets. We watched a patient undergoing bone marrow removal from hips anaesthetized with a dozen acupuncture needles, reminiscent of the NYT correspondent James Reston undergoing appendectomy under acupuncture during President Nixon’s tour of China. A technician was counting the bone marrow cells using a microscope illuminated solely by daylight, since the microscope had no electricity.
We took a motorboat ride on the Gangiang Canal in Sujhou—known as the Venice of China, after twelfth-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo’s visit. A group of boys pursued us along the banks and over the bridges lined with crimson Chinese Firecrackers and white sycamore. calling repeated “Hallo’s” to our “Ni How’s”.
On the Ganjiang canal
Venice has gondolas, Sujhou concrete barges,
not having the yuan for the wood:
house in the hull, tricycles in the bow.
Stone cottages—sheered-off cliffs—abut
enchanted junk-thick water: once, twice, thrice,
our engine snarls in ginkgo leaves, roots, plastic bags.
The rudder catches, knocks on a house
demanding entrance. An old woman, washing
cottons at her garden edge, cackles at us as
backyard- and houseboat-people join in the fun.
A gang of four ten-year-olds chase us on crimson firecracker banks;
hold the lead, disappear elusive, pop up like marionettes
along miles of coarse yellow sycamore bridges:
Hello! Hello! They giggle madly at our answering Ni Hows!
Two modern Marco Polo speedboats splash us into the Grand Canal.
The highlight of our stay awaited us in Shanghai’s Children’s Palace, which houses after-school activities for gifted and promising children, with an emphasis on artistic pursuits. They arranged a performance in honour of our visit.
The Children’s Palace in the Xuhai district of Shanghai:
five-, six-year-olds, some young as three, gather to perform
for our party in the place of honor at the front.
Consummate soloists regale us on mystical yan chin dulcimer,
two-stringed erhu and pipa classical guitar:
fifty short recitals conducted with serious formality. No smiles
or chatters or claps—such Western ways to show appreciation—
only a pause in respectful silence the order of the day.
After two hours the concert master takes her bow,
the children silently bow in their turn. We bow back,
turn to the parents, bow to them, still no word spoken.
At some unseen signal, the children rush us en masse,
eager to shake Western hands, laugh madly,
chase us up and down stairs, a whirl of flying flower shirts,
dungarees, red, white and blue tights, spotless sneakers.
Ready for our own release, we join the fun,
tear around the gym until no one knows who’s chasing who,
parents beaming, though none joining in. Would I had been
a fly on the wall over Shanghai suppers that night.