In 1985 Tony took a backpack and a Nikon and headed out on China's trains photographing border zones—places the government here officially calls "ethnic minority regions." Tony started in Yunnan where it meets up with Laos and Burma, and then went northwest to Xinjiang Province where it rubs shoulders with today's "stans": Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. Next he went south to Tibet and got an early visa for Lhasa. He'd been schooled in Mandarin and had a knack for conversing with strangers, for hitching rides and getting out of pinches with Chinese police. In many towns he was the first laowai the locals had seen. He'd arrive in a village and make friends there and find it hard to leave.
Years ago in San Francisco, when it got so I always wanted to be in the same room with Tony, he gave me one of the photos he took on that trip. Some of the prints had won awards in galleries by then. Mine was of two women sitting in a crop of Hami melons by the side of a dusty road. I hung it in my bedroom and it marked the beginning of my own quiet fascination with Asia. The natural beauty of those women startled me, so did the way they looked right into Tony's camera. The photo made me want to understand him more. He knew himself well. There was a quiet self-sufficiency. Where did that come from?
I have never been to China. I do not speak the language. I've bought a Chinese desk. My plan in Beijing is to finish a novel—two hundred pages of a rough draft set in Paris. The boys are here to go to school. It is what boys do. Or at least that's what I keep telling them they do. Their school is a twenty-minute highway ride south of our apartment. It sits down the road from the underpass that marks one of Beijing's busiest intersections: a six-way juggernaut of rickshaws, one-speeds, VW Santanas, and horses and wagons. Today, a horde of teenage vendors has set up shop on the sidewalks to sell chestnuts and lychees, and baked sweet potatoes. These streets are not pedestrian friendly—they're long blocks of strip malls and food stalls and mid-rises in all stages of rehab and post hab. Throngs of people walk in the roads buying and selling like mad. There's Tsingtao beer for sale, and turtles, and athletic socks, and phone chargers. How strange and dazzling.
The more I stare, the more arbitrary those marching waitresses back down the road begin to seem like some kind of imposed order. Finger in the dam. There's so much humanity here; a dozen men take a snooze on the strip of concrete below the overpass. There's a woman walking just ahead in a bright Mickey Mouse T-shirt who pauses to blow her nose into the gutter. To the right of the gridlock, hundreds of people wait in line for buses. A large floral display stands next to the ticket kiosk—something you might see in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, made entirely of yellow chrysanthemums that spell out the words "Beijing 2008 Games." Next to the sign a woman sells slices of yellow Hami melon on wooden skewers. A line of black Audis weaves in front of our van with their lights on and a rose garland battened to each hood. Lao Wu smiles and points to the bride and groom who ride in front of the procession in a blue Hummer.
I've never seen so many people riding bicycles, and I can't stop staring. They're helmetless and willing to risk their lives dodging cars. Many women wear black office pumps and knee-length polyester dresses; men are in nylon business slacks with white-collared shirts. At first, the joke would seem to be on the cars, because they can't get through the mess. But it's the cars that will prevail here—there are one thousand more on the road every day, which makes the bicycles begin to look like living artifacts.
We're creeping through a series of traffic lights, and I'm sure the words I hear on the radio are in English. I ask Lao Wu to turn up the volume by making a circular motion with my right hand. "Ying yu?" I say excitedly. Is it English? Then I repeat, "Ying yu?" and then I'm hit with a rolling wave of homesickness.
"No," Lao Wu says decisively. "Han yu." Chinese.
But I'm sure I can hear English on the radio. I will it to be English. A motorbike passes—the driver's wife sits behind him with a baby in her lap, and a toddler sits up front on the handlebars. I want to be driving I-95 north from Portland to Phippsburg, listening to the local radio. I want to be sitting in my mother's kitchen in West Point while she reminds my brother, John, on the phone how to make chocolate fudge. John's a very tall man now and one of my best friends, and in the 1970s he made a lot of fudge.
We Hear You!